The loneliness of genteel old age…

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This is only the second novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read, the first was In a Summer Season (reviewed here), but thanks to her popularity amongst many of my blogging friends I feel as if I know her works better than I do in reality.

The edition of Mrs Palfrey I read was the film tie-in one with the same introduction, given to me by a secret Santa a couple of years ago; I have only now got around to reading it! Last month Virago Modern Classics gave it a new livery adding it to their hardback collection (below).

For those unfamiliar with the story, a few lines of introduction:

Laura Palfrey is recently widowed, and as the book opens she is moving into the Claremont Hotel on the Brompton Road in Kensington. She will be a long-term resident of this affordable establishment, but doesn’t plan to stay there forever. One day out for a walk, she takes a tumble and is rescued by a young man who ekes out an existence while he writes his magnum opus. Mrs Palfrey and Ludovic strike up a friendship. He appears genuinely interested in old people, and when Mrs Palfrey is shamed by her grandson Desmond not coming to visit her at the hotel, she persuades Ludo to be a stand-in, and indeed she becomes a bit of a surrogate granny to him. Eventually the real Desmond will turn up to complicate matters.

The novel also follows the other older inhabitants of the Claremont, a collection of old ladies and one gent who have nothing better to do than gossip about each other until it’s gin o’clock, when they repair to dinner, each at their own table.

Mrs Palfrey’s urge to ask Ludo to pretend to be her grandson gives her a frisson of excitement. He comes to dinner at the Claremont, and Ludo is eyeing up the other residents as they in turn are watching him…

Ludo leaned back easily, but his eyes were darting to and fro, noting everything, noting Mrs Arbuthnot noting him, and Mrs Post, in her sad pot-pourri colours, fussing over her knitting.
‘Over there is Mrs Arbuthnot,’ Mrs Palfrey said, in a low voice to Ludo. ‘With the sticks.’
‘I thought so. I shouldn’t be afraid of her, you know. Although you seem very much the new girl around here.’
‘Of course. Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’
‘It has entered her soul.’
‘But we aren’t allowed to die here.’
He threw back his head and laughed.
‘But isn’t that sad?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘I don’t see anything sad about you,’ he said. He thought, I mayn’t write it down; but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. By Ludovic Myers.

The residents at the Claremont don’t get much excitement – so a new face is subjected to much speculation and scrutiny, and each piece of information extracted over sherry before dinner, is devoured and saved up for use another day. They don’t seem to really make friends with each other though – all being rather set in their ways.

Of course, eventually, they reach a state of such decrepitude that they must leave one way or another, something Mrs Arbuthnot is having to consider …

The time was coming, she knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.
Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.

The other residents are also well-drawn, but it wasn’t until I read Dovegreyreader’s post here that I got the joke about one of them – Mrs Burton, who likes a tipple – and turns out to be a little parody of the author’s more famous namesake, and is growing old slightly disgracefully. I loved reading about the residents of the Claremont.

Now to Ludo, being young and easily distracted, he on one hand is less interesting, but he is also unusual in his concern for Mrs Palfrey. Of course she becomes a bit of a project for him, but his motives don’t (on a first reading at least) appear mercenary – indeed it is touching that he works as a waiter to replay a loan which Mrs P gives him to help out his mother. It was such a shame that Mrs P’s own family didn’t show any of Ludo’s concern.

Despite the central theme of the sadness of growing old on one’s own, Taylor adds so many humorous touches, she seems to combine the two extremes perfectly to make a whole that is a joy to read. This novel isn’t as grim as Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (reviewed here), another 1970s novel of old folk, but Taylor’s keen eye sees all – and I will look forward to re-reading this book in due course to spot other nuances that I’ve missed on my first reading. (9.5/10)

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Source: Gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Elizabeth Taylor, new Hdbk edition from VMC – other formats available, 208 pages.

14 thoughts on “The loneliness of genteel old age…

  1. heavenali says:

    I adore Elizabeth Taylor her observations are so sharp. I’ve read this twice liking it even more the second time, which was exactly the same as Quartet in Autumn loved that so much more the second time.

  2. Alex says:

    We read this in one of my book groups earlier in the year and I simply couldn’t warm to it. I could see that it was superbly written but that still wasn’t enough to make me want to go back and read anything else by her. If you do read any other novels by Taylor do write about them and see if you can change my mind about her.

    • gaskella says:

      Alex, I would have said in years gone by that this kind of fiction wasn’t my thing at all – but I’m finding myself reading more of it as they go by. The other ET I read was ‘In a summer season’ (link in the text above) which was about a woman who had re-married a toy-boy – very home counties, and totally biting – I loved that more than Mrs P. I’m told ‘A Game of Hide and Seek’ is the one I should read next …

  3. Guy Savage says:

    Quartet in Autumn is my all-time fav book about aging. I’ve read MP@theC and found it to be a much better book than the film. I’ve read several Taylor novels and enjoyed them all–although I think the author would have been better off if she’s changed her last name so that she’s not confused with the other ET.

    • gaskella says:

      Guy, I was confused too when I first found ET. Quartet in Autumn was the first Pym I read earlier this year – very sad and bleak – but rather wonderful.

  4. geraniumcat says:

    For some reason I particularly love this theme of elderly ladies on their own and want to explore it at some point. I wonder if there are enough like-minded people for a read along sometime…

  5. Fleur in her World says:

    I read this one too young, and it put me off Elizabeth Taylor for a while, but now I’m older, and especially now I have a mother in a nursing home, I really appreciate what she did in this book. But you still have her finest writing ahead of you …

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