Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
The novelist Elizabeth Taylor has been described as the unsung heroine of British twentieth century fiction and the thinking person’s dangerous housewife. In her novels – 11 in all – and in her short stories, there is a tenderness and compassion as she dissects the minutiae of people’s lives, always with a psychological insight and more than a dash of comedy.
How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time wrote novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Elizabeth Taylor was born in Reading in 1912 and worked both as a governess and a librarian before her marriage to a sweet manufacturer in 1936. Her first novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s was published in 1945 – the same year as actress Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the film ‘National Velvet’.
The writer, Elizabeth Taylor, has been likened to novelists of the calibre of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym and one can also detect similarities with the work of Anita Brookner whose novels are often also about anguish, loneliness and despair – yet in Elizabeth Taylor we also find elements of farce and gentle comedy, both lacking in Brookner’s work.
My personal favourite, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which was published in 1971, tells of the eponymous heroine who, recently widowed, decides to move into a London hotel and end her days there. As the book opens Mrs Palfrey is in a taxi, apprehensive about what the Claremont – reduced winter rates, excellent cuisine – will be like. Once inside, she realises that The Claremont is less a gentlewomen’s hotel and more like a residential home.
Mrs Palfrey is about to join the ranks of the rejected; Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled with arthritis; Mr Osmond - forever dashing off outraged letters to The Daily Telegraph; Mrs Post - constantly knitting; the bloated Mrs Burton - reeking of whisky by lunchtime. All have just enough money and pride to live out their days in a residential hotel and all are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with sympathy, ironically strengthened by the novelist’s objectivity.
Soon after her arrival, Laura Palfrey hears herself praising a considerate grandson who doesn’t actually exist. She does have a grandson but in her anxiety to appear part of a loving and caring family she transforms the dull, pedantic Desmond into the grandson of her imagining – charming, considerate and interesting.
Following on from embroidering the truth, she encounters Ludo, a penniless writer, who comes to her aid. In an inspired moment, she persuades him to pose as Desmond and invites him to dinner at the Claremont so that the others will believe she has family willing to visit her. Despite disposing of the ghastly three courses with rapidity, ‘Desmond’ meets with the approval of the other residents and Laura begins to enjoy her wickedness and to delight in the deception. To discover how events unfold I recommend you read the book for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’ve not read Elizabeth Taylor before, it is particularly apt that you do so this year for, in 2012, we celebrate the centenary of her birth. Radio 4’s Bookclub programme this coming Sunday, 1st July at 4.00pm, pays tribute to her with novelist and comedian David Baddiel in conversation with broadcaster Jim Naughtie about this signature work, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
I especially enjoyed this quote from the novel and wanted to share it with you - No one that he (Ludo) knew stood in awe of writers. The Major had told him one day that in 5 year’s time no one would read any more. Later, archaeologists would ponder on, argue about, what books had been for. ‘It’ll all be telly, visual aids,’ the Major insisted. I am certain that reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will inspire you to go on reading and prove the Major wrong.