Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him.

Mrs Palfrey (first name Laura, though no-one, least of all her creator, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, would dream of calling her this) is the widow of a colonial administrator who, like her new home, has seen better days.

She and her husband spent much of their married life out east before retiring to the south coast, but now she has moved into a room at the Claremont. The taxi-driver’s reaction tells you everything you need to know about the establishment, for he does not know it – and there are few places unknown to a London cabbie. Just as Mrs Palfrey never reached the top levels of colonial society, so the Claremont has never become one of the best hotels. And, just like her, the hotel is surviving on an ever-dwindling income.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is set in the 1960s, when many elderly, middle class men and women lived out their final years in the shabby, genteel surroundings of second-rate hotels – think of ‘Fawlty Towers’ where Basil would never have kept his head above water without payments from the forgetful Major and the two dotty spinster ladies. These were people who once had servants to do their cooking and cleaning, but now found themselves in reduced circumstances. The the prospect of hotel life, where regular meals were provided and there was no housework or gardening to be done, must have seemed alluring. After all, it was cheaper and easier than struggling to cope in one’s own home – and far less lonely. What happened to them, I wonder? These days, I suppose, they would buy into care packages enabling them to remain in their own homes, living on microwave meals, or perhaps move into sheltered accommodation, or even a care home.

John Cleese may see the funny side of the ‘resident guests’, but Elizabeth Taylor’s view of their situation is far sadder and more perceptive. There are comic touches here as well, but it’s often the kind of dark humour which could almost have come from someone like Beryl Bainbridge. Speaking about the Claremont Mrs Palfrey says ‘we aren’t allowed to die here’ which made me laugh, but it was a very uneasy laugh. ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ may be a social satire on the pretensions of middle class society, and the way we treat our old people, but it also calls into question our own response, as readers, to questions about aging and death. It’s easy to laugh at Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents, and that’s just what the hotel’s transitory guests do – but as the laugh they shift in their seats and avert their eyes, uncomfortable at this unwanted reminder of what lies ahead.

This year marks the centenary
of the birth of novelist
 Elizabeth Taylor.
As Mrs Palfrey slowly gets to know fellow residents,she strikes up an unlikely friendship with aspiring author Ludo Myers, who tells people he works at Harrods – by which he means he sits and writes his novel in the warmth of the banking hall! In the Claremont visits from relatives (especially personable young men) bestow status and add interest to the dull monotony of the days, so Ludo agrees to impersonate Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, who works nearby at the British Museum, but shows little inclination to visit her. When he does finally call on her, he has to be hustled out of the way…

Not a lot happens, so if you like all-action, plot driven adventure stories this is not the novel for you. Like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor makes no direct mention of major political issues of the period, focusing on people and their lives, concentrating on small, everyday things. And she does it brilliantly. She is a genius at portraying characters in very few words, a great exponent of the art of showing, rather than telling, using beautifully nuanced observations on social conventions and interplay between people to make her point.

Despite the fact that the blogosphere has been celebrating her centenary, I seem to have left it until the very end of the year before discovering Elizabeth Taylor, so I can look forward to reading the rest of her novels in the months ahead. Sadly, they don’t appear to be available at my library, and I rarely see them in charity shops, but I’ve got ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘A View of the Harbour’ and ‘Angel’ to be going on with while I search for the others!

7 thoughts on “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

  1. I've read this twice, with two very different reactions. The first time, a few years ago, I enjoyed the more comic aspects and the story of Ludo and Mrs P's relationship, but the second time I was rather depressed by the sad lives of the aged residents and the shadow of their impending deaths. I do hope you go on to enjoy more Taylor — I think she is a wonderful writer.


  2. Harriet, I thought this was fantastic, and am really looking forward to reading more of her work. I didn't find it depressing, but it was sad. All those lonesome, forgotten, unwanted old people, living out their threadbare lives in a threadbare hotel, still trying to keep up appearances, and scared of the next stage.


  3. I enjoyed reading this one and have just finished 'The Soul of Kindness'. There's no doubt in my mind that she was a talented writer and, as you say, a wonderful exemplar of showing and not telling.


  4. You will love A View of the Harbour. If you can find The Soul of Kindness, I suspect it will become one of your favorite Taylors, as it is one of mine. In a Summer Season is also excellent. (And don't forget her short stories, which are absolutely brilliant, and won me over from my indifference to the form.) I'm in the middle of A Game of Hide and Seek, considered by many to be her masterpiece. She's definitely the kind of writer one can't read quickly; she's best absorbed at a leisurely, thoughtful pace. But I think the rewards are great.


  5. I just started 'A View of the Harbour', and you are right about the need for leisurely reading – because of the slow pace perhaps, and the way it's so 'small-scale', but makes you think about life and relationships.


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