a front of emphatic respectability

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.

Other reviews

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.


Filed under Taylor, Elizabeth

25 responses to “a front of emphatic respectability

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, and thanks for the kind comment. Yes, this book pulls no punches and it’s such a sad one. You’re quite right that it’s still relevant – maybe even more so than in 1971 as our population is living so much longer. I’m glad Taylor’s come back into fashion a little as her writing certainly warrants it.

  2. Excellent review, I love this novel. You are right about her name not having helped ET to gain recognition, sharing a name with one of the most famous women in the world was unfortunate. I agree this novel is still very relevant and I am always delighted to see people reading her work. (The modern virago covers are frankly awful – and not just for Taylor’s novels).

  3. That is a tremendous review, Max, really excellent – and thanks for the link to mine, very kind. I think it’s a testament to the strength of this novel that so many bloggers have reviewed it and yet we’ve all highlighted different points or found something new to say about it. Your quote about Mrs Arbuthnot, for instance – it makes me want to read the book all over again.

  4. Kaggsy, it was a well deserved comment! One thing that struck me when writing this is that while reading the book it seemed to me a comedy, but it is a terribly sad one. Her writing definitely merits revisiting (see also: Barbara Pym).

    Heavenali, thanks. What would you recommend to follow it? It’s a bit embarrassing the name thing, but for a while I genuinely assumed this was some form of celebrity novel, possibly ghostwritten. I just saw it referred to and wasn’t aware there was a novelist with the same name as the star.

    Agreed on the modern Virago covers, and the old ones are so good too.

  5. Thanks Jacqui, and thanks for pushing me to read this one. It’s not the sort of novel I would have expected to like nearly as much as I did.

  6. I had read everything Elizabeth Taylor wrote long before I started blogging. There are a few writers who are so good that I must read everything they wrote, and here are four: Patrick White, Elizabeth Taylor, Dawn Powell, and Graham Greene.

  7. I’ve read most, though not all, of Greene. Powell and White I’m not sure I even know Tony. Any obvious places to start with them?

    Are you a Pym fan by the way?

  8. This still remains my favourite Taylor, though I’ve some way to go before reading them all (Blaming is up next). The tone reminds me of Muriel Spark, though not quite as dark. Like you, I don’t think I would have noticed her without social media.

  9. Thanks for the mention. Like you I think the final part of Mrs Palfrey is very bleak indeed. Thanks for the great review. Glad you have found Elizabeth Taylor.

  10. Very welcome – I’m just so glad you liked it! I read another novel fairly recently which might be of interest to you at some point – it’s called The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning. The style is fairly similar to Taylor’s (especially her A Game of Hide and Seek, which I would also recommend). Plus the Manning features a wonderful character by the name of Petta, a faded beauty who reminded me quite strongly of Julia Martin from Jean Rhys’ novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. I think you might enjoy it.


  11. I really liked this a lot but recently read A View of the Harbour which I think was even better. A lot darker.

  12. Thanks for this review, Max. This sounds like an unexpectedly inspiring read. I’ve added this to my “to be read” list.I have several older Virago editions and I, too, prefer the older cover style (and exposure for sometimes obscure artists and artworks).

    If you’ve never encountered Patrick White, I do recommend his novels. I especially enjoyed “The Tree of Man” (1955), and “Riders in the Chariot” (1961). But I’ve enjoyed them all. They are mostly firmly set in time and place (usually small town Australia, and the EuroAustralian experience). He’s probably best known for “Voss” (1957) – tells the tale of the tangled relationships of an “explorer” to interior Australia in the 1840s.

    None of these novels are what you’d call cheerful, but they are all well worth reading. They are also mostly Big Books (more than 300 pages) and meaty. Good for when you want something to really get your teeth into.

    White also was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973

  13. Great review Max. Loved this as well, more than my first Taylor, which was the much-praised Angel. I might re-read that one though. Have since read her first, At Mrs Lippincote’s, which was good but not as sharp. Blaming will be my next.

    Am particularly looking forward to her short stories, which, if Chris Power of Brief Survey of the Short Story is right, are masterpieces.

  14. Forgot to say: although reissuing her work is admirable, those new pastel covers are uniformly dreadful.

  15. Grant, thanks. View from the Harbour (as per Guy’s recommendation) will likely be my next by her. I can see the Spark comparison, though the style is fairly different I’d say.

    Caroline, very much so, but I think without the bleakness it would be kind of a lie. Taylor doesn’t shrink from the realities these people face and how their endings are likely each and every one to be at best melancholic.

    Jacqui, thanks. I already had that review flagged – I just haven’t had a chance to get to grips with it yet. It does look interesting.

    Guy, as noted above I shall look at that one next.

  16. Alwynne, I’m not sure I’d say inspiring since it is on the bleak side, but it is very good. I’ll look into Patrick White, I don’t know him at all.

    Ian, terrible aren’t they? Which one’s Angel?

  17. It’s the one about the eponymous, appalling but monumentally successful sentimental novelist.

    Peter Bradshaw wrote about it in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/aug/07/willozonsangelfly

  18. I didn’t know this Elizabeth Taylor before reading about her in blog posts.
    I’m not sure I want to read this right now but it sounds really good and I like the tone of the quotes.

    PS: the French cover has a telephone and an old lamp.

  19. Great, review, Max. I’m glad you liked it. I thought you would. Thanks for mentioning my review. Just like you, I hadn’t heard of her before blogging and the name really doesn’t help.
    She’s outstanding though. This one might be her most accessible. So far, I loved A Game of Hide and Seek the most but I want to read everything she’s ever written. Including her many short stories. She’s one of only a few writers who make me want to do that.

  20. It is good so worth trying when more in the mood Emma. The French cover isn’t bad – it’s not literal but it gets some of the mood and sense of waiting.

    Caroline, it’s just great isn’t it? I doubt I’ll read everything she’s written but I’ll certainly be interested to see your future reviews so I can pick which to go for.

  21. I’ve yet to read Elizabeth Taylor, though I became aware of her in the 1980s I think when she was published by Virago Press (your cover on the left – and my favourite too). You’ve inspired me to try to get to her one day. I did love your round up of reviews at the end and your comment on John Self’s.

    I also liked the quote you chose regarding time. Time is such a fascinating concept and I do enjoy it when writers reflect on its meaning or sense for characters. Elizabeth Harrower’s book ends with a bit of discussion of time and the wasting or not of it. People who look at their watch and find it earlier than they expect are clearly wasting it! It’s clearly – from this book and my own observation of my elders – that one of the challenges of aging is to find ways of not wasting time.

  22. The book is very good on the challenges of aging – not just the obvious ones like isolation but also the subtler ones such as finding ways to fill the day when it doesn’t really matter to anyone what you fill it with.

    This is an excellent novel. I think you’d like it and I’d love to see your thoughts.

  23. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

  24. Pingback: Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont - Tredynas Days

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