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Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

by Elizabeth Taylor

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8234318,849 (4.09)2 / 298
On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies--boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs. Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love.… (more)
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This decidedly British novel explores a culturally universal theme: aging. Their better years are behind Mrs. Palfrey and her fellow inmates of senior living. The only way to avoid their fate is to die young or not have been born at all. So what does that leave us? The ticking of a clock, increased proximity with the mundane and daily indignation, and hopefully the kindness of strangers. Grab a glass of sherry, and, by turns of the page, laugh a little and weep a bit for their generation because yours is inevitably next. 3.5 stars ( )
  mpho3 | Jun 15, 2019 |
This was such a distressing book -- and I don’t mean that as a spoiler for the ending, but as a description of the characters and the writing style. At