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What I've Been Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor



Do not miss Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, originally published in 1971, but recently re-issued by New York Review Books.  This stunning novel takes us into the world of the liver-spotted, fall-prone, lonely occupants of a resident hotel in London where well-heeled men and women live their lives out in what they perceive as upper-class dignity, avoiding the infirmities of old age because they are not allowed to die there.  If incontinence strikes, they are whisked off to a nursing home.  Only invisible suffering is allowed, and for most of them, that's loneliness. 


Mrs. Palfrey finds a passable life there among the five or six other elderly residents.  Her days consist of walks, meals, writing and posting letters to her absent daughter, and listening to and sometimes contributing sage or wry remarks to the conversations going on around her.  You might ask, how could a novel with such a sleepy plot and cast of limited characters create any emotional intensity?  Yet this "quiet" novel achieves tremendous intensity because people who assume they are closer to death than others possess an urgency those others lack and it's that liminal state Taylor writes about.


Mrs. Palfrey is well-mannered and socially skilled, yet she is mildly alarmed that she should be living in one of these places.  With daily lectures to herself that renew her courage, she manages to keep her alarm in control.   She is only recently a widow and neither her grandson, who lives close by in London, nor her daughter in Scotland have come to visit. 


Out for a walk one day to post a letter, she falls.  It is a residential neighborhood, the sidewalk is empty, and it has started to snow.  But in the area below her, a door opens and a young man who saw her through his window, comes to help.


"He took her in his arms and held her to him, like a lover and without a word, and a wonderful acceptance began to spread across her pain, and she put herself in his hands with ungrudging gratitude" (25). 


This is a long and somewhat awkward sentence, the string of clauses are linked by "and," which makes it mellifluous until those two hard 'g's in ungrudging and gratitude, break the flow.  They slow the reader down, and the awkward rhythm creates the awkward and ridiculous reality Mrs. Palfrey herself is feeling. She is not a woman who stumbles, much less falls, and certainly never in public, so she is new to this kind of neediness.   But the man rescuing her lifts her up and brings her to her feet, and she recognizes the tenderness that has been missing from her life.  The word used to describe her feelings is the more removed and polite "gratitude," but the reader knows better because "he took her in his arms like a lover" has already done its work and though Mrs. Palfrey is never anything but civilized and appropriate, she has fallen under the man's spell.  He takes her into his small ground floor apartment and as he ministers to her wound the romantic language continues:


"She was rather shocked by the sight of the towel, but this shock came too soon after a greater one to make much difference, and she submitted.  She was completely in his hands and glad to give herself up.  She felt no sense of outrage when he lifted her knicker elastic over her suspenders and unfastened her stocking.  Most tenderly he swabbed her and dabbed it with the dirty towel.  She felt no pain.  Her leg seemed not to belong to her.  He fetched a handkerchief from a drawer and tied it round her knee, drew up her torn stocking again and then sat back on his heels and looked up at her and smiled.
'I could make you a cup of tea,' he said."


It helps that as an American woman in the twenty first century I don't recognize these undergarments.  Knicker elastic?  Suspenders?  But even if I could picture this stocking arrangement, I couldn't miss the sense of undressing and lover-like ministrations.  


The rescuer is Ludovic Myers, Ludo for short.  He is a penniless, aspiring novelist, and as he is always looking for people and situations he might borrow for his work, he has brought her into his impoverished domain, washed the blood from her leg, made her a cup of tea, and then lets her gather strength and composure until she feels capable of walking out to the taxi he hails for her.  Mrs. Palfrey not only gives him money in thanks, but invites him to dine with her at the Claremont.  Scouting for material, and never well-fed, Ludo accepts. 


