Recent Reads – Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor_Palfrey_magXC_700pxUntil 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.

Taylor_Hide-and-Seek_mag-X-700pxI 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.


Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

11 responses to “Recent Reads – Elizabeth Taylor

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    She’s a marvellous writer, and very pithy as you say. Her books are quite varied too – I was very fond of “A View of the Harbour” and “A Wreath of Roses”.


    • Jonathan

      Thanks for the recommendations. I may try some of her short stories as well – as I’m still in a bit of a short story mood at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kaggsysbookishramblings

        Good idea! I have her complete Short Stories on the TBR but it’s another one I’ve never got to…..

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed Mrs Palfrey! What a wonderful book. I like the way you’ve homed in on the amusing one-liners, it’s a novel full of pin-sharp observations and little details like that.

    I have a copy of Angel, so I’ll hold off on the film until I’ve read the novel. A View of the Harbour is on my wishlist, and I hope to pick it up later in the year.


    • Jonathan

      Thanks Jacqui. It was after reading your recent post that I checked at my local library only to discover that the one Taylor book they had was ‘Mrs Palfrey’.

      Yes, I love the one-liners; they’re not always humorous, sometimes they’re sad or poetic.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree: the individual scenes are great–but I couldn’t overcome Harriet and Vesey’s dullness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I couldn’t decide (and still can’t) whether there was a deliberate reason for making the main characters so dull. I found it amusing that at some point Julia comments on the grubby, tediousness of modern day affairs.


  4. I saw books by Elizabeth Taylor (like you, who knew she could write? 😉 first on Jacqui’s blog and now yours. I think it’s time i opened up one of her novels myself. The “one-liners” you posted show an acerbic wit of which I’m quite fond.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      She’s definitely worth reading, I intend to read more by her. I’ve also got a copy of the film of ‘Mrs Palfrey’ but I won’t watch it straight away.


  5. Pingback: A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor | JacquiWine's Journal

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