Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor
Every now and then a book or an author gets recommended to me by almost everyone I know. When it happens, I pay attention.
If it weren’t for blogging I wouldn’t have known that Elizabeth Taylor even existed as a novelist (the name doesn’t help, when this was first recommended to me I assumed it had been written by the film star). She’s one of that great contingent of 20th Century novelists who used to be highly regarded but who’ve somehow slipped out of view.
The cover to the left I love, and I think captures something of the book. The cover to the right I have, and I think is bland and generic. I can see however in today’s market that a painting of an old woman sitting on her own might not entirely help generate mass sales.
Mrs Palfrey is one of that great number of women who find themselves cast adrift in old age. Her husband of many years died some while back and her daughter has moved up to Scotland where she’s become more Scottish than any of the locals. Mrs Palfrey has a grandson who like her lives in London, but she sees little of him.
The book opens as Mrs Palfrey’s “taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road”. She’s looking nervously out for the Claremont Hotel, the place she’s chosen sight unseen to live in during the years she has left before she finally has to enter a nursing home or hospital, never to emerge again. She consoles herself that if she doesn’t like it she doesn’t have to stay but it’s evident her options are extremely limited.
The Cromwell Road for those who don’t know it is a rather drab street near Earl’s Court, in London’s Kensington. I grew up in Kensington and know it well. It forms part of the A4 motorway and so has constant heavy traffic. It features a lengthy series of indifferent looking hotels and as a kid I wondered who stayed in them. Nowadays I think it’s mostly temporarily housed asylum seekers.
Mrs Palfrey is an unsentimental Englishwoman of a very traditional type. She knew her role when she supported her husband’s colonial service, and as a wife and a mother. Now she has no role, just a modest capital sum she has to make sure lasts the years she has left.
She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.
The Claremont is not quite as billed; these places never are. The food is indifferent and the management resentful. The elderly long-term residents pay less than the short-stay commercial travellers and occasional tourists. Most of the year there isn’t enough short-stay traffic to fill the hotel which makes the pensioners essential, but in peak season they sit there taking up rooms that could be making more.
The residents have made their own little world. Almost all of them are women, left abandoned by the shorter longevity of their men. The one remaining man, Mr Osmond, doesn’t enjoy the company of women and sits isolated telling dirty stories to the waiters who don’t want to hear them. “‘It is three thousand days ago today that my wife died,’ Mr Osmond said, to no one in particular.”
Status at the Claremont is driven in part by not being forgotten by the outside world. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, Desmond, pays her no mind at all and she has no visitors, leaving her dangerously exposed to the pity of the other residents. Then however she takes a fall in the street and is aided by a young man named Ludo, a writer. She thanks him with dinner at the Claremont, but in a moment of folly or inspiration they agree he’ll pose as Desmond. Now Mrs Palfrey has a visitor and a youthful friend, but she also has lies to keep straight.
Days at the Claremont linger in their passing. “Time went by. It could be proved that it did, although so little happened.” Taylor captures perfectly the small trials of life lived without purpose or occupation. The residents are frail and easily tired. They arrive planning to enjoy London’s galleries and entertainments, but they have little money and less energy.
As she waited for prunes, Mrs Palfrey considered the day ahead. The morning was to be filled in quite nicely; but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch. I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she had thought it would be. When she was young, it had always been later.
Each of the residents is well drawn and while Taylor’s eye is unsparing she’s not unkind. A particular highlight is Mrs Arbuthnot, who moves with the aid of twin walking sticks giving her the appearance of an arthritic spider. She rules the Claremont, despatching one resident to get her books from the library (a welcome outing which makes it as much a favour as chore) and quietly judging others. She’s alert to any lapse or weakness around her.
With a lesser writer Mrs Arbuthnot would be a two-dimensional hotel bully. Mrs Palfrey is careful of her, not least as Mrs Arbuthnot catches some inconsistencies in Ludo and Mrs Palfrey’s conversations which don’t fit his being a grandson, but Mrs Palfrey also remembers that Mrs Arbuthnot was the first person at the Claremont to show her any kindness.
The tragedy of Mrs Arbuthnot is that ruling the Claremont is all she has, and she knows how small a thing it is and how temporary:
The time was coming, [Mrs Arbuthnot] knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.
Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.
I’ve made it all sound rather bleak and serious, and that undercurrent is never far away, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is also a gentle and affectionate comedy. Ludo is a likable young man who isn’t perfect, at least some of his interest in Mrs Palfrey is as a potential subject for the novel he’s trying to write, but he also honestly likes her and does more for her than any of her family. He gives Mrs Palfrey a fresh moment of real living, and the shy negotiations between them of differences of age and background are rather touching.
In a strange way this is almost a romantic comedy, even though there’s nothing of that sort between Ludo (who meets a new girlfriend in one slightly unnecessary subplot) and Mrs Palfrey (who finds herself the unwelcome object of Mr Osmond’s ill-judged affections). Still, two mismatched people meet and carve-out a little bubble of alliance against an indifferent world somehow managing to bridge the gaps between them with genuine affection.
All the people who recommended this book to me were right. It’s a warm and enjoyable and funny and desperately sad novel. It’s lives lived as best they can be in the face of obsolescence and irrelevance and the indignities of age. It’s what awaits many of us, as much now as in 1971 when it was written.
Guy Savage who highly recommended this I think read it pre-blog. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal reviewed it here; Caroline of Beautiy is a Sleeping Cat reviewed it here; Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Booking Ramblings wrote a particularly fine review of it here; Heavenali reviews it here and makes an interesting comparison to Brookner which I hadn’t thought of but which resonated with me; and a different Caroline at Bookword reviewed it here and makes the point that the residents aren’t eccentrics but rather are captured with precision as to their mannerisms which is a point I strongly agree with.
Finally, John Self reviewed it at The Asylum here and was a little less glowing than most, enjoying it and wanting to read more by her but criticising it in part as a bit of a comfort read and wishing for a slightly harder edge in the book’s later parts. John is clearly made of sterner stuff than me since I found the later parts bruisingly hard-edged.