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.