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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

This 1971 novel by Elizabeth Taylor – her eleventh – short-listed for the Booker Prize [images herein taken from the 2005 US-produced movie version of the same name directed by Dan Ireland with a largely-British cast list headed by Joan Plowright as Mrs Palfrey and Rupert Friend as Ludovic Meyer] is the story of Louise Palfrey, a widow, who chooses to spend her final days as a permanent resident of the Claremont Hotel in Cromwell Road, South Kensington with a group of lonely other guests.

Except for the heavy drinking Mrs Burton, whose brother-in-law regularly has dinner with her, none of them have any visitors.

Mrs Palfrey meets a young aspirant novelist Ludo Meyer when she stumbles outside his flat and he attends to her bruised leg.  They become friends and Mrs Palfrey invites him to dinner at the Claremont and knits him a jumper.

She tells her fellow residents that Ludo not her actual grandson the indifferent Desmond is her grandson.

The other residents are well drawn characters.

There is the irascible Mr. Osmond, forever complaining and writing to newspapers, who secrets a naturist magazine to see its  naked bodies.

It is not clear but he may be a suppressed homosexual.

Mrs Post is pleasant but gossipy. She is usually binging on a box of  assorted choccies.

Mrs Palfrey is dignified and doing her best to cope with old age, infirmity and loneliness.

Two other temporary visitors are the appalling snob Lady Swayne and Mrs de Sanis, whose drinks party for the residents is one of the best comic set pieces of this excellent novel.

Indeed it is humour that saves the novel from being mired in the depressing conditions of old age.

As Mrs Palfrey observes, when you look at a watch when you are young the time seems later, in old age it seems earlier.

Add to this greedy, cold, uncaring family and a decaying body – it is a sad picture.

Although the introduction by Paul Bailey states writer Elizabeth Taylor to be left-leaning, she is sympathetic to a group that would certainly vote Conservative.

Both the novel and novelist Elizabeth Taylor were unknown to me and this novel – published in 1971 – is her last one.

I am grateful to John Wilson, a contributor to last week’s Radio 4 programme The Book Read for its recommendation

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About Melanie Gay

A former literary agent with three published novels of her own, Melanie retains her life-long love of the written word and recently mastered the Kindle. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 17th Century Britain and Holland. More Posts