Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

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20 thoughts on “Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

  1. Taylor was brilliant at capturing those little moments of life that more expansive authors might have missed. This was a powerful book, and you’re right – there’s much less about the ageing of women in literature and Taylor doesn’t mince her words at all.

  2. A very thoughtful review, Simon. I think this is my favourite of the 4 Taylors I’ve read to date, although The Soul of Kindness (which I reviewed back in January) has given it a run for its money. You’re right to mention the humour; I think it’s the delicate balance between darkness and light that makes this novel so tender and appealing in spite of the melancholy subject matter.

  3. I have had Angel on my shelves for years, no idea why I’ve never read it. And having read so many wonderful reviews of her books since discovering the world of book blogs, I snapped up Mrs Palfrey when I noticed it late last year. A sombre theme to this book perhaps, and one we all face when we come to think of our own ageing, but the gallows humour must lift it, I suspect – and place it very firmly into a certain niche. I look forward to reading it. Another insightful review – thank you!

    • ET is brilliant in showing the privileged classes being rude, condescending or haughty- just one aspect of her incisive humour. Angel is on my list too. Thanks for the kind words, Sandra.

  4. Thank you for this perceptive and intelligent review. I think that Taylor’s book is among the first novels to focus on an elderly protagonist, a community of last-resort, and the burial plot instead of the marriage plot. See also Spark’s _Memento Mori_ and _Ending Up_ by Amis. Taylor’s is the best in giving us a privileged view of one person–the others have a broader focus. Taylor’s is the most successful, compelling, and moving to my mind.

    • Natalie: thanks for the suggestions; I haven’t read the Spark (she’s on the list) or Amis (he could be). Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem (also about a home for the elderly, apparently) was partly her inspiration for Mrs P & he was the basis for her character Ludo – both are young writers, work in Harrods, etc. So he’s on the list, too. His Introduction to the VMC edition was the source for this information plus some online digging

    • Having not yet read Mrs Palfrey, I may be wide of the mark here. But in terms of an elderly female protagonist and written some 40 years earlier, I would add All Passion Spent (1931) by Vita Sackville-West. Recently widowed, it is assumed that Lady Slane will live out her declining years sheltering in turn under the roofs of her various children. She herself has other ideas. It’s some time since I read All Passion Spent – it didn’t occur to me until I read your comment, Natalie, that it might make a useful comparison to Mrs Palfrey. Now of course, I want to read both of them!

      • Sandra: I haven’t read the VSW novel you mention, but from what I’ve read in reviews and blogs I’m sure you’re right. Interestingly, one of the monstrously rude characters who pops up in Mrs P is the obnoxious Lady SWAYNE – (think i called her Slayne in an earlier reply to a comment) – whose name is surprisingly similar to Slane. While on the topic of novels about older protagonists, Caroline Lodge’s blog Book Word (link in my post) specialises in this kind of novel; I think the later works by Americans like Philip Roth and John Updike could be useful additions to this group; James Salter’s last novel (I posted about it a while back) isn’t really about an elderly man, but was written in his 80s. I daresay Anita Brookner works this territory too.

        • Simon, thank you for this; I shall check out those links. And yes, Brookner of course. You sent me off to my goodreads list to remind myself which of her books I read that came to mind as fitting in this genre: The Next Big Thing is the one I had in mind. Rather surprisingly though, I had to look through each of her novels that I’ve read – maybe 5 or 6, about 10 years or so back – and beyond Hotel du Lac, I recognised none of the storylines. I won’t speculate on what this tells me about my dalliance with Brookner, but it did surprise me!

          • Sandra: typically for me, I haven’t read more than a couple of Brookner’s novels. I suppose I just pick these things up as I bumble along – i.e. I know she tends to write about women of a certain age, engaged in late-life or mid-life contretemps/crises/epiphanies. Many years since I read her, I admit. Doesn’t stop me pontificating…Thanks for all your interest in this topic. Makes posting these pieces worth while, to think someone out there is taking note, reflecting.

          • Simon, I am coming across as a great deal better read than I am! I also bumble along – with huge gaps in my reading experiences, but that can be said for many of us. I do like making connections between books though, and this thread has given me plenty to think about. Thank you!

          • Worth checking out a blog by Rhys Tranter (just google it) – he’s just posted several pieces on A Brookner, & is always worth reading (RHys that is). I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed this thread, Sandra

  5. Very nice Simon. I like your analysis of that description of the rain and the placing of “slithering”.

    I think you’re right too to really focus in on that night we spent with Mrs Arbuthnot. She’s almost the villain of the piece, and yet she’s the first to show any kindness to Mrs Palfrey (which Mrs Palfrey never forgets) and Taylor never loses sight of her humanity.

    It’s just a tremendous novel. You bring it very much back to mind.

    On a different note, Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is another boarding house novel with a bully as a central character, but far less forgivable than poor Mrs Arbuthnot to whom ultimately I think we have to extend our sympathy. It’s a very different book but if you’ve not read it you might like it (not that I can remotely say why one reminded me of the other, save that both feature boarding houses and social rather than physical bullies). Anyway, if you’ve not already read it there’s a review at mine.

    Re novels with elderly protagonists, from the comments you’re evidently much better read than I am on that score so I’m more noting your suggestions than having any of my own.

    • That’s a key feature for me, Max: that generosity of spirit. Even a nasty bully is understandable. I’ve not read P Hamilton though have long been aware of him. Yet another to check out!

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