This is the beginning of Mrs. Palfrey's infatuation.  She lives for each Ludo encounter, her always circumspect behavior belying the intensity of her true feelings.  His youth and his masculinity have revived the ache of loneliness her husband-less condition has imposed.  And the physicality of their first encounter, when he held her to his chest "like a lover," and then tenderly addressed her wound, permitted forgotten emotions to thrive. The language of that embrace lets us see it from Mrs. Palfrey's point of view and although this novel is narrated in an omniscience that takes us into the points of view of several characters, including Ludo, the reader experiences the rescue from the perspective of this lonely old woman.


There is only one elderly man at the Claremont, misogynistic Mr. Osmond who tries to pal around with the male help at the hotel, whispering dirty jokes under his breath and very obviously sitting apart from the women who inhabit the lounge as they knit, write letters, or talk amongst themselves.  Gradually, Mr. Osmond begins to feel "an alignment" with Mrs. Palfrey.  It surprises him as well as the reader.


"During his time at the Claremont there had been no rapport with anyone--attempts at it with waiters, porters, even the manager, but all one-sided, the attempts forced on others, and rejected. Women he usually tried to avoid, but Mrs. Palfrey looked so wonderfully like a man, and had an air of behaving like one.  Trivia (one of his favourite [sic] words) she appeared to scorn"(125).


Sure enough, in this environment, his feeling of alignment with Mrs. Palfrey escalates into an obsession and he invites her to the Ladies Night at the Masonic Lodge where in a blur of alcohol fueled optimism and rage at being a widower he asks her to marry him.  It is a remarkable scene, funny and heartbreaking as two people at cross-purposes, Mr. Osmond awash in fantasies of a second married life, and Mrs. Palfrey, loyal to her first husband, gently reprimands and then switches to a firmer and more aggravated response.  And just as the reader felt Mrs. Palfrey's grateful acquiescence to Ludo's touch, here the reader feels Mr. Osmond's equally one-sided fabulist musings. 


"Mrs. Palfrey lifted a hand.  'Mr. Osmond, I beseech you: I shall never marry again'" (167). 


She can't be any clearer or firmer, yet he pays no attention. 


"'We could entertain in a modest, pleasant way.  Small dinner party, the odd cheese-and-wine set-to.  I've often read of them and wondered why we did not think of it in our day.  Informal, simple... a couple of decent wines, a Sancerre, maybe; or a Quincy--do you know that?  No, it's not widely appreciated'


"He seemed to be talking against disappointment, obstructing her. Filibustering.


"'And a red one...you can leave that to me.  And the cheeses, no old Claremont mousetrap or chalky Camenbert for us.  Black Diamond with a bite in it, a wedge of Brie, half a Stilton if we can run to it'"(168-9).


Taylor's blending of two vehemently opposed viewpoints in one dialogue is masterful and as in the scene with Ludo, the reader feels the claustrophobia between two people who are physically close, but miles apart in their objectives.  To reveal such opposed intentions underneath a surface of polite exchanges means that the writer has achieved transparency.  We can see that words and actions don't mean what they're supposed to mean because underneath, the inventive mind is creating a great, billowing fantasy.  First it was Mrs. Palfrey with Ludo, and then it is Mr. Osmond with Mrs. Palfrey. 


Because Elizabeth Taylor creates scenes that reveal the raging, raw desire below polite conversation, the reader is face to face with the grim realities of old age.  It is not a "quiet" novel.  Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont is about the madness of the restrained and civilized mind.   


At the beginning of their evening together, when  Mr. Osmond and Mrs. Palfrey drove off from the Claremont in a taxi, two separate people with their private histories, one was prepared with a marriage proposal, the other prepared to submit to a tedious evening, the jealous Mrs. Post stood on the porch and waved goodbye.


"Mr. Osmond looked out from the cab and raised a hand vaguely.  'I thought for a moment she might have a bag of confetti,' he said, then blushed, unnoticed"(162).


It is another Britishism, like knickers held up by suspenders. In England apparently, they shower newlyweds with confetti, not rice.


Taylor, Elizabeth.  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.  New York: NYRB Classic, 2021.