(Reviewed as part of Jane’s Birthday Book for Underappreciated Lady Authors and as part of The Classics Club.)
I have owned a copy of Angel (1957) by Elizabeth Taylor since the earliest days of Virago Modern Classics, but I only actually read it earlier this year. Everything I’d read suggested it was Elizabeth Taylor’s finest book and for a while I thoroughly enjoyed it. But that didn’t last. I found Angel as a character quite ghastly – which is of course, the intention – but I also found the book dragged. It was too wordy, too slow, and I couldn’t find a single character that I warmed to. The writing in Angel was good, but not good enough to get me past a tedious story and an odious protagonist.
So I am delighted that I found my second attempt at one of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to be an entirely more positive experience. I read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in recognition of Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday as marked by Jane in her Birthday Book of under-appreciated Lady Authors. It’s a short book with a seemingly slight plot but there is so much more to it than the story it tells.
Mrs Palfrey arrives to live at the Claremont Hotel early in the year. She is widowed, after a happy marriage: the home she has shared with her late husband in his retirement is now too large and too costly for her to maintain just for herself. Her only daughter lives in Scotland and Mrs Palfrey elects to reside at the discreet hotel on the Cromwell Road rather than go to live in Scotland. She knows her daughter does not want her mother to live with her, and she herself has no wish to live with her daughter.
At the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey meets the other long-term elderly residents: three ladies and a gentleman. Their days are routine and humdrum, a highlight being the daily posting of the dinner menu. She resigns herself to her fate with a stoic bonhomie. The lady residents like to talk about their relatives, each maintaining a pretence that they are loved and wanted by their families. Mrs Palfrey lets it be known that she has a grandson – Desmond – living in London and it is assumed that he will of course, be visiting her regularly. Mrs Palfrey learns quickly that she has made an error in releasing this information and compounds it further by covering his absence with a variety of fabricated excuses. She knows she will soon be discovered. Out for a walk one day, she stumbles and falls, and is rescued by a young man who saw her fall from his basement flat. Ludo is a dishevelled aspiring writer. He is very kind to her in her distress after her fall. Mrs Palfrey invites him to dine with her as a thank you. Thus begins a new deception: Ludo willingly agrees to become the absent Desmond. The other residents are charmed; Mrs Palfrey’s reputation is saved, and Ludo gets a good dinner and plenty of material for his novel.
As with Angel, Mrs Palfrey is written with deftness. There is a lightness to the writing in this book which I don’t recall being as evident in Angel, though perhaps that’s because Angel was much longer. Much is revealed in just a few words and sentences. Here, we meet Mrs Palfrey:
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.
Mrs Palfrey became a very real and rounded character for me by the end of chapter one. A proud and stoic Englishwoman, very much of her era; I liked her hugely. I admired her determination to make the best of things and found it easy to overlook her faults, especially when wrapped in Taylor’s observant, acerbic prose:
At eleven, she decided to brave it and set out to post her letter and do her shopping. This took up much less time than she had planned and, in spite of her varicose veins, she walked all round a neighbouring square. In the gardens in the centre were asphalt paths, a summerhouse and dripping shrubs. The square was like a dog’s lavatory. All the pekes and poodles from the nearby blocks of flats had made their little messes by the railings. She had to keep an eye on the pavement.
I shall be able to watch the lilacs coming out, she thought. It will be just like the garden at Rottingdean. The setting could scarcely have been more different; but she felt a determination about the lilac trees. They were to be a part of her rules, her code of behaviour. Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. And she had abided by the rules. At twelve o’clock she returned. She had been out an hour.
I also liked Ludo, who seemed to me to be a pleasant and caring young man with the emphasis on ‘young’. It was his youth which enabled him to see past his straitened circumstances in a way which Mrs Palfrey could not in regards to her own. Youth is on his side: the world may yet still be his oyster.
I am working hard at my novel, and, to reward me, I suppose, fortune cast an old lady down my area, just when I needed her, for it took my fancy to write about elderly women. I used to watch them in the boarding-house when I was in Rep in Woodbury, sitting like toads in dark corners, dropping off or dozing, or burrowing down the sides of armchairs for knitting-needles. It is an exercise in imagination for me, but, all the same, I was glad enough to be able to examine a real old lady once more at close quarters – a rather fine example of the species.
