“Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) – book review

More of the dubious joys of growing older, and not necessarily disgracefully so.

This time it’s the genteel daily grind of mannish yet magnificently assured and unruffled Mrs P.  Recently widowed, and decidedly distant from daughter Jane, who is “noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it”, she moves lock, stock and barrel into the Claremont Hotel to take up permanent residence.

Much of the plot revolves around an unplanned misrepresentation of the facts over Mrs Palfrey’s Hampstead-based grandson Desmond, and the way this impacts on the “chintz-bedecked battlefields” (Paul Bailey), while astutely observing the other ‘inmates’ at the hotel with absolute brilliance.

Awash with gems, I can see exactly why the critics are reminded of Jane Austen’s heroines, and while I was reading kept thinking of Barbara Pym, for we are back in the land of gentle manners, acutely observed human nature in all its goodness, and of course chockablock full of its imperfections and barbed undercurrents lurking in the background. We all get to witness the gorgeous characterisations of the other residents and the minutiae of filling long, ever more similar days. The jostling for position within a tight-knit group is so beautifully observed, along with the strain of saving face and keeping up appearances:

Mrs Palfrey felt quite elated when Mrs Arbuthnot – her usual slave having a cold – one afternoon asked her to change her book at the library. It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl”. The pecking order comes at a price, mind you, for she is pulled up sharply when suggesting “… ‘But if you’ve already read it…’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously. / ‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’ / Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily.  After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour”…

Then there’s the marvellous depiction of “Mrs Post (who) sat watching the meter and clutching her purse, so that she should be ready with her share of the fare…oh and the tip, what about the tip…”.

Glorious too the unexpected proposal of matrimony and Mrs Palfrey’s inner ponderings over “so I am to be there so that he can have a cheese-and-wine party, she thought tiredly”. It’s marvellous stuff.

Oh, it would be a joy to quote from almost every page of this 200-page slim novel. Having re-read it last year (you were right, Mrs Arbuthnot!), I had mixed feelings about watching the 2010 film starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend, but it was beautifully adapted to the screen, especially the ending, so couldn’t recommend the two highly enough – to be read before being watched, though.

On the ‘I love it too front’, this is one of Isla Blair’s Top Six books, no less; and if you happen to need any more persuading, look no further than Sarah’s perfect review on her blog, posted just last month, including the classic, brilliant comment: “Worrying is futile, and you never know, you might just get run over by a bus and avoid it completely”.  

In short, think Paul Bailey of The Spectator just about sums it up: “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time”.

ADDED 10th AUGUST – Nothing makes me happier than when someone else loves a book as much as you do, especially when it’s been read on recommendation.  Tim has just sent this through on his take on Mrs Palfrey:

This book is far from being a daunting prospect when you pick it up: not too many pages, not a cushion-grabbing thriller, very little physical action and an average age of the protagonist and her compatriots of about 75 years. And yet in the English tradition of female writers who demonstrate outstanding perspicacity and social acuity, as well as tenderness and compassion, Elizabeth Taylor steers us through the deep emotional experience of ‘end of life’ living. She does it with sympathy and humour as well as sounding a tone which at times is mildly acidic. Social stereotypes of the English 1970s are exposed in their shallowness and pathos, while at the same time human characteristics of all history are delineated in their bathetic and accidental cruelty. What shine through are the near beauties of love and grace, which, in this instance, are unusually cast over three generations. However, even then, when the heroine and her lover are as close as they can possibly be, minute elements of misunderstanding creep in; little moments of being at odds when all should be sunsets and choirs of angels… it is just a little sad, but so, so true.

I did so enjoy it. 

That’s you and me both!!!

Nicola rating : 10/10 – A FAVOURITE BOOK

Re-read in 2014

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 1971.

Images taken from here and here.
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6 Responses to “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) – book review

  1. Sarah says:

    What a fabulous review! Mrs Arbuthnot is absolutely right about this book ,at least, deserving of a second read. Ever since I read it, I’ve been evangelical about it, and my copy is getting nicely battered as it is passed from friend to friend. Oh, and thank you for your kind words, you made me blush 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TimPa59 says:

    I agree, what a fab review, and DEFO my next book! It sounds delightful. I love your final quote about the futility of worrying… reminds me of the Scottish/American industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie muttering that 9 out of 10 things we worry about never happen, and the 10th is usually insignificant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels by Robert McCrum, August 2015: two years in the making, 400 years in the writing… | Literary ramblings etc

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