Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor

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.

Memento Mori – Muriel Spark

For some inexplicable reason, I had never read Muriel Spark before. A few of her novels were languishing on my shelves, but I never felt compelled to open any of them.

But then, last year was Muriel Spark’s Centenary, and a newly generated interest in her books in the blogging world was just the push I needed to finally give her a go.

Also, although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the one that seems to have gained the most popularity, it was precisely for that reason I decided to settle for another one.

And because I had the lovely Virago 40th anniversary edition of Memento Mori, it was a good enough reason, I thought, to be my first Spark novel.

memento mori
Virago Classics 40th Anniversary Edition

In Memento Mori, Spark touches upon the topics of ageing, mortality and relationships between the older generation, in a writing style that is caustic but laced with humour.

When the novel opens, Dame Lettie Colston (one of the main protagonists in the novel) is on the phone with Inspector Mortimer. Dame Lettie is persistently getting phone calls from a mysterious caller who only utters the words, “Remember you must die.” To be sure Dame Lettie is in her eighties and these calls frighten and perplex her. Moreover, she is convinced the police force is useless and not taking her seriously.

In the same chapter, we are also introduced to Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian (the other protagonists in the novel). Godfrey and Charmian are aged 87 and 85 years respectively.

Charmian has been a successful novelist with many books under her belt, and in some sense Godfrey has lived under her shadow and has resented it. Charmian has had a stroke, and it immediately becomes apparent that she is having difficulty remembering people and incidents. For instance, she has a maid to look after her Mrs Anthony, but Charmian keeps calling her Jean.

Jean Taylor incidentally had earlier been Charmian’s maid for many years, but is now living the remainder of her life in a home for aged people. This section particularly has its funny moments (especially how the elderly in the ward judge the nurse in charge of them), and shades of poignancy when it comes to Jean Taylor’s plight.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally.

Then there is Lisa Brooke, who in some sense is the absent core of the novel. We are first introduced to her at her own funeral, but while she is not a living voice, we learn in a series of flashbacks, the influence she has had on the relationships of other characters, both while she was alive, and even now when she is dead.

Particularly, there is Mrs Pettigrew, who was Lisa Brooke’s maid. She is all set to inherit a substantial bit of her fortune if Brooke’s will is anything to go by but it is hotly contested by Brooke’s family and another dubious character Guy Leet.

As I write this piece, it has suddenly dawned on me of how many people and plot strands Spark has woven into this novel.

But I will focus on the main ones. And that is the relationship between Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian, which to me was the highlight of the novel.

The first chapter, where we are introduced to them, is a hoot and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the hilarious exchanges between them.

Charmian has always been the successful one among the two giving Godfrey an inferiority complex, and a recent revival in her books only intensifies this feeling in him.

Hence, Charmian’s illness actually bolsters Godfrey’s sense of self allowing him to boss over and as Charmian puts it, ‘taking your revenge’.

Fifteen years ago, in her seventy-first year, when her memory had started slightly to fail, she realized that Godfrey was turning upon her as one who had been awaiting his revenge. She did not think he was himself aware of this. It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.

Moreover, it hardly comes as a surprise when we learn of Godfrey’s many infidelities – a fact he is desperate to keep secret from Charmian at all cost for fear of being judged by her.

But Mrs Pettigrew, who has recently been installed in the Colston household, now that Lisa Brooke is no more, manages to get wind of Godfrey’s secret and blackmail him.

Charmian, meanwhile, is no saint either and she too has a past which Godfrey is not aware of. In her own way she longs to be independent and free from Godfrey.

There is one particular section where both Mrs Pettigrew and Godfrey are out, and so she has no choice but to make tea all by herself. It’s a wonderful set piece that highlights Charmian’s immense pleasure in performing this task all on her own, giving her a whiff of independence.

When all was set on the tray she was tempted to have her tea in the kitchen there in Mrs Anthony’s chair.

But she thought of her bright fire in the library. She looked at the tray. Plainly she could never carry it. She would take in the tea-things one by one, even if it took half-an-hour.

By the second section of the novel, practically all the characters get these mysterious calls as did Dame Lettie initially; the message is always the same, calling to attention their impending death. But will this mystery get solved and how serious is it really?

There are also class differences that come across in the novel. Jean Taylor, particularly, wishes to go to a private home in Surry, but is thwarted by Dame Lettie.

Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

‘If only,’ he said, ‘because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.’

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, ‘Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours.’

Dame Lettie, meanwhile, is a snob in the way she deals with her family, the way she perceives the police, and the way she handles these mysterious calls.

As I wrote earlier, Memento Mori is the first Spark novel I read, and I was floored.

Old age is not a great place to be in particularly if health is not on your side (based on experiences in my family), and a novel where the focal point is old age can get depressing if it’s not well written.

But that was never the case with Memento Mori.

‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’

Other than possibly Jean Taylor, all the characters are flawed and none are likeable, which to me actually was a positive. I found them all consistently interesting in their shortcomings and brilliantly etched by Spark’s pen. Her prose is so sharp, deliciously wicked and brimming with wit that I found the novel to be a delightful and addictive black comedy.

A.L. Kennedy, in her introduction, could not have expressed better:

The world according to Muriel Spark is a startling place, constructed with intelligence, relish and extraordinary precision.

Everyone in the novel is well past their prime, with the possibility of death imminent. But it’s a fact nobody wants to accept. Rather than let go gracefully, the vindictiveness and rancor continues as it did in the past when they were young and even in middle age.

Perhaps, they needed to be reminded that they must die? That now is the time to let bygones be bygones and show some compassion?