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.