Until quite recently I had never heard of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor (a.k.a the other Elizabeth Taylor) but then all of a sudden her name started to appear everywhere. I recently watched the film version of Angel which I enjoyed and thought I’d read something by her – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (published 1971) is the one that really jumped out at me. It opens with Mrs Palfrey, a widow, arriving at the Claremont Hotel on a rainy Sunday afternoon in January. If it’s suitable she intends to stay there until she needs to move to a nursing home. There are other elderly, permanent and semi-permanent, residents at the Claremont and Taylor has a lot of fun introducing us to them. Much of their time is spent waiting for meals, talking about meals and trying to convince each other that they have friends and family that have not forgotten them. Mrs Palfey has a daughter who lives in Edinburgh and a grandson who lives in London but neither seem too eager to visit her.
One day Mrs Palfrey has a fall whilst returning from the library and is helped out by a young, penniless writer called Ludo (Ludovic) and she ends up inviting him for dinner at the Claremont. Ludo can’t pass up on a free meal and he is also intrigued with the situation, especially when Mrs Palfrey suggests that he should pretend to be her grandson, Desmond. As Mrs Palfrey gets to know Ludo she discovers that she prefers him to her real grandson.
All the characters are amusing in one way or another and as we get to know some of them further we can empathise with them more fully. Also, Taylor has a skill for turning out amusing little one-liners. Here are a few:
She had about her a strong smell of hair-spray and her lunch-time whisky.
Her face had really gone to pieces – with pouches and dewlaps and deep ravines, as if a landslide had happened.
Time went by. It could be proved that it did, although so little happened.
‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.
And there are many more. The residents come and go, and some die. There’s a great chapter where the residents take a trip out to attend a party of a former resident, the extroverted Mrs de Salis. Everyone seems glad when it’s over though. So, if you haven’t read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont then I can thoroughly recommend it, but it’s not all laughs, there’s a serious side to the novel which is what makes it more powerful.
I read A Game of Hide and Seek before Mrs Palfrey. It was published in 1951 and was Taylor’s fifth novel. The main narrative concerns the relationship between Harriet and Vesey from their friendship when they were young which blossoms into an awkward love. Although in love, it is not strong enough to keep them together when Vesey goes to university. Vesey becomes a second-rate actor and Harriet marries the older, and rather boring, Charles with whom she has a daughter Betsy. Fifteen years later Vesey shows up again and Harriet and Vesey embark on an affair; only they both seem to be just as awkward with each other as they were when they were younger.
Well, that’s the main plot and I won’t reveal any more about it but I must admit that I found it a bit dull, especially the early part of the novel. When I was reading it the main plot seemed to me unimaginative and the main characters just dull. But Taylor is a great writer and as with Mrs Palfrey there are some great one-liners and some brilliant supporting characters. One of the best episodes of the book is when the young Harriet gets a job in a shop where the work just gets in the way of the gossiping. Here’s a description of one of Harriet’s colleagues:
Miss Lazenby was rather free and easy with men, but the men were not always themselves in that happy position. She pinned them down, swore at them, drank a great deal at their expense and had good fun describing to her friends their dufferish attempts at lovemaking.
All the women at the shop are interested in Harriet’s lovelife and offer her endless advice. Harriet dates and then marries Charles and we are introduced to his mother, who is another fascinating, if irritating, character:
Julia Jephcott was in her sixties. Mad, raffish, unselfconscious, she had the beautiful and calm air of one who has all her life acknowledged compliments. This air, associated with beauty, lingered after the beauty itself had collapsed and fled. She seemed to be lovely still to herself, as if no amount of looking into mirrors could ruin her illusion.
There is also a subplot about Harriet’s lonely daughter Betsy becoming obsessed with her teacher and some great passages concerning Elke, a bemused Swedish au pair; she’s bemused by England, the English and their customs and she breaks a lot of china and hides the pieces in her room.
Since reading this book many of the characters and situations have stayed with me and I’m often reminded of scenes from the book. I loved the supporting characters and Taylor’s style and I suspect that my criticism of the main plot and characters may be a bit harsh; if I were to re-read it I think my view may be different. I intend to read more by the ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor.