“Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know had a little disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to. She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own depression.”
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor’s penultimate novel is therefore the penultimate read of the librarything Virago Group’s Elizabeth Taylor centenary read along. Although, as I didn’t re-read ‘At Mrs Lippincotes’ in January with them, I may read it next month along with Blaming so I will have read all the novels this year.
I have heard it said, that one’s first reading of a novel is the most intense, but I don’t always find that to be the case. Certainly with my own re-reading I have found the reverse to sometimes be the case. When I first read this novel I enjoyed it hugely and was certainly looking forward to reading it again. I hadn’t expected however, to be so exceptionally moved by it, or to find myself thinking about it throughout the day whilst at work, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was coming.
Having spent so much time thinking about and reading the works of Elizabeth Taylor this year, I feel as if I have got to know, in some small way at least, the woman that she was. It may have been this that made this reading of the book so poignant. Laura Palfrey is a woman so much set in the Elizabeth Taylor mould that I recognised her instantly, it may have been just my fancy, but in her I saw glimpses of the younger women who had come before, it was as if I couldn’t bear what she (they) had become. In 1971 when this novel was published, Elizabeth Taylor was only 59 – certainly not old, although she must have been in some way aware of the passage of time and her own ageing – she was only to live 4 more years.
As the novel opens Laura Palfrey, the widow of a colonial administrator, having enjoyed a blissful retirement with her husband in Rottingdean, before his death, comes to the Claremont Hotel. Such places like the Claremont exist no longer, yet there is a peculiar familiarity to them. A genteel hotel, that offers reduced rates to the elderly residents who take up permanent residence there. Here she joins a small group of other elderly residents – with nothing in common but the Claremont, and the peculiar rules and daily routines. These are a wonderful group of eccentrics – Elizabeth Taylor is always so brilliant with her more minor characters – Mr Osmond with his risqué stories, Mrs Burton with her mauve hair and her drinking, the arthritic and bossy Mrs Arbuthnot. Hotel meals and visitors are given particular importance and no one wants to be seen as the poor old soul with no visitors. When fellow resident Mrs Arbuthnot discovers that Mrs Palfrey has a grandson in London, Mrs Palfrey feels rather duty bound to produce him. However Desmond never arrives.
Then Laura meets Ludo. Ludo is a young aspiring writer and former actor, who spends his days in the famous banking hall at Harrods where he keeps warm and works at his writing. There is a story well known to Elizabeth Taylor fans that the character of Ludo, was based on writer Paul Bailey, who Elizabeth Taylor had watched from afar as he carried out his job at Harrods around the time his first book was published. Paul Bailey has since written several of the introductions to the Virago editions of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and he recounts the story in his introduction to this one. Ludo comes to dinner at the Claremont and is a big hit with the other residents; he soon begins to eclipse the real Desmond in Mrs Palfrey’s mind.
In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor has given us a deeply poignant, beautifully written novel, that I feel must have given her chance to have a deeply personal look back over her own life.
“They became more and more to one another and, in the end, the perfect marriage they had created was like a work of art. People are sorry for brides who lose their husbands early, from some accident or war. And they should be sorry, Mrs Palfrey thought. But the other thing is worse.
Mrs Palfrey is helped by Ludo after a fall, and in her gratitude they strike up an odd sort of friendship. Odd because Laura is rather smitten with young Ludo, and persuades him to impersonate her grandson Desmond so she can save face back at the Claremont.
There are moments in this novel, which I felt to be really rather Brookneresque – such pathos and loneliness, the bleakness of an empty Sunday, the emptiness of certain London suburban streets. However there is a warmth to Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – even when it is sad – that I don’t think Brookner can reproduce.
This is simply a beautiful novel, and everyone should read it.