Tag Archives: Nicola Beauman

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

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. (2)

We already know that 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. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. 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 infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging 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.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, 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 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 sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes 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 ‘another irritating mannerism – all 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 now disappeared blog Dove Grey 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 still 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?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. 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, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

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The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

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Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

This is the final review in my series: Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, all 12 of them in more or less chronological order. They were published between 1945 and 1976. Blaming was the final one, written when she was dying of cancer and published in the year following her death. I have been reading one a month, and so I will, in many ways, miss the constant companion of the last year. Except – I have the collected short stories to dip into, and I can always reread her novels. And I know that there is something of a following by enthusiasts, especially of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, on this blog. She features in the list of older women in fiction.

89 blaming coverBlaming begins with Amy on holiday with her husband Nick in Istanbul. When he dies of a heart attack, Martha, a young American woman, supports Amy by accompanying her home. Amy resents her debt to Martha and resists the young woman’s friendship. Martha is without much social finesse or awareness and simply proceeds to make Amy her friend. Amy tolerates her for at best Martha helps pass the time in her grief. And being widowed Amy must adapt to altered relationships with her own family, her housekeeper, and with the man who was married to her friend and is her doctor. As with many of her novels there is an ambiguous ending, without too many clues about the heroine’s future happiness with her new partner.

The housekeeper Ernie is an odd creation, but good to read some gender role reversal. The grandchildren are well portrayed. One is from hell and the other precocious. Amy doesn’t really like them. She falls out with her son. This is another reversal for as he grows older he feels able to tell her what to do – about money, her friendship with Martha and her life generally.

All the main characters are lonely. Amy was bored of her life with her husband, although she missed him badly after he died. Martha is an isolate who prefers London to the mid-west, but takes her own life when she cannot manage marriage and when Amy does not welcome her return to London.

I am not sure about the key idea included in the title: blame. Is it a useful part of reflection, considering one’s culpability and experiencing the shame that goes with it, thus enabling corrective or changed behaviour. Blaming by other people always seems to me to be unhelpful, unproductive and often destructive.

89 ET listAt one point in the novel Martha asks Amy what she would do if she knew her life was limited. Amy replies empty her drawers. Do we take it that in Blaming Elizabeth Taylor was in Blaming, somehow, emptying her drawers?

So I have now read them all. The project itself was enjoyable and enabled me to understand how Elizabeth Taylor’s skill developed and expanded, and how her imagination explored lives from so many perspectives, how she gave her characters so many faults and quirks and disabling traits. I especially enjoyed reading A View of the Harbour again, but also A Wreath of Roses for the first time. The characters are beautifully depicted in communities that are recognisable; one a little dispirited seaside town, the other a tight group of women.  I think it will be a while before I revisit the monstrous Angel, or the smug Flora from The Soul of Kindness. You can find my reviews by using the search function or accessing the category Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. This series also brought me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography: The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

89 ET shelfI am considering reading all of Elizabeth Bowen’s books next. In the Heat of the Day is a novel I would recommend to anyone and I have reviewed The Last September on this blog as well. What do you recommend?

 

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Do we need biographies of writers?

I used to think that a writer’s work should stand by itself, that biographies could not add anything to the reading of their books. But I find that I am changing my mind, especially as I have been reading about the lives of writers to whose work I often return.

I recently reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. As I prepared for the blog piece I found that other reviewers frequently referred to her character, her life and her reputation. It led me to read The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman, published by Persephone Books in 2009. Persephone Books have published exquisite ‘reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers’ since 1999. Fortunately for readers, Virago picked up Elizabeth Taylors books in 1982 and has been publishing and promoting them ever since.

20 other_elizabeth_taylor

And now I know much more about her work within the context of her life, the influences on her writing, something of her writing practices and a better sense of her skills as a writer.

Here she is in a letter to a friend in 1944:

‘Those are the happiest of times – sitting at the table in a warm room … some warm, weak gin & water & the words spilling from my pen. There is no happiness like it, I am ashamed to say.’

She struggled, as so many women do, with the conflicting demands of motherhood and their talents.

‘I feel instinctively that women who have children can’t write. A certain single-mindedness is denied to them. In the end, children and writing suffer. Women writers do not have children – Sappho, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Miss Mitford, Fanny Burney, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein.’ (From another letter in 1946)

But Elizabeth Taylor had two children and she did put them first. But she clearly found it hard:

‘Writers shouldn’t be mothers, for they cannot be ruthless.’

From this biography we learn something of her writing practices – not just the warm gin, but that she was a woman who thrived on her routines, sitting every morning in her armchair writing in her notebook.

We learn about her friendships (with Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kinsley Amis) and how she suffered acutely from criticism. She might be described as self-effacing and chosing not to mix with the London literary set. In their turn they questioned the quality of her work, and she was hurt by this. But she had her champions, including her literary friends and the New Yorker Magazine which published a large proportion of her short stories.

We find she was not born into the middle class life that she came to represent in people’s minds, indeed was a member of the Communist Party until 1948. The reputation of having a life where nothing ever happened is contradicted by the revelation of an affair and abortions, the murder of a local friend and her son’s near-fatal accident. The experiences of the final months of the lives of her father and of her friend the author Elizabeth Bowen provided material upon which she drew for Mrs Palfrey.

However, she was in no sense an autobiographical writer. Each of her main characters is very different. Rather she is a very close observer of human behaviour, especially when her characters do not behave as society expects. In my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I suggested that describing the residents of the hotel as eccentric was inaccurate; she observed how older people can behave when they are neglected and fearful.

Elizabeth Taylor’s reticence and concern for privacy extended to posterity. Most of her letters, for example, were destroyed at her request. And her two children have dissociated themselves from the biography, despite Nicola Beauman’s sensitivity.

I was reminded of two other biographies that helped me understand the writers and both have led me to reread their work with richer perspectives and understandings:

  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin. I recommend the revised edition of 2000
  • Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee, published by Vintage in 1997.

And now I find that as I am thinking about WG Sebald’s life, as we approach the readalong of The Emigrants for late May. His writing appears to blur the distinctions between autobiography, memoir and fiction. He poses so many questions about memory, stories, survival, what the lives of other people mean … I have not heard that a biography is planned.

And so now I have a project to read Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the order she wrote them, and have already finished the first – At Mrs Lippincote’s, published in 1945. Julia is it’s lively protagonist, more interested in experience than convention and must therefore encounter the double standards of expected behaviour by men and women (as Elizabeth Taylor did). The dilemmas of Julia and her husband are beautifully handled.

Next on my list is Palladian (1946).

So reading writers’ biographies leads me to read more … What other biographies would you recommend?

Now, I’ll just top up the warm gin with a drop of water …

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