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