October 13, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Posted in Taylor Elizabeth at 11:51 am by John Self

Elizabeth Taylor had the unenviable role of sounding very well known but in fact being almost entirely obscured by her namesake. But the massed ranks of the literati are out to correct that. In the Virago Modern Classics edition of the last novel published in Taylor’s lifetime, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), Paul Bailey distracts us from the awful movie tie-in cover by saying in his introduction: “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.” Elizabeth Jane Howard on the back cover adds: “How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!” There is also praise from writers as diverse as Jilly Cooper and Sarah Waters, though they don’t say how they feel about readers coming to her books for the first time.

Mrs Palfrey is a recently widowed lady who decides to move into a London hotel to see her days out. As the book opens she is in a taxi, apprehensive about what the Claremont (“Reduced winter rates. Excellent cuisine”) is like: “she leaned forward in the taxi, looking from side to side of the wide, frightening road, almost dreading to read the name Claremont over one of those porches.”  Once inside, she discovers that the Claremont is less gentlewoman’s hotel than residential home:

At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mrs Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years.  They were waiting patiently for celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy.  There were one or two married couples who occasionally made observations across the table for appearance’s sake, recalled to one another momentarily from a vague staring around or nibbling at bread.  These seemed more in transit than the old ladies.  The waitresses moved silently about, as if assisting at a ritual.  Many tables were empty.

Taylor’s setting and cruel eye (even her heroine Mrs Palfrey “would have made a distinguished looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag”) bring to mind Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, but in the end she lacks the iciness of either of those, and the book becomes an altogether gentler comedy.

The comedy comes from her encounter with Ludo, a penniless writer who helps up Mrs Palfrey in the street after a fall, and then agrees to masquerade as her grandson, so that the other denizens of the Claremont will believe she has a family member willing to visit her.  But Ludo has his own motivations.

Taylor captures well a particular sort of futility in retirement: “The morning was to be filled in quite nicely, but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch.  I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she had thought it would be.   When she was young, it had always been later.”  I could have done though with a harder edge through the later parts of the book, and less concentration on Ludo’s point of view.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is enjoyable and felt more of a comfort read than the opening chapters suggested, with some farcical elements thrown in.  If you haven’t read any of her books yet, then you can feel proud that so many established writers envy you.  But don’t feel too smug.

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12 Comments »

  1. Tony S. said,

    I discovered Elizabeth Taylor, the English novelist, about twenty five years ago. I’ve read many of her novels, eleven or so, and they have all been wonderful. My vote for the two most under-appreciated writers in English would go to Elizabeth Taylor and Patrick White. She is that great. Her plots are not at all like Patrick White’s; hers are about the small everyday pleasures of life. The quality of the writing is superb.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Tony. I’d certainly be interested in trying some more of her stuff; any in particular you would recommend?

  3. Tony S. said,

    Hi John Self,
    One nice thing about Elizabeth Taylor’s novels is that they are always about 200 pages. I believe she was a friend of Kingsley Amis, and they both kept their novels at reasonable length. Here are a few of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor I highly recommend : “The Soul of Kindness”, “The Wedding Group”, “In a Summer Season”, and “Blaming”. She is also a strong short story writer.

    Her titles sound deceptively old womanish which might be another reason for her under-appreciation by the literati. .

  4. Tony S. said,

    I came across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle which really says it all about Elizabeth Taylor the novelist

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/25/DDGJ1K2VMQ1.DTL&type=books

    It contains the line “Filmmakers are discovering the novels of a 20th century Jane Austen — a late British author named Elizabeth Taylor”
    There is also a plot description of many of her novels. Apparently her novel “Angel” is also being made into a movie.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for both these replies, Tony. I will definitely seek out more of her stuff. Of the titles you recommend, I think the only one in my local bookstore is Blaming (published posthumously I believe?).

    The Mrs Palfrey film mentioned on the SFC article didn’t do all that well after all, and I don’t think it was even released in the cinema in the UK. A friend of a friend of mine played the character of Ludo though!

  6. Elizabeth Taylor fantastic writer and you must seek out the early Virago editions John with the best artwork ever to grace a book, Stanley Spencer paintings.I still haven’t read them all but Angel is one of my favourites, the temperamental author exposed.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks dgr, good to see you around these parts again! Will keep Angel in mind; I love writing that’s about writers, despite newspaper reviews always telling us how nobody does.

  8. onparkstreet said,

    Hello, stumbled onto this comment thread a bit late, but, I just wanted to add that although I agree with your assessment of the book (the book moved me, very much), that I think there is a darker core there than generally appreciated. I’m not sure it is less ‘icy’. I think the ending, which is completely matter-of-fact, and gives no comfort, really, is utterly clear eyed.

    Oh, I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Except that I enjoyed the novel and I appreciated this blog post. Cheers!

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks onparkstreet – I really should try some more Elizabeth Taylor, but as always, it’s a case of so many books, so little time. Still, at least her novels are better than her perfume.

  10. jan said,

    The Soul of Kindness is another masterpiece. I first read it 20 years ago, I must read it again. This author seems capable of painting pictures and moods with such insight and clarity. She deserves to be far better known.

  11. Hugh & Barbara Perry said,

    Fine movie, seen on DVD. Wonderful music. Wish we could get CD.

  12. John Self said,

    I don’t know about a CD, but you can download the soundtrack on iTunes, or from the manufacturer here.


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