Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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.

IMG_1967

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.

Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Ali (at Heavenali), Karen (at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Caroline (at book word) have also reviewed Mrs Palfrey.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20 in my #TBR20.

73 thoughts on “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. MarinaSofia

    It’s been far too long since I read Elizabeth Taylor – I had a crush on her, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym. Have to seek out her novels again – such precision, such elegance. Thank you for reminding me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Marina. Well, on the evidence of Mrs Palfrey I might develop a crush on her too – I just want to devour a bunch of her novels. Angel is in my TBR, and I’ve heard great things about A View of the Harbour. Have you read either of those two?

      I hope to read a Spark novel fairly soon as a friend gave me a set of her novels as a birthday gift. I’ve only read Brodie, and that was several years ago, so I need to get into her again. Pym’s on my list as well, probably Excellent Woman as it’s the one I already own.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Angel and The Wedding Group are very good, as is The Soul of Kindness. My favourite Muriel Spark: Girls of Slender Means, Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is perhaps the one I liked the least (sorry!), but I recommend starting with the very hilarious look at anthropologists in Less than Angels.
        Oh, it really has been too long – I can feel a revival of these classic British women writers coming on – and Elizabeth Bowen too.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Marvellous. I have Angel and will take a look at the other two Taylors you’ve recommended.

          Loitering and Kensington are in my set of Spark novels, so it’s great to hear they’re two of your favourites. Oh, and Slender Means has been sitting on my post #TBR20 wishlist as a couple of people recommended it to me earlier this year. I might have a rethink on the Pym, just as well it was a charity shop cheapie.

          Thanks for the recommendations, Marina – much appreciated. Yes, Elizabeth Bowen is another writer I’d like to try – I have her Heat of the Day (aside from anything else I couldn’t resist the cover of the Vintage edition!).

          Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent and thoughtful review, Jacqui. Taylor is a wonderful author (we had a whole year of reading her on the LibraryThing Virago group, which is how I somehow ended up starting my blog!) Mrs. Palfrey is excellent, but so, so, SO sad….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s very poignant, isn’t it? That said, I do like the way Taylor uses humour to balance some of the sadness, and the shifts in tone never feel awkward in any way. Have you reviewed Mrs Palfrey? If so, do let me know and I’ll add a link.

      More Taylor for me in the future, definitely. Any others you’d particularly recommend? I have a copy of Angel, but I’m always open to suggestions.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great – I’ve added a link to your review. That’s good to hear, quality all the way by the sound of things. I’m looking forward to Angel!

          Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I have heard such good things about this author.

    Writers who are able to capture the nuance in people as well as in interactions are rare. Lately I have been reading a lot of Anthony Trollope and he is so good at this. He also is able to convey “tone” very effectively. Based on your commentary it sounds as if Elizabeth Taylor is able to do this also.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Brian, I think you’d really enjoy Elizabeth Taylor! On the evidence of Mrs Palfrey (and what little I can recall about the stories), she’s got a very keen eye for those subtle interactions and gestures in social situations. The tone thing is really interesting – it’s difficult to get a sense of it when the quotes are lifted out of context, but it’s quite striking across when you read certain passages in the novel.

      I must get into Trollope, I know you’re a huge fan.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Just wonderful, isn’t it? It is nice to see her getting some coverage in the blogging community. I’ve read some of her short stories, but it’s been a while…I kind of wish I’d tried her novels years ago!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali – I know you’re a huge fan of her work. Taylor was one my mother’s favourite writers. I feel I’ve neglected her somewhat as I should have tried her novels earlier in life. Then again, when you’re young, you don’t necessarily want to read the kind of novels your mother enjoys. I’ll have to make up for it now.

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    This too was a great favourite when I read it a few years ago. I found the film version disappointing. It was as clichéd as the book sounds (but isn’t).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this one as well, Guy. I couldn’t see a review at yours but let me know if I’ve missed it and I’ll add a link.

      I don’t think I could bear to watch a film of this one. The novel is so close to perfection and the characters so fixed in my mind that any visual adaptation would most likely disappoint.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. It’s a great quote, isn’t it? Taylor’s very good on the frailty and sense of isolation of old age, it really got to me. There’s a lady living just opposite us here at home, and she reminds me so much of Mrs Palfrey (albeit a more spritely version). The novel was a bit of a reminder of just how much it can mean if you take the time to stop and have a chat or drop round to say ‘hello’ every now and again. It’s a wonderful novel. I can thoroughly recommend it if you ever fancy a break from the 746.

      Reply
  5. susanosborne55

    Lovely review, Jacqui. It’s so easy to get distracted by the endless parade of new books but I remember enjoying Taylor’s writing so much – I really should dig my old green Viragos out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, what writing – pure quality. How I wish I had a few of those lovely old green Viragos, the covers are so much nicer than these new editions (especially the one for Mrs Palfrey).

