It was only a few years ago that I discovered the writing of Elizabeth Taylor. It didn’t help that she shared the same name with the famous actress. At the time, NYRB Classics had reissued her novel A Game of Hide and Seek, and since I am a big fan of the imprint, that was the first Taylor novel I read. It was excellent and what stood out for me was Taylor’s keen perception of human nature, and a sharp eye for describing the social mores of the period.
For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I didn’t read any more of her work since then. But lately there has been a lot of love for her novels on Twitter and the blogging world, and I knew that I had to once again jump on the Taylor bandwagon.
It was a tussle between Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A View of the Harbour, both highly regarded, and I finally selected the former. To make a long story short, I loved this novel.
It also means that this is the second novel on ageing I have read this year, the first one being the rather wonderful Memento Mori by Muriel Spark.
Mrs Laura Palfrey is an elderly lady, having recently lost her husband. When the book opens, she is on her way to the Claremont Hotel with the aim of residing there. We learn that she has a married daughter settled in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum.
Staying with her daughter is not an option, which means that Mrs Palfrey has to fend for herself. Meanwhile, in a couple of sentences, Mrs Palfrey is wonderfully described to the reader…
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 as Lord Louis Mountbatten might in drag.
Once at the Claremont, she as well as the reader are introduced to the hotel guests, who have also been residents there for a while. It is hinted that aged people live at the Claremont for an indefinite period of time until it comes to a point when they become completely dependent. When that happens, it’s time to shift to a nursing home to spend the remaining days of their lives there.
At the Claremont we meet the regulars. Elizabeth Taylor’s descriptive powers are second to none and she has a knack for etching out the idiosyncrasies and the foibles of each of her characters.
There’s Mr Osmond, an opinionated man, who tries to push his views on the hotel staff or anyone willing to listen, which is pretty much no one. When he is not verbally airing his views, he is busy writing to newspapers and magazines mostly critical of a variety of subjects.
Mrs Arbuthnot is another resident who makes Mrs Palfrey feel welcome when the latter is trying to get accustomed to her new surroundings. However, Mrs Palfrey will soon get a taste of Mrs Arbuthnot’s malice, which she realizes is borne out of frustration.
Mrs Burton loves to have a rocking drinking session every evening in the hotel lounge much to the distaste of the other residents.
He (Mr Osmond) could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging.
And last but not the least is Mrs Post, who Mr Osmond thinks is the silliest of the bunch.
Life at the Claremont is fairly routine and dull. For the most part, the residents are on their own compelled to find ways to amuse themselves. Occasionally, friends or family members may come to visit. These are visits the residents eagerly look forward to.
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 thought it would be. When she was young, it had always been later.
Keeping up appearances matter at the Claremont Hotel. In her early days, Mrs Palfrey is flustered by her solitary life and the fact that she has no visitors. Her daughter is far away in Scotland and although they write to each other, we learn that they are not really close. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond is working at the British Museum but cannot be bothered to respond despite Mrs Palfrey’s attempts to persuade him to visit her at the Claremont.
One day, Mrs Palfrey is out on one of her regular walks, and falls on the pavement. She is helped by a young man Ludovic Myers or Ludo as he is called. From thereon, an unlikely friendship develops between them. What’s more, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont for dinner and convinces him to pose as her grandson Desmond, a deception she subsequently enjoys despite some anxious moments of being possibly found out. Ludo is more than happy to play along hoping to find some rich material for his novel in progress.
Ludo, meanwhile, is a struggling writer, eking out a living on means that are meager. In a way he is like a real grandson that Mrs Palfrey always wanted but never had.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont then is a novel about aging – the increasing sense of loneliness as you become older, a sense of nostalgia for those good days in the past, and the fear of being dependent and unable to function on your own.
Here’s Mrs Post during one of her weak moments…
‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’
Mrs Palfrey, meanwhile, misses her husband and the companionship between them, of him not being there to accompany her on her walks or generally being around to care for her.
If all this sounds rather bleak, somehow it isn’t. In less capable hands the tone of the book would have felt downright miserable. But Taylor’s writing is so gorgeous that she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age.
But even in a subject matter of this sort, Taylor has a flair for humour. There is one particular set piece in the last few pages of the novel which is laced with comic moments. It is a party held at Mrs de Salis’ house, a temporary resident at one time at the Claremont, and here the eccentricities of the long term residents – Mr Osmond, Mrs Post and Mrs Burton – are in full display.
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ Mrs de Salis said, waving her hands. ‘Never again, I promise. It was a mistake, I admit. I was only trying to be kind, as is my wont.’
‘The little one in beige and grey was drunk, I think,’ Aunt Bunty said.
‘Well, serve her bloody right.’
‘The noisy one most certainly was.’
‘She had the gall to pick up that Meissen bowl and look at its bottom.’
‘Only it isn’t Meissen,’ Willie said.
‘Don’t fight with me, boy!’
Another set piece that I loved and was rather beautifully done was a cosy dinner that Mrs Palfrey shares with Ludo at his rundown apartment earlier on in the novel.
Paul Bailey, in the introduction of my Virago edition, aptly writes:
The residents of the Claremont are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with a sympathy that is strengthened, not diminished, by her beady-eyed detachment from them. Her peculiar gift is for noticing the casual cruelty that people use to protect themselves from the not always casual cruelty of others. Her ear for insult is, every so often, on a par with Jane Austen’s.
Overall, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was an excellent read and is sure to find a place in my end of the year list, which I will reveal next month. Meanwhile, of her other novels, I have A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness on my shelves and those are the ones I will be getting to next, hopefully soon this time.