Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

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He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

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And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

27 thoughts on “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

    • It does have that undercurrent of sadness, but when I was in it and reading the dialogue and imagining the scenes, it didn’t fill me with sadness at all, I got that looking back and reflecting on it, not so much from the reading experience, even the ending was tragi-humour!

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  1. This is the only Taylor that I’ve read and I found it so depressing, that I simply never wanted to go back to her. I recognise how well written it is but that wasn’t enough to entice me to look at any of the rest of her work.

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    • It sounds like A Wreath of Roses or The Soul of Kindness might have been a better place to try her out.
      I can see how this might be depressing, I do perceive it as a ‘culturally English’ read, which for me personally means it is foreign and so I realise I read it with a certain amount of detachment from the experience. Thank you for your thought-provoking comment.

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  2. I’ve read Angel, which I struggled with mostly because there seemed to be no likeable characters. I enjoyed Mrs Palfrey very much and reviewed back in the day. Whilst I appreciated the comedic aspects in the novel, it was the pathos which stood out for me. Mrs Palfrey’s quiet fortitude as a genteel widow and the disregard from her family. An exploration of the fate of many women of a certain income in their later years..

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    • This was my first foray into her work as well, and this was her 11th novel, I think it is recognised by many as being one of her best, but I think any of her works that you come across would be an okay place to start, Jacqui (JacquiWine’s Journal) has read and reviewed a number of her works, Elizabeth Taylor seems to be becoming one of her favourite authors from what I read of her reviews.

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  3. I’ve read *all* her novels, as part of a LibraryThing Virago group readalong some years ago! She was a marvellous author, although oddly this is not my favourite despite it being lauded. My first was A Wreath of Roses, which I rate very highly, and really any of her works are worth exploring. “Mrs. Palfrey” was just too sad for me, I’m afraid…

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    • It’s good to know that you enjoyed her earlier works, I wonder about that feeling of pathos that underlies this one, whether it being her penultimate novel, was injected with something that she was living with or beside, or at least within her field of vision and that humour was used to counterbalance it. It feels all the more so given the heightened awareness we all have now of vulnerabilities. Thanks so much for sharing your favourite!

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  4. I read this years ago, and thank you for such a lovely reminder of a very good book. ‘A Wreath of Roses’ and ‘The Soul of Kindness’ are my favourites, but I’ve found something to love in all of Elizabeth Taylor’s books that I’ve read.

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    • Thanks for the recommendations Jane, they sound like two to keep an eye out for, now that I’ve been initiated into her world. I’m glad that they’ve modernised the covers too, I think they might appeal to a more universal set of readers. I thought the story was also important in terms of the struggle and opportunism of the young man Ludo, I chose not to show the cover of the book I read because I thought it looked unappealing.

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  5. I adore Elizabeth Taylor and this was the first of hers I read. As other comments have said, I found this novel a melancholy read, but so well observed. I still have some in the TBR which I’m hoping to get to soon.

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  6. You probably know I am a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve read this one twice, and I think it’s brilliant. Her character studies are so subtle and observational eye so astute.

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  7. Wonderful review, Claire! I enjoyed reading this book! The friendship between Mrs.Palfrey and Ludo is so beautifully depicted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  8. Once more looking to spread my wings into literature that has passed me by, you supply me with another good recommendation. A change of pace to something more sedate has arrived at an opportune moment.

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  9. Dear Claire – I really fear I shall have to stop reading your reviews. You make me so curious about every book you write about, and I really can^t afford the time (or money) to buy and read them all. Well, that’s what one half of my brain says! The other half points out that at present, I have plenty¥ of time and I don’t have to buy them all – so where’s the problem? So – I shall continue to follow you and enjoy your reviews as always. Thank you!

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  10. I loved this book when I read many years ago, and followed it up with A Wreath of Roses and Angel, both of which I really enjoyed. Somewhere I have a Virago volume of her complete short stories which I really need to dig out…..

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  11. I have read this book, but not any others. I think I would have liked it better if it had not pushed me to think about my own aging. As it was I just got depressed.

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  12. Pingback: Good Behavior by Molly Keane – Word by Word

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