He was using Mrs Palfrey without her knowledge but alongside that he was very kind. He cared for her, but also for his own self-respect, and had no expectations from his acquaintance with Mrs Palfrey. I was charmed by the introduction, written by novelist Paul Bailey, in which he recounts meeting Elizabeth Taylor and learning from her that she had watched him as a young writer. Bailey wrote a novel about the elderly – just as Ludo is doing. For Elizabeth Taylor, it would seem, used her observations of Paul himself shamelessly. Paul has become Ludo.
The other residents at the hotel are drawn with an equally sharp eye. Some are quite delightfully monstrous! Taylor has been likened to Jane Austen, but that seems to be said of so many novelists. In her creation of her old ladies however, I think Taylor does indeed rival Jane! Whilst not necessarily pleasant or endearing, Elizabeth Taylor has drawn each one in a manner that helps to reveal the sadness of their predicament and for me at least, elicits sympathy above all.
For this book, with its rich backdrop of humour, is essentially about loneliness. Mrs Palfrey and her fellows are all lonely: the emptiness of old age is laid bare amidst the vignettes of life in the hotel; chatter about family visits, and illusory choices. Mrs Palfrey misses her dead Arthur; and sees her own situation very clearly.
Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put little pieces of coal on the fire, building what he called ‘a good toast fire’. She could picture his hands with the tongs – a strong authoritative hand, with hair growing on it. If I had known at the time how happy I was, she decided now, it would only have spoiled it. I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.
The book has a wider scope however, and also illustrates Ludo’s loneliness. His flighty, fickle mother; his eagerness to strike a relationship with the vapid and churlish Rosie; his chosen solitary profession – which has cost him dear in friends as well as in practical terms since he is scraping by on almost nothing – all is conveyed with the buoyant optimism of youth, again in contrast to Mrs Palfrey’s measured, stoic and dignified realism.
Published in 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is set in the sixties. I was taken by surprise when I realised that and began to reflect on the contrasts for the elderly characters compared to their youths. But Ludo’s loneliness is as palpable as Mrs Palfrey’s against this bustling backdrop. The Beatles are riding high; people are busy and always going places; London is swinging. And Ludo has no oven; can’t afford to light his gas fire; wears threadbare clothes and shoes with flapping souls, and may speak to no one all day.
The insularity of the characters’ lives despite their regular interactions is laid bare and yet I never found the book to be dreary or depressing. Elizabeth Taylor has a wonderful eye for detail and an ability to direct attention to the humour and the absurd in life as much as to the aloneness. The lightness of style is prevalent throughout; sentences flow effortlessly; the novel is easy to read – until the penultimate page. I did not see the ending coming. The writing style changes. What had been a charming, slightly dated period piece well-imbued with levity and charm and incisive observations on all of us, busying about in our individual lives, turns with a punch in its final few paragraphs. The ending is swift, neat and brutal in its harsh efficiency. The message is pushed home hard: just how much do we care about our elderly? How much do we understand? Of course, we can’t understand: they are experiencing a stage of life that we have yet to meet. How often do we accord the elderly the dignity of their personal experience? Is it easier, perhaps, to presume that we know best?
Although she felt too old to do so, she knew that she must soldier on, as Arthur would have put it, with this new life of her own. She would never again have anyone to turn to for help, to take her arm crossing a road, to comfort her; to listen to any news of hers, good or bad. She was helplessly exposed – to the idiosyncrasies of other old people, the winter coming on, her aches and pains and loneliness, even in that absurd and embarrassing proposal of marriage. Rottingdean, and Ludo, too – she determined not to think of – those two happinesses. He had not answered her letter. She had lost him.
Mrs Palfrey was the penultimate book by Elizabeth Taylor and I hope I haven’t made it sound too dark or miserable because it’s not. Paul Bailey described it as both her funniest and saddest book and The Guardian has Mrs Palfrey at no. 87 in its series of 100 best novels and describes it as her masterpiece. Mrs Palfrey was published in 1971 when Taylor herself had just turned sixty. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I found it to be a little gem.