I read Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont a few weeks ago, but was waiting until I’d seen the film as well before writing about it here. Consequently I’ve forgotten all sorts of details, but I’ll do my best…
The novel concerns Mrs. Palfrey at, you guessed it, the Claremont – ‘One rainy Sunday in January Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in the Cromwell Road. Here she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are a magnificently eccentric group who live off crumbs of affection, obsessive interest in the relentless round of hotel meals, and undying curiosity.’ So says the blurb on my beautiful Virago edition (I used a postcard of David Hockney’s My Parents for a bookmark, see below, and his mother is startlingly similar to the Virago cover Mrs. Mabel Whitehead by Margaret Foreman. Same pose, same hair, everything.)
The characters sharing the Claremont with Mrs. Palfrey are all in various stages of boredom and hopelessness, but Elizabeth Taylor is subtle enough with her pen to show these states as brittleness or insatiable nosiness or indulging in risque jokes. Mrs. Arbuthnot is bossy; Mrs. Burton drinks; Mrs. Post gossips; Mr. Osmond complains of the lack of male company. Into this web Mrs. Palfrey stumbles, her daughter too busy and grandson too selfish to care much about her. Again, Taylor doesn’t lay it on too thick – there are no villains in this piece, only humans. The life in a hotel, which acts as a retirement home in all but name, is beautifully observed, and perfectly nuanced. As an example (but how can one exemplify subtlety?) here is a couple of paragraphs from early in the novel:
The chief gathering-place for the residents was the vestibule where, about an hour before both luncheon and dinner, the menu was put up in a frame by the lift. People, at those times, seemed to be hovering – reading old church notices on the board, tapping the barometer, inquiring at the desk about letters, or looking out at the street. None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food: but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and dissatisfactions, as once life had.
When the card was fixed into the frame, although awaited, it was for a time ignored. Then, perhaps Mrs. Arbuthnot, on her slow progress to the lift, would pause nonchalantly, though scarcely staying a second. There was not much to memorise – the choice of two or three dishes, and the fact (which Mrs. Arbuthnot knew, but Mrs. Palfrey had not yet learned) that the menus came round fortnightly, or more often. There were permutations, but no innovations.
The stumbling minutiae of their lives, delicately and acutely portrayed. The central interest in their lives is the visitation of relatives. Each has a store of potential visitors, and an even more valuable reserve of reasons why they haven’t been able to visit. Mrs. Palfrey naively makes known that her grandson Desmond lives near the Claremont, and is sure to come and see her… which he does not do. When she falls outside a flat, and a young man comes to her aid, she finds in many ways a substitute grandson. Ludovic Myers (for it is he) gives her a cup of tea, and is kind. A writer, and a bohemian of sorts, he is enough unlike Mrs. Palfrey to make their friendship diverting, and enough like her to prevent it being ridiculous. Both alone, in their own ways, it is somehow not long before he is masquerading as her grandson.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont does not go in for high drama, and this fraudulence never provides it. What the unusual pairing does offer is a touching, but not saccharine, breath of life into Mrs. Palfrey’s old age – but this is no Disney transformation. Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly continues to tread the line between fairy tale and misery literature – the line, I suppose, of reality. And never has reality been more beautiful written nor more honestly and unmanipulatively told.
So, I loved the book. Come back tomorrow to see what I thought about the film…