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    You captured this lovely book very well.
    Blaming was the first Elizabeth taylor I’ve read and then this one immediatley afterwards.
    So far I liked Hide and Seek best. It even made my all-time favourites list.
    She’s one of a few authors whose every work I’d like to read. I just got her collected short stories which should be amazing too.
    Thanks for the link.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline – you’re very welcome. I’ve had this novel for a while, but your review of Hide and Seek (coupled with Ali’s enthusiasm for Taylor) prompted me to take it off the shelf. I recall seeing Hide and Seek on your end-of-year round-up – one for my wishlist, I think. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her short stories. Taylor was one of my mother’s favourite authors and I wish I’d started reading her novels a little earlier in life.

      Reply
  7. Scott W.

    I’ve only read Angel, a book I found terrific (and appreciated even more when I discovered that Taylor had modeled her protagonist in part on the astonishing Amanda McKittrick Ros). I’ll be sure to add Mrs. Palfrey to the list; from your review, it sounds terrific too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Mrs Palfrey is great, Scott. I’m pretty confident you’ll enjoy it. Every character is so finely drawn, and the interactions so keenly observed…it’s just a terrific novel.

      I’m really looking forward to Angel as it seems to be a favourite amongst Taylor fans. Delighted to hear that you rate it too. I hadn’t realised Taylor had modelled her heroine on Amanda McKittrick Ros. I’ve heard the name, but I’m not familiar with her work – your comment leaves me intrigued to discover more about her.

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        There’s no better place to discover Ros than Jack Loudan’s O Rare Amanda!, a loving and hilarious biography – assuming you can find it (out of print). I did a post on it a couple of years ago.

        I’ll pick up Mrs. Palfrey at the library today.

        Reply
  8. gertloveday

    Absolutely nothing to do with your post Jacqui but I can’t resist passing this on from “Wine Agony Aunt” in my newspaper, in answer to a question about whether you should drink white wine after red:
    “Drinking white wine after red doesn’t appear to be a problem – unless it is 3 am and you’re eyeing the white because you drank all the red, the cognac and the sole alternative is the advocaat gathering dust at the back of the pantry. At this juncture the only thing you should be quaffing is soluble painkillers, with a Berocca chaser.”

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! That’s excellent – thank you for brightening my morning. (Does anyone actually like Advocaat? I can recall a bottle lurking at the back of our drinks cabinet at home. My mother was the only person brave enough to risk it.)

      Of course drinking white after red is totally acceptable if the white is a sweet wine, something like a Sauternes or a late harvest Semillon. ;-)

      Reply
  9. Emma

    Great review, Jacqui. So Caroline, Guy and now you! I must read this one of these days.
    I really like her style according to the quotes you picked.
    I sounds like a bittersweet story. It’s difficult to write well about old age without falling into ridicule or sentimentality.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. It’s a brilliant little novel, and I think you’d appreciate the interplay between the characters. The quotes are pretty representative, so if you like what you see here then I think you’d enjoy this one.

      Bittersweet is a great word for it as there are flashes of humour and lightness alongside the heartache. You’re right, in the hands of a lesser writer this story could have tipped over into sentimentality or farce, but that’s not the case here. Quite an achievement.

      Reply
  10. Jonathan

    Damn! I saw a copy, with that cover, in my local Oxfam (now closed), looked at it, contemplated buying it….but that cover was so offputting. I mean, we shouldn’t really choose a book because of the cover but sometimes it can’t be helped.

    I haven’t read anything by Taylor but have a copy of the film ‘Angel’ by Francois Ozon which I keep meaning to watch. Have you seen it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Argh! The cover’s desperate (I much prefer the artwork on the old green Virago edition), and it’s such a shame because the book itself is terrific. It’s worth keeping an eye out for another copy.

      I haven’t seen the film version of Angel, but I’m a fan of Ozon’s work (loved 5×2 and Swimming Pool, enjoyed 8 Women and In the House, too). Angel is in my TBR pile so I’ll read the book first, but I’m curious about the film now that you’ve mentioned the Ozon connection!

      Reply
  11. The Little Reader Library

    This is the only one I’ve read so far of hers but I liked it a lot. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it Jacqui, you’ve brought out some lovely points about it. A friend was kind enough to pass me some more of hers so I hope to read those one day soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay – I’m glad it revived a few memories. It’s a lovely book, isn’t it? Full of characters you want to spend time with. I really liked the balance of light and shade, the moments of humour alongside the sadness. I hope you enjoy Taylor’s other novels, I definitely want to read more of her..

