Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor [Review]
The owners of care homes and residential homes for elderly people like to adorn their promotional material with photos of bright-eyed, smiling, carefree people in the twilight of their years. No sign of arthritic knees or failing memories, of stiffening joints or nervousness about venturing out anywhere after dark.
Such however is the reality experienced by Mrs Palfrey who, eschewing nursing homes, has moved into the Claremont Hotel in west Lonon for what she knows will the the final stage of her life.
She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not felng safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of her reach.
Set in the early 1970s, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is the story of how a woman whose whole life has been an exercise in saving face and stiffening ones back. Having skilfully navigated the trials of life as the wife of a colonial administrator in Burma, she is now a widow of ‘comfortable’ means but not wealthy in need of somewhere to live other than her daughter’s home.
The somewhat frayed decor of the Claremont with its assortment of similarly displaced guests, tests her resilience to the limit. Mrs Palfrey cannot even take comfort from visitors since her daughter lives too far away in Scotland and grandson Desmond has never been much good at keeping in touch.
To her rescue comes a young, down-at-heel writer called Ludo, who acts the Good Samaritan when Mrs Palfrey trips while out walking. She hits on the idea of pretending that he is really her grandson Desmond. Attracted by the adventure of the deceit, and the chance it gives him to conduct research for his book, Ludo agrees to play along.
It’s a device which provides scope for the kind of comedy that derives from mistaken identities and misunderstandings. But Taylor blends the comic touch with insightful reflections on the nature of old age.
It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing; every day for the old means nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.
Taylor handles the subject of old age sympathetically but still maintains an ironic detachment about the old folk in The Claremont and the different ways in which they respond to loneliness, financial worries and failing health. Taylor perfectly captures their foibles, their insistence on routine and fascination with other people’s lives.
Each of these residents deals with the situation in their own way – from Mrs Arbuthnot whose ‘ears sharpened by malice’ to Mrs Burton who finds solace at the bottom of a glass to Mr Osborne who voices an opinion on everything and bores everyone with his pointless stories.
I had hesitated to read this novel having been underwhelmed by my first and only Elizabeth Taylor work (A Wreath of Roses). But in an interview on the Guardian book podcast, the comedian David Badziel raved about it so much I decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did.
9 thoughts on “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor [Review]”
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I stumbled across the book completely by chance and thought it was excellent. My first Taylor: I shall be seeking out more. I haven’t heard the Guardian podcast, but if you haven’t listened to it already it is also discussed on Radio 4’s book club – available to listen to on the website. It’s quite interesting to hear some other readers’ opinions from the audience.
I wonder now if I mixed up the podcast and it was the radio 4 one I had heard? I have so many on my iPod that I get confused sometimes…
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This is one of those books that I know is a wonderful piece of writing and yet one that I amply couldn’t warm to in any respect whatsoever. Everyone else in my reading group told me I was wrong, but it didn’t make any difference. After having read this I took Taylor off my reading list, I’m afraid.
Although I enjoyed this one, I will not be in a rush to read anything else by her.
I enjoyed the movie of the book but after reading your post I realize it would be a good idea to also read the book. There is no training for growing old. One day you realize you are in the middle of it and that you are quite lost. We all need a Lido in our lives.
A lot of people who have read the book didn’t then like the film so it will be interesting whether the experience differs if you read the book after the film