Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

I chose this novel for the blog’s first reading group for two reasons: first because I think Elizabeth Taylor is a great writer; and second, because the main character is an older woman and this is unusual. Can you think of others? How does this wonderful novelist deal with an older woman?

mrspalfrey green

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, published in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 2012 was the centenary of her birth, celebrated with reissues in the Virago Modern Classic series. David Baddiel talked about this novel on 5th July 2012 for Radio 4’s Bookclub, and there have been a couple of films adaptations of the novels Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Despite this attention Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively unknown, relative to the quality of her writing that is. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

E.Taylor 1

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

Not a conventional heroine then. Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. It also allows him an opportunity for some research. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond.

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantalises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are ageing and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

Elizabeth Taylor’s economic style and close observance of the individual characters and their relationships with each other brings automatic comparison with Jane Austen. But as Philip Hensher suggests here

Any woman novelist who writes grammatically, it sometimes seems, will sooner or later be compared to Jane Austen, but in Taylor’s case, the comparison is peculiarly inappropriate; … What she loved best, I think, were outbreaks of vulgarity, embarrassingly improper behaviour, people saying or doing exactly the wrong thing.

On the blogs I sampled, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed eccentric residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth.

Mr Osmond is a sour bore, because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is taken with Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has an ‘irritating mannerism – all of her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with “I’m afraid”. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.

‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’

’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.

‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’

Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen, and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the blog Dovegrey reader scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult, and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

What’s your view of Mrs Palfrey? Perhaps, as Eileen noted here, not a book for the Desert Island, but I would strongly recommend it, and others by Elizabeth Taylor.

And to finish here are links to the walking book group, including a radio programme in which Clare Balding joined a group discussing our novel.

Link to Clare Balding’s walk with Emily Books.

Emily Books walking book club.



Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews

13 Responses to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Anne

    I loved this book- I heard the radio programme with David Baddiel and decided to seek the book out. It set me off reading more of Elizabeth Taylors’s books. I have particularly enjoyed a book of her short stories which was published recently. I love her sense of humour and her sense of fun- she does not shy at writing about difficult people or characters in uncomfortable situations, but in a kindly fashion. Her detail is superb so that the reader becomes fully immersed in the tale being told. Lady Swayne made me laugh out loud – I used to work with someone who would say the most negative things but always prefaced with the words, “With due respect…..” and then he would be exceedingly insensitive and rude! I am not sure I would want to see a film of this book as the pictures in my mind are so good and clear.

    • Caroline

      Welcome to another enthusiastic reader of Elizabeth Taylor! I also bought the large and expensive edition of her complete short stories this week as a reward for something. I’m so looking forward to dipping into them.
      I am constantly amazed at how people come to books and writers, and the importance of people talking and writing about books, on the radio (another friend alerted me to Clare Balding’s walk, I also provided a link to this on the review),on the internet and in person. I think I first noticed Elizabth Taylor because of the original Virago covers, many of them using paintings by a very familiar artist. Indeed, the quality of the reissued Virago Calssics covers has been the subject of considerable criticism, including that it makes her writing look girly. As I tried to demonstrate, she appeals to all kinds of readers. A great choice for a reading group I think. Thanks for your comments Anne. I think Lady Swayne’s comments are both particular and recogniseable as common utterances among the prejudiced. We have all encountered people who excuse themselves for the most horrendous statements with a little qualifier. I knew a Welsh teacher (not anti-Welsh, the accent is part of the memory) who would shake his index finger and say ‘As far as I’m concerned …’
      Any suggestions for another book group read?

  2. I also loved this book when I read it – several years ago now. I admired the way Elizabeth Taylor could write something so pithy and so tragic, bringing together the acidity of Mrs Palfry and her vulnerability. I quite agree that the elderly people are not at all ‘eccentrics’ but the lost, lonely and abandoned, left to become their darker selves with no love to smooth their awkward corners. I also think we need more novels about ageing, as it’s a subject that gets swept under the carpet of eternal youth. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is about an elderly and irascible old lady, and Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym is about four people hovering on the brink of retirement and facing the prospect of being miserably alone (but being Pym they don’t stay that way). I think Nina Bawden has written about women in late middle age, too, but I’m on less sure ground.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the recommendation of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, she’s quite new to me. I enjoy Barbara Pym, (and was amused that she had one of her characters reading an Elizabeth Bowen book in The Sweet Dove Died; Elizabeth Taylor also refers to a confusion between Bowens) and enjoyed Quartet in Autumn.
      Pym struggled a bit I fear.
      “One has to pick oneself up again and go on being drearily splendid”, she says in her diary about yet another set back. She was under-recognised for much of her life.
      Being drearily splendid seems to have occupied much of mine too.
      TMI as they should say, if they dont: too much information.
      I should make a more concentrated effort to make a note of authors writing about ageing. More suggestions welcome.

  3. Eileen

    I found the following sentence the most chilling:
    The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach (p73).
    The point about not being able to die in the hotel was one that struck me, and Ludo too I think, especially today on hearing about the death of Thatcher at The Ritz. She had lived there for the last few months. I plan to live in a nice hotel in about ten years time, but not a Travelodge.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for picking out that sentence. I agree, it’s a fear about one’s old age, losing all independence.
      ‘The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach’ (p73).
      I don’t think I want to live in a hotel ever, and you and I have talked about those people who live on cruise ships. I think Elizabeth Taylor captured that fear we have of living longer than the rest of society wants, the reality of becoming slightly ludicrous iun the eyes of others.

  4. John Trenor

    I’m so glad to have found this link, I listened to the ‘original’ radio review and was enchanted with both the review and the manner of reviewing (which was by a group of octogenarians). I would ask ,does anyone know if that original review is recorded anywhere? I now look forward to a leisurely re-read and I will watch the film,whose existence I was unaware of. Thank you.

  5. Caroline

    Hi John, thanks for visiting this site and leaving a message. I am not sure what you mean by the ‘original’ review. There are a number of links in my post to radio reviews – perhaps you mean one of these?
    The film is definitely an adaptation: in the first place it is set more recently and in the second place quite a lot more of it is about Ludo, rather than Mrs Palfrey. But it’s worth a watch. I think.
    Hope you will visit the site again

  6. John Trenor

    thank you :- I suspect the Radio review I allude to is around the time of the original publication. I suspect (only on a hunch), that the reviewer was the gentleman who narrated episodes of ‘ Horizon ‘ at that time, he had a most distinguished and mellifluous voice, alas I cannot name him .
    I shall re-read and then watch the film- as I love Cromwell Road and South Kensington from my youth in the late sixties.
    Regards, JT

  7. Caroline, what a great blog – fantastic! I absolutely loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont too. I wondered if you’d read All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West? Lady Slane, its heroine, is 88! Other elderly heroines who I’ve grown fond of are Betty introduced in Jane Gardam’s Old Filth but given the starring role in her later The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Claudia Hampton in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, although I suppose with each of these latter two you see them at different stages of their lives, rather than just in their old age. In any case, I’d love to know what you make of them. Emily

    • Caroline

      Hi Emily, glad you like the blog. I frequently visit yours as well. It’s very good. I have done a piece, in the Older Women in Fiction series on Moon Tiger. I thought it an extraordinary book. It did win the Booker after all. I have read Jane Gardam’s trilogy and enjoyed them, although I found the last one a little episodic.
      All Passions Spent should obviously be added to my list. Thanks for alerting me.
      And thanks for the comment, and please drop in again soon.
      Carolin e

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