I’m afraid I’ve got very, very behind with the LibraryThing VMC group readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels – and have only just finished November’s volume, “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”. I *do* have a very good excuse, in the form of 750 pages of Solzhenitsyn’s “In The First Circle”, but at last I have read this book, which I think is ET’s most famous work and some rate it as her best.
Laura Palfrey, an ageing widow, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in London to take up residence. She has had to abandon her retirement home in Rottingdean after the death of her husband, and as her daughter lives in Scotland, is intending to eke out her capital by living quietly at a reduced rate in a small hotel. Her only other relative is her grandson Desmond who she seems to hardly ever see.
The Claremont is peopled with other retirees – arthritic Mrs. Arbuthnot, timid Mrs. Post, alcoholic Mrs. Burton and dirty-minded Mr. Osmond. Much rivalry exists between the old people about relatives and their visits, and Mrs. Palfrey is under pressure to produce her grandson. Enter Ludo, a young man who helps Laura when she falls over in the street. Ludo is a would-be novelist, whose subject is the old, and so Mrs. Palfrey is ideal subject matter for him. From her point of view, he is entirely unlike her stolid, uninterested grandson and so it somehow seems natural to invite him to dinner at the Claremont with her and ask him to masquerade as Desmond – which he does, with great aplomb, becoming an instant hit with the other residents. The deception is not something that Mrs. Palfrey would normally undertake and there is a kind of underlying tension – will they be found out or will Ludo continue the masquerade?
But the subject matter of this book is something deeper and sadder than just wishing you had nicer relatives and pretending that you do so. The novel takes old age head on and pulls no punches about the indignities it piles onto the residents of the Claremont. Poor Mrs. Arbuthnot deteriorates and has to go to a home where she declines and dies. Mr. Osgood recognises something in Mrs. Palfrey that sets her apart from the rest of the inhabitants and invites her to accompany him to a Lodge Dinner. However, he is seeking more than friendship as he sees in her a chance for freedom from the Claremont, a marriage of two companions who could set up somewhere in a little place and see out their days. But Mrs. Palfrey is having none of it, and it is her recoiling from Mr. Osgood that eventually leads to the climax of the story.
I have to say that this is one of the saddest books I have ever read, because it captures brilliantly the pathos and horror of old age when, instead of learning something new every day like a child, you forget something different every day as your faculties decline. The inhabitants of the hotel bravely put on a resistant, unconcerned face when they feel lonely, displaced and without a real home. They recognise bitterly that the manager would prefer to let his rooms out to higher-paying transient guests and they know that “We are not allowed to die here”. It is significant that Ludo takes this statement of Mrs. Palfrey’s and turns it into the title of his book, because death is all the old people have to look forward to.
Taylor also captured quite brilliantly an issue which haunts us nowadays – the fact that our parents and grandparents are living longer than ever, but there is no place for them in Western culture. Many countries and races cherish their old, looking to them for wisdom and guidance – we shunt them off into rest homes and assisted living flats and try to pretend this is best for them. Whether it is or not, our culture is not structured for extended families under one roof, and it’s a problem with no solution that I can see.
All of the ageing residents have issues with their families, and Mrs. Palfrey is no exception – the physical distance between Laura and her daughter in Scotland echoes the emotional gap between them. She has no relationship with her real grandson who has no interest in visiting her, and receives more kindness and concern from a stranger like Ludo than she does from her real kin.
There has been some discussion on LibraryThing about the relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey, and whether he is taking advantage of her so he can use her as material for his book. I don’t see it quite like that – I think both of them use the other for something they want (subject for a book, substitute grandson) but I think that they also fill a need for each other. Ludo gets a kind of mothering interest from Mrs. Palfrey which is very much lacking from his own parent; and Mrs. Palfrey gets kindness and consideration from a young man who might as well be her grandson when compared with her real, indifferent one. And at the end of the story, it is Ludo who visits Laura in hospital and Ludo who is with her, reading her poetry at the end.
Is this Taylor’s best work? I’m not sure about that because I’ve still to read “Blaming” and the short stories. Certainly it’s one of her finest, with all the usual attention to detail and her ability to capture a character in a few well-chosen words. The phrase “We are not allowed to die here” is tragic and prescient as it is the moving of Mrs. Palfrey after her fall so that she will not be seen lying in the lobby which contributes to her demise. The descriptions of the privations of old age are heartbreaking:
“Mrs. Palfrey was trying to walk off a stiffness in her hip, but it would not be walked off. It seemed, instead, to be settling in, locking her joint, so that every step was consciously achieved. She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of her reach.
Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed.”
The book does have its humorous moments and it’s also peppered with in-jokes, slightly acerbic remarks about other novelists like Lord Snow (married to Pamela Hansford-Johnson, who was not a fan of Taylor’s work), Elizabeth Bowen (who was a fan) and Olivia Manning (also very anti-Taylor). But the overwhelming atmosphere of the work is so sad and downbeat that I don’t know that I could read it again – certainly not for pleasure – so although it is a marvellously written book I don’t think it will be one that comes down from my shelves very often.