I confess I had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor before her appearance in the Guardian best 100 novels in English list. One of the hope-for benefits of working through this list was the discovery of some hidden gems, a writer whose back catalogue would open up to exploration. Having now read the clumsily titled and thinly written ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ I know why she is so unknown – her inclusion on this list is puzzling, when you consider the authors such as Tolkien and Rowling who missed the cut. There’s nothing wrong with ‘Mrs Palfrey’ as a novel, and if you try hard you can find some features of interest – but little that will occupy you for long.
Laura Palfrey who in Taylor’s somewhat spiteful description ““would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag”, is recently widowed. She arrives at the Claremont hotel in London, one rainy Sunday in January. The novel immediately strikes a false note – the taxi driver is unfamiliar with the hotel. Taylor is telling the reader that the hotel is obscure and forgotten, like Mrs Palfrey herself, but she surely under-estimates London cabbies? After years as a colonial ex-patriot wife she faces the fact of her isolation, and the inevitability of decline and death.
There is a strangely dated air to both the Claremont and the novel itself. Although published in 1971 the setting is firmly in the sixties, with references to the Beatles and hair-length being a cause for disproportionate anger in the elderly. At one point, a young man refers to his girlfriend as a “bird”. (Quite genuinely, for a split second I took this as a reference to him having bought himself a parrot or canary, so dated is this slang). In fact, although the setting is the 60’s this novel could easily have been published several decades earlier with only minor edits. Mrs Palfrey’s back story is strangely blank – while we know her husband was in a colonial role in Burma, that would have ended in the late 1940’s; we aren’t told when or how he died, where Mrs Palfrey lived after that, or much about her strange decision to move away from her daughter in Scotland to the most expensive city in the country, rather than the more sedate and welcoming south coast, for example.
The Claremont becomes in the words of the Guardian’s reviewer “a genteel antechamber to oblivion”. Mrs Palfrey and her fellow long term inhabitants are waiting for death, bored silly, whiling their time away with banal occupations – patience, short walks, crosswords – waiting for the next meal or the next infrequent visitor. This is more a retirement home than a hotel. Even great writers struggle to generate interest from a story of bored people with nothing to do, and while Taylor captures the sense of ennui well, it’s not enough to keep the reader engaged.
As a substitute for incident or plot, Taylor introduces Ludovic (Ludo) Myers a struggling writer. Ludo rescues Mrs Palfrey after a geriatric fall, and becomes, through a series of misunderstandings, her substitute grandson. Ludo has fallen straight out of the pages of ‘New Grub Street’ – he is trying to write a novel, keeps warm by working during the day in Harrods Banking Hall, (not the British Library, just for variety), subsists on tinned goods, and only puts his fire on a single bar when he is feeling extravagant. His friendship with Mrs Palfrey is the only thing that enlivens her days, but there is little of substance to it and it quickly fades.
Taylor is felt by some to be an undiscovered genius, a novelist spoken of in the same breath as Jane Austen. The comedy in the novel is ineffably slight – if you find old people being pompous and falling over funny then this is for you, but I found the novel’s ending, when Mrs Palfrey has another fall, and dies alone, unremembered, something of a release.