Blog Post 32: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971, Virago Modern Classics)
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 a little disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to.
Elizabeth Taylor wrote twelve novels, four volumes of short stories and a children’s book and for a long time was largely forgotten, like Barbara Pym (see Blog Post 21). Like Pym, Taylor wrote about the smallness and ordinariness of the middle-class and upper middle-class with wit and pathos and such attention to detail.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exquisite tragicomic novel about old age, in particular the old age of the widow. Set in a jaded, genteel hotel, in postwar London, a recently widowed Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents are cut off from the changing society of the 60s. They are waiting out their remaining years in this dull hotel, praying for some distant relative to take them out for a drive or for a meal at a restaurant to give them some variety, some relief from the dull routine of their daily lives.
Then one day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey trips and falls. A young man, Ludo, comes to her rescue and helps her inside to his basement flat to clean her cuts and give her a cup of tea. After this chance meeting they become unlikely friends and partners in subterfuge. Mrs Palfrey now has her very own visitor.
Taylor captures the nuances of hotel life. The whisky-drinking Mrs Burton, the constant-knitter, Mrs Post, the irate Mr Osmond. Time passes slowly. Days melt into days. Weeks into weeks. How Mrs Palfrey longs for the sight of lilac blossoms in the square.
It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; everyday for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.
Touching, funny, wonderful.