I WAS given Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, first published in 1971, as a wedding gift. When I read the blurb — residents of a London hotel “fight off boredom and the Grim Reaper” — I thought it an odd choice. By the time I had reached the end, I wanted to push it into the hands of anyone below retirement age.
It is, in some regards, a very sad book, about loneliness and mortality. But it also features two beautiful portraits: one of a happy marriage viewed in retrospect, and one of an unexpected springtime friendship that rescues two people — one very young, one very old — from neglect.
The Claremont is a hotel in South Kensington where a small group of elderly residents have chosen to spend their almost-last days. Taylor does not shy away from the realities of age: frailty, incontinence, and chronic pain are all present. But her descriptions, while detached and factual, are not unkind. They are not the cruel depictions of Philip Larkin’s “Old Fools”, although the two authors share a willingness to stare down mortality.
There is a squeamishness to Larkin’s poem, and a good deal of fury (“Why aren’t they screaming?”). In contrast, Taylor shows us older people acutely conscious of their destination. Driving up to the entrance of the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey struggles to “banish terror from her heart . . . alarmed at the threat of her own depression”.
The glimpses that we get of the residents alone in their rooms are powerful invitations to empathy. We are privy to Mrs Arbuthnot’s agonising indecision about whether to make another painful trip to the lavatory: secret feelings, too shameful to be shared with anyone else.
Although the casual cruelty of the young is prominent in the novel, it is not, in the end, a story that pits the generations against one another. Mrs Palfrey loves to see wedding cakes appear in a shop window: “Such a sign of spring.” A short walk from the Claremont lives Ludovic Meyers, a young writer repelled by the thought of “long, lonely hours behind his basement bars”. Loneliness is not, after all, the preserve of the elderly.
I thought of the powerful description of involuntary solitude, and the shame that can cling to it, in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal: “I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground.”
Meyers is fascinated by the physiognomy of the elderly, regarding them with a forensic writerly eye. Yet there is something angelic about him. After Mrs Palfrey falls, he holds her “like a lover and without a word, and a wonderful acceptance began to spread across her pain.” So often, intimacy between young men and old women is described with scorn, if not revulsion. This is a defiant strike against the idea that no common ground can exist between the two.
The beauty of their friendship lies in its reciprocity. Her gifts to him — a warm pie, a knitted sweater — sustain him, physically and spiritually. He is unembarrassed about telling her that he, too, lacks friends. (They exist in a grand literary tradition that includes Anne Shirley and Matthew Cuthbert; Tom Oakley and Willie Beech. More recently, Nina Stibbe’s wonderful comic novel Paradise Lodge captured brilliantly the power of intergenerational friendships in a care home.)
Taylor, who enjoyed the routines of domestic life and thought out her plots while ironing, once said of her life that “nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.” An appreciation of the ordinary, of comfortable cosiness, is woven into her writing. There is a warming description of how Mrs Palfrey remembers her husband’s hands building a coal fire after they returned home from a walk.
“If it had known at the time how happy I was . . . it would only have spoiled it,” she decides. “I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.” Her grief at her bereavement — “against all hope, in the face of all her prayers” — is fresh and poignant, but it is also a testament to a love that grew stronger with time. “They became more and more to one another and, in the end, the perfect marriage they had created was like a work of art.”
If Meyers is the novel’s hero, Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond — snide, neglectful, venal — is surely its villain. The neglect of relatives is one of many indignities endured by the Claremont’s residents, whose callous treatment at the hands of the staff is sadly reminiscent of reports by the care regulator today. It is hard to feel anything but fury at the novel’s brief but devastating conclusion.
Yet what I will remember most about the book is its kindness: both Taylor’s compassion as a narrator, and the little deeds performed by Mrs Palfrey and Meyers. There is a wonderful scene in which they complete a magazine quiz on their capacity for friendship. “You are too kind to me,” he tells her. “You have been kind to me,” she replies, “on more than one occasion.”
“It’s really not to be desired — and I realise that’s the only way of being free — to be not needed,” Mrs Palfrey decides, at the end of her dinner with Ludo. I quite agree: whatever our age, we have more to offer one another in simple kindness than we know.
Madeleine Davies is the features editor of the Church Times.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor is published by Virago Modern Classics at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84408-321-3.
MRS PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT — SOME QUESTIONS
- What different sorts of familial relationships are there in the novel?
- In what ways does shame manifest itself in the novel?
- How did you read Meyers and his relationship with Mrs Palfrey? Does he genuinely care about her?
- “‘It is very sad,’ she said, as if out of her great compassion.” Characters in the novel often use polite language. Are they always being polite?
- “One is left with very little.” Loneliness is a significant concern both in the novel and in today’s older population. How might we combat it?
- What impression did you get of Mrs Palfrey’s past self and marriage in the novel?
- Living at the Claremont reminds Mrs Palfrey of her schooldays. Why do you think this might be?
- Why do you think Mrs Arbuthnot is so intent on the apparent popularity of the various Claremont guests?
- Mrs Palfrey says she is “bound to be alone” after her perfect marriage. How does her view of marriage differ from Mr Osmond’s? Is either right?
- Mrs Palfrey notes that the only way to be free is “to be not needed”. Do you agree?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 June, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. It is published by Penguin at £9.99 (£9); 978-1-4059-3718-4).
In August 2013, Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, lost their farm after a devastating courtroom decision. A few days earlier, Moth had been diagnosed with a rare and terminal neurodegenerative disease. After being told by the council that no flats were available, the couple decide to buy a tent on eBay, pack two small rucksacks, and walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, wild camping and subsisting on £48 per week. A lyrical narrative of the importance of nature and the complexity of homelessness, The Salt Path is the true story of their journey from despair to endurance and hope.
Raynor Winn writes about homelessness, walking, and nature. Her first book, The Salt Path, was nominated for the 2018 Costa Biography of the Year Award and the Edward Stanford Travel Memoir, and became a Sunday Times Bestseller. Her second book will be published by Michael Joseph in 2020. Raised in rural Staffordshire, Winn lived for 20 years on a farm in Wales, and now lives in Cornwall with her husband, Ray “Moth” Winn. The couple have two grown-up children. Winn is an active supporter of the homeless charities St Petrocs and Emmaus.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
JULY: Aftershocks by A. N. Wilson
AUGUST: None So Blind by Alis Hawkins