“I must not wish my life away,” she told herself.
Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exploration of old age, loneliness and impending death. The focus of the novel is Mrs. Palfrey and her tedious life as one of a handful of elderly residents at a fading hotel. Mrs. Palfrey, facing old age has led an interesting life, but is now widowed and not particularly close to her only child, Elizabeth, who lives in Scotland. Mrs. Palfrey and her husband Arthur were abroad in Burma most of their married life, dealing with “natives.” They retired but now Mrs. Palfrey is alone. While visiting her daughter, she “chanced on an advertisement” in the paper for “reduced winter rates” at the Claremont hotel, so Mrs. Palfrey heads to London. Even though she didn’t have high hopes for the Claremont, the shabby-genteel reality is depressing.
The clientele can be divided into 2 categories: “long-term residents and birds of passage.” This is a fading hotel hanging on, desperately and begrudgingly to its clients. The place would probably fold without the steady income from the residents, but that doesn’t make the staff any nicer. The Claremont is one-step away from a nursing home, and most of the residents, all washed up at the Claremont for various reasons, can just afford the rates, so no one complains about anything. While the Claremont is a depressing place, it’s still a pleasant alternative to the dreaded dead-end nursing home.
Since all the residents are solitary, any visitors, any relatives are valued currency. There’s Mrs. Arbuthnot, whose spiteful condescending remarks are directly tied to her arthritis pain; Mr. Osmond, a fussy widower whose off colour remarks and jokes alarm the staff and the female residents, Mrs. Burton, who smokes and drinks heavily, and whose brother-in-law visits frequently. Finally there’s Mrs. Post, a nervous woman who is Mrs. Arbuthnot’s go-fer. During the course of the novel, a few other characters come and go, and each arrival and departure causes a stir and alters the resident dynamic. At the hotel, the highlight of each day is the menu, with its fortnightly rotating dishes. The time after dinner is spent in the lounge, when “knitting was brought out.”
As a newcomer, Mrs. Palfrey must find her spot on the social totem pole, and quizzed, she tells the others about her nephew, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. Everyone expects him to visit, but Desmond never shows; he even ignores his grandmother’s invitation to visit the Claremont and stay for dinner. Pointed comments from Mrs. Arbuthnot that supposedly express sympathy are really putdowns, and Mrs. Palfrey finds that she regrets ever mentioning her elusive grandson.
To Mrs. Arbuthnot she explains, “My daughter is so far off, in Scotland.”
“And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?” Mrs. Arbuthnot asked, probing.
Mrs. Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it.
“I doubt if I could stand that climate,” she replied. In London, the rain was pouring down: in Scotland, it was coming down more steadily, as snow. They had watched it on the television that evening.
“No, of course not,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said quietly, with her eyes on Mrs. Palfrey once more.
One day, Mrs. Palfrey falls in the street and a young man, a burgeoning writer named Ludo comes to her rescue. Mrs. Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont and decides it would be a harmless ruse to pass Ludo off as her errant grandson, Desmond. Having a handsome, intelligent grandson who visits somehow raises Mrs. Palfrey in the eyes of the other residents. A visit from a relative is ‘proof’ that they have not been forgotten, that their lives are not failures, and that they are loved. (Actually, as ‘proof,’ it’s thin–but visits are of paramount importance to the residents.)
This is a novel about isolation, aging and and loneliness. Ludo, a young man, is every bit as isolated and lonely as Mrs. Palfrey, but thanks to his youth, he doesn’t recognise his loneliness yet. While he continues to visit Mrs. Palfrey, ostensibly to gather material for his book (even writing about her “fluffy grey knickers”) he also connects emotionally on some level with Mrs. Palfrey. Ludo’s own mother is selfish and irresponsible. Fat chance that maternal sacrifices will ever be made for Ludo, and Ludo’s ‘girlfriend’ is always on the lookout for a better relationship opportunity. Both of Ludo’s significant relationships, with his mother and with his girlfriend, leave him feeling gutted. Mrs. Palfrey is in the same boat, and age and the passage of time have allowed her to come to terms with the disappointments of family. While the blossoming relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey is a delight, for different reasons, Ludo’s private life spills over into his relationship with Mrs. Palfrey. How sad it is that relations do not see the elderly as people but rather as labels; how sad that children and grandchildren don’t see their parents and grandparents as individuals but instead see them as liabilities. We could perhaps argue that Ludo would have ignored Mrs. Palfrey is she were his grandmother rather than a woman he meets by pure accident–but no, this is not true, some people are capable of compassion. And some people are not.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was made into a film.