      Reply
  12. litlove

    I do love your reviews, Jacqui, you give such perfect tributes to the book. I read this a couple of years ago and found it painfully moving, sharply funny and unexpectedly gripping. I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Elizabeth Taylor, who I’ve been reading for years. I tend to string her novels out, though, as I’m worried about the day when I’ve read them all! Her writing is just SO good and I completely agree with you that she excels at character portraits. Mr Litlove gave me In A Summer Season for Christmas, and I can see I will not be able to resist it much longer!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria – that’s very kind of you to say. If my piece encourages one or two readers to try Mrs Palfrey, then I’ll be happy! It’s one of those rare books that manages to convey a range of emotions, and yet it never feels forced or clunky in any way. I found it very moving too, thankfully free of sentimentality and cliche. The characters are just wonderful, aren’t they?

      It’s great to hear that you are such a die-hard fan of Taylor. Do you have any particular favourites or recommendations? I have Angel but am always open to suggestions. In a Summer Season sounds excellent, just looked it up. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

      Reply
      1. litlove

        Ooh now, I’ve yet to read a Taylor novel I didn’t like. But I remember enjoying especially A View of the Harbour and Angel, and The Sleeping Beauty. I remember Palladian was also really good but felt different to the others. At that point my memory runs out, so I can’t recall why exactly!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Lovely. Angel seems to be a favourite, and I’ve been looking at A View of the Harbour (two or three people recommended it via Twitter). I’ll take a look at the other two – it’s interesting to hear that Palladian felt a little different to the others. Thanks, Victoria.

          Reply
  13. 1streading

    I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels, but this is my favourite. She does remind me of early Muriel Spark, but without challenging realism in the way Spark does. I can’t remember why I first picked her up (it was Sleeping Beauty) as the covers are not male-friendly, but I must have read something interesting somewhere!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might have been ahead of the game, Grant! There does seem to have been a bit of a revival of interest in Taylor’s work recently. I’m with you on the covers – the one for Mrs P is particularly off-putting (the staid photo and parma violet colour). I much prefer the cover on the old green Virago edition.

      I want to get into Spark’s novels. A friend gave me a set of five for my birthday, and it contains a couple of the early ones (Comforters, Memento M) + Loitering, Kensington and Symposium. Quite a few people have recommended The Girls of Slender Means, which has been sitting on my wishlist for a while. Any favourites amongst those?

      Reply
  14. Séamus Duggan

    Another writer I haven’t read, but your review and all the comparisons with Muriel Spark, who I adore, have led me to dig out a recently bought copy of The Soul of Kindness. Must also tackle Barbara Pym soon.
    Memento Mori might be an interesting Spark novel to read after this, given it deals with old age and death. Taylor sounds a lot softer than Spark though! Loitering with Intent is great fun, too. Here’s how my review ended – “Anyone who is interested in writing or reading or genius should read it.”

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I get the impression that Taylor is gentler than Muriel Spark, although I’m basing that view on reports from other readers as I’ve only read Brodie. Mrs Palfrey is very touching – there’s a bittersweet quality to the story. It’s very sharply observed, but Spark’s novels sound spiky and biting! I’ll be interested to see how you think they compare once you’ve had a chance to get to The Soul of Kindness. (It has a better cover than Mrs P, that’s for sure).

      Thanks for suggesting Memento Mori – I may very well go with that one. I’ll take a look at your review of Loitering, it sounds terrific.

      Reply
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  16. Max Cairnduff

    Well that goes straight on the TBR pile. I was reminded in your review of Patrick Hamilton’s marvellous Slaves of Solitude, but this just sounds excellent in its own right and the quotes are great.

    Nice to see that Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington gets recommended in the comments too, since I have that as my next (ie second) Spark to read.

    These generic covers truly are awful aren’t they?

    Anyway, must google Elizabeth Taylor, I’ve heard of this book (probably from Guy and Caroline) but I don’t know the author at all.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is a touch of the Rosamund Tea Rooms about the Claremont Hotel, definitely. And yes, Mrs Palfrey is a marvellous book in its own right, it’s actually very touching at times. I think you’d love it, Max, I really do. (The cover is desperate, but at least you won’t have to look at it all the time if you read it on the Kindle!)

      It’s great to see all the recommendations for Spark, isn’t? I’ll be curious to see how you get on with Kensington. Think I might take Seamus’ advice and try Memento Mori as a comparison with Mrs Palfrey. We can compare experiences at some point.

      Reply
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  18. clodge2013

    Hi Jacqui, just caught up with this review. I do enjoy your reviews by the way. Just to say I think you do justice to a very wonderful book. I reread it recently and then blogged about what we learn about ageing from it, in addition to my review. I agree that it’s not a sad book, but it is both serious and amusing. Perfect Elizabeth Taylor!
    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Caroline. Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. It is such a gem of a book, each character is so finely drawn. And the combination of tones works so well; I love the way it moves from melancholy to amusing to poignant. One of this year’s reading highlights for sure.

      Glad to hear it stood up to a reread – I must catch up with your piece on Mrs Palfrey and ageing. I’m about to log off for the night, but I’ll put a note in my diary to head over to yours tomorrow. Thank you for dropping by.

      Reply
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