Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find space for them all on my end-of-year round-up. When the time comes to compile my 2015 list, I shall have to find a place for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as it’s such a brilliant novel: heart-rending and touching, so sharply observed and full of insight.
First published in 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont features a recently widowed elderly lady, Laura Palfrey. In need of somewhere to live, Mrs Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel, a respectable establishment on the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, where she is likely to remain until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. On her arrival at the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey joins a small group of elderly women and one lone man who have also moved to the hotel out of necessity. All are no longer able to manage on their own.
The Claremont is reasonably clean but somewhat lacking in atmosphere. At first, Mrs Palfrey wonders if she has made a terrible mistake in moving there, a feeling only reinforced by her initial impressions at dinner:
At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mr Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years. They were waiting patiently for the celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy. (pg. 5)
Mrs Palfrey knows, however, that she must soldier on, and having made it through her first night, she decides to make the best of her new life. Over the course of the first few days, she is able to pinpoint the long-term residents, and a picture of each one soon emerges.
Elizabeth Taylor is very adept at describing people; she seems to have an innate ability to convey the sense of a character in just a few sentences. Here she is on three of the Claremont’s residents: the blustering Mr Osmond, the lively Mrs Burton and the rather bitter and brittle Mrs Arbuthnot:
Mr Osmond drank wine. He sat very still with the glass beside him as if it were keeping him company. He waited for the manager, who occasionally looked in. He 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. (pgs. 11-12)
Each one of these characters has their own idiosyncrasies, their own habits and mannerisms, and Taylor captures these perfectly. What they all share is a feeling of loneliness and boredom, a need to adapt to constraints of old age, a reliance on others to brighten their days. All remember happier times: the lives they shared with their spouses; the ability to entertain family and friends; the comfort of the own homes.
Time drags at the Claremont; the days are long and drawn out, punctuated by mealtimes, walks and the occasional visiting relative. One day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey slips on the pavement and falls. Luckily for Mrs Palfrey, a considerate young man named Ludo emerges from his basement flat and comes to her aid. As a thank you for his kindness, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner at the Claremont the following Saturday, a day when ‘there is usually a rather better menu’. Ludo, an impoverished aspiring writer, is also rather lonely and willingly accepts her offer of a decent meal. Further, Mrs Palfrey sees an opportunity for Ludo to help her out of a tight spot with the other residents. In order to save face, she persuades him to stand in as her grandson, Desmond, who has resolutely failed to visit her. Thinking it will be a lark, Ludo agrees.
Taylor, an acute observer of social situations, is very aware of the little condescending remarks people make with the aim of needling others. Sometimes it’s not just what they say, but the tone of voice they use too (Taylor’s prose somehow manages to give a real sense of this). It’s a little difficult to appreciate the full effect here, but when Mrs Arbuthnot overhears Mrs Palfrey informing the waiter that a guest will be joining her for dinner she cannot resist the following slight:
‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last,’ Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word. (pg. 32)
On the evening itself, Ludo manages to stand up to the scrutiny of Mrs Arbuthnot. The dinner is a success and Mrs Palfrey regains a sense of dignity. Ludo gains something from the evening too, not just a hot meal but an opportunity to do some research for his novel ‘They Weren’t Allowed to Die There’, a title inspired by Mrs Palfrey’s own words.
He drank his soup, ate his veal with a kind of hungry concentration, which was a great pleasure to Mrs Palfrey. She was doing something for him, as he was doing something for her, and when he lifted his glass to her, she felt – for the first time since she came to the Claremont – that she was envied and respected, knowing herself watched form the other tables. (pg. 39)
An unlikely and touching friendship develops between the two, but it is also tinged with uncertainty. They get along very well, but there are times when they are unsure as to what to say to each other or how to react. The scenes of the two of them together are charming, and it is clear that Mrs Palfrey would love to have someone like Ludo as her real grandson. He also encourages her to do one or two things she would never have contemplated before. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, Ludo invites Mrs Palfrey to share a simple dinner in his threadbare flat, an outing that brightens her evening no end.
Mrs Palfrey is a melancholy story, and Taylor describes the loneliness and vulnerability of old age so well. In this scene, Mrs Palfrey decides to visit Ludo. She wishes to deliver a jumper she has knitted for him and feels sure he will be at home on a Saturday afternoon. The fall, however, has left her feeling increasingly frail:
She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.
Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea. (pg. 73)
I find that quote very poignant, especially Mrs Palfrey’s wish for a little rest and a cup of tea when she arrives at Ludo’s flat. She longs for a few moments of relief and hospitality to break up the day.
This probably sounds like a very sad book, and it is sad, but Mrs Palfrey is also peppered with humour. Taylor has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and there are some priceless exchanges between the Claremont’s residents. The novel also contains a marvellous set piece, a cocktail party given by a temporary resident of the hotel, Mrs de Salis, following her move to a new flat. This next passage captures Claremont resident Mrs Post’s memories of the party (one of the guests is an actress; Willie is Mrs de Salis’s much-trumpeted son):
Mrs Post had lain quietly down and switched off the bedside lamp. Her head was like a magic-lantern into which slides were thrust noisily, one after the other. Mrs Darling of Peter Pan, opened and shut her mouth, but nothing came out of it – a pity, for Mrs Post had hoped to remember some of this conversation for her cousin; there had been sausages, she thought, certainly peanuts; Mrs Burton had sung loudly, rather disgracing them, but that was earlier on; Willie had rather disappointed.
‘I’m glad I went,’ she thought defiantly, ‘but I shouldn’t like to have to go again tomorrow.’ (pg. 162)
I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, save to say that we follow Mrs Palfrey for the best part of a year. It’s a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued.
Taylor’s characters are nuanced and so finely observed she makes us care about these people. Our feelings for Mrs Palfrey are a given, and the seemingly insufferable Mr Osmond has a softer, more compassionate side. Even Mrs Arbuthnot elicits some sympathy as her flashes of cruelty seem born out of frustration.
This is my first experience of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and I definitely want to read others in the future (I’ve dabbled with her short stories, but it’s been a while). Her prose style is very precise and economical, she makes every word count. The writing is superb.
Finally, a few words about my edition, which comes with a rather staid and cosy cover. Please don’t let it put you off this book as the writing is anything but sentimental and cosy. This is a sharp and perceptive novel – I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20 in my #TBR20.