Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor, Virago Press, 2013.
Mrs Palfrey is a reasonably well-off widow who takes up residence at the Claremont Hotel in London. She has one daughter who lives in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum. Apart from them, she has no family or current friends. She chose to live at the Claremont because it offers attractive off-season rates for long-term retired residents. The book is set in the late sixties or early seventies – it was published in 1971 – and reflects a world where nursing homes were the last stop before death, and elderly people feared them.
At the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey has a small room with a view of a brick wall, and shares a bathroom with other guests on her floor. She takes her meals in the dining room, and spends her evenings in the hotel lounge with the other residents and passing-through guests. She is crushingly lonely and more than a little lost after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey was an excellent wife who dutifully followed her husband on his overseas postings and adhered to social conventions. Now she finds herself adrift in the world and hopes the Claremont will be a safe harbour.
Elizabeth Taylor was a brilliant writer and this, her last novel, is one of her best. She perfectly captures Mrs Palfrey and the other Claremont residents. They are old and wobbly on their feet, and some of them are good haters. There is a boorish gentleman, the product of a public school, who writes complaining letters to the newspapers and bails up the hotel staff and tells them rude jokes. There is an outrageous flirt, a dipsomaniac, a vicious gossip, and a woman so frightened and anxious that she constantly second-guesses herself at every turn. Mrs Palfrey finds herself parachuted into this alien milieu and sets about trying to make a life for herself.
The thing Taylor does in her writing, the way she unfolds characters, like smoothing out a ball of crumpled paper, is so impressive. You can see the characters, hear their voices and, most importantly, you can really feel their pain. Some readers find the narrative funny, but I fail to find much humour in the book. I found it to be beautifully written, but ever so melancholic. I suppose you could laugh at the characters’ foibles and their petty worries if you were of a mind to do so, but I felt such sadness for them all. They are so trapped inside themselves, so trapped within the bounds of what is ‘proper’. Their sense of propriety, their class snobbery and good manners make them all so rigid and I found this ineffably sad. If they had pooled their resources they could have had a good time together, but they were mired in their pettiness and it made me feel claustrophobic on their behalf. It is hard to read about so much despair written so realistically.
The narrative seemed to me to be dark, unflinching, and slightly vicious at times, but Taylor’s writing is often like that. Somehow she manages to make her characters seem so real and emotionally raw and vulnerable, but at the same time they behave in ways that make them appear appalling and fascinating at the same time. I have no clue how she was able to get right to the heart of things the way she did, but it seems to me that she was unafraid to look life in the eye and report back on the loneliness and despair she saw.
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. This discovery, that he did not know, had disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to. She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own depression.
This is the gorgeous ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor. I really want to read Nicola Beauman’s bio of her.