Saturday, 15 September 2012

Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, looking for a new home. She settles on The Claremont Hotel, a genteel sort of place in London where many of the guests are, like her, elderly singletons one step from the nursing home.

Life at The Claremont is not exciting. The highlight of the day is the posting of the dinner menu, and even this is the same old dishes appearing in rotation. Taylor is a wonderful observer of character, and manages to capture the essence of The Claremont's clientele quite succinctly. This is what she has to say about Mrs Palfrey herself:
'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.'
After falling in the street, Mrs Palfrey is befriended by a young man, Ludo, who spends his days writing a novel in Harrods banking hall. Embarrassed by the non-appearance of her grandson, she persuades Ludo to masquerade as her grandson and come to dinner at The Claremont.
'It was the first time since she had become a widow that she had been involved in an untruth. In fact, since early childhood, she had not lied at all except on her husband's behalf - to get Arthur out of cocktail parties which he abhorred, or to stave off importunate natives when he was tired. Now - by omission - she was trying to get away with what she thought of as a whopper, and she wondered if either she or Ludo would be equal to it.'
Elizabeth Taylor paints a wonderful picture of old age that is both sad and gently humorous. The genteel, but not always gentle, snobbery of The Claremont residents seems to belong to a bygone age, but the sense of loneliness, the aches and pains and the uncaring relatives are timeless. Taylor has a sharp eye for the comedy of their situation, which stops the book becoming maudlin, although the ending is very sad indeed.

I only heard of Elizabeth Taylor recently, but if this novel is typical of her writing I will certainly be reading more.

2 comments:

  1. Oh I loved this too! And yes, it is very representative of Elizabeth Taylor's writing, which I admire enormously. I don't think I've ever read an average book by her. If this is your first, then lucky you! You have some treats in store.

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    1. Her writing is so good, I can't believe I've never read her before. Did her books go out of fashion?

      Do you have any recommendations for my next choice?

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