There are few feelings I hate more than the anxious, distracted restlessness that arises from not knowing what to read. Given that I work in a bookshop, this feeling comes with an added tinge of guilt, of knowing that it is inexcusable to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books everyday, and not to be able to pick one out.
The feeling tends to arise when I am tired of reading a particular type of book, and feel that really I ought to read something different. Having had a bit of a binge on mid-twentieth-century novels by women – I Capture the Castle, Mariana, Westwood – I felt that perhaps I should read something more recent, written by a man. Perhaps even some non-fiction.
I dipped in and out of the new Charles Nicholl book, Traces Remain, but, try as I might, couldn’t get into it. I read a very fascinating book for research for my novel, Jewish London by Dr Gerry Black. But that counted more as reading for work rather than reading for pleasure. I found myself reading rather a lot of articles in magazines and listening to the radio more than usual. And then, after a week or so, the realisation sank in that I wasn’t actually reading a book at all. The horror!
So I abandoned my resolution to read some new male non-fiction and settled down to something by Elizabeth Taylor. The author, not the actress, just to clarify.
Ever since I started working at the bookshop I’ve had half an eye on the little collection of Elizabeth Taylor novels lined up on the shelf. Published by Virago, they have rather distinctive covers, which I’m not quite sure whether or not I like. The prompt came when my agent (yes, this is a new, exciting development for the novel …) said that I might enjoy Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. And indeed I did.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a book about old people. It is the story of Mrs Palfrey, a widow, who arrives at the Claremont hotel in South Kensington, where she wants to live out as much of the end of her life as she can. There are other residents at the Claremont, gossipy old women and one old man, all with their own particular eccentricities and foibles, mostly on the verge of senility.
The characters are drawn with the perfect mixture of sympathy and detachment. The sympathy creates pathos and understanding for these poor old women with their painful varicose veins, or arthritis, or forgetfulness. But there is just enough detachment for this to be rendered with a wry humour, stopping short of cruelty, but preventing the prose from being too worthy and sanctimonious. And this detachment makes the characters more clearly delineated. Rather than being vague, wafty old people, the fact that they can be shown to be a little spiteful, or petty, or interfering, makes them far more real.
Mrs Palfrey soon finds herself telling the other residents at the Claremont about her grandson Desmond, who works at the British Museum. She knits him a jumper. But Desmond doesn’t come to visit. Mrs Palfrey writes to her daughter about it, but to no avail:
He still neither came nor wrote, and she heartily wished that she had never mentioned him at the Claremont. She began to feel pitied. All the other residents had visitors – even quite distant relations did their duty occasionally; they came for a while, over-praised the comfort of the hotel, and went relievedly away. It was inconceivable to Mrs Palfrey that her only grandchild – her heir, for that matter – should be so negligent.
Mrs Arbuthnot, on one of her worst arthritis days, condoled with her spitefully, and that night Mrs Palfrey could not sleep. She fretted through the small hours, feeling panic at her loneliness.
I must not get fussed, she warned herself. Getting fussed was bad for her heart. She put on the light and took a pill, and wondered if the morning would never come.
Mrs Palfrey is upset partly for the sake of keeping up appearances – ‘she heartily wished that she had never mentioned him at the Claremont’ – and partly out of indignation that her grandson will inherit her money in spite of doing nothing for her. These aren’t particularly noble reasons, but they are at least honest, and this honesty makes one sympathise with poor Mrs Palfrey, who, after all, isn’t in particularly good health, and gets ‘fussed’ and ‘fret’s and ‘panic’s about it miserably.
It’s particularly clever that within this expert probing of Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness, Taylor manages to slip in some keen observations of other people too. The other residents’ visitors ‘did their duty occasionally’, coming only to speak empty words and then to slip away ‘relievedly’. That ‘relievedly’ is very telling. Relieved that they aren’t old and don’t have to live at the Claremont with its dotty inmates? Relieved that they don’t have to shoulder the burden of their old relative? Relieved that their duty’s done for the month? And Mrs Arbuthnot offers Mrs Palfrey condolence, but only out of ‘spite’, because her arthritis has been particularly painful.
Somehow all this insight is delivered lightly and easily. Nothing is overegged or treated clumsily. Taylor renders her characters sympathetically yet she is not completely averse to gently poking fun at them, of saying, really, they’re all as bad as each other.
Mrs Palfrey gets herself into a pickle with her grandson and, when she falls down and is rescued by an impoverished young aspiring author, asks him if he’ll play the part of her grandson and come for dinner at the Claremont. Soon she begins to feel rather grandmotherly towards him, and he almost like a grandson to her. This is slightly tainted by his use of Mrs Palfrey as inspiration for his novel, but only slightly.
It’s a very touching book. Witty, sharp, and amusing, but with an enduring melancholy that twists through everything. The writer and critic Paul Bailey is quoted on the cover of the book with the following;
Elizabeth Taylor had the keenest eye and ear for the pain lurking behind a genteel demeanour
I think that’s exactly right. The characters can seem funny and eccentric, but underlying this is a great deal of pain and sadness.
Next time an old dear comes into the bookshop and spends twenty minutes vacillating between greeting cards, before complaining about the price and pointedly counting out coppers and 10ps to cover it; or asks about an obscure out-of-print book that she feels is somehow my fault for not being available, and for which I deserve an earful; or just wants to whine at me about something, anything, sucking the life out of me like a dementor … well I’ll think of Mrs Palfrey with her ‘noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl’, who ‘would have made a distinguished-looking man’, and feel far more tolerant. I’ll also think somewhat enviously of Elizabeth Taylor and wish that I could write half as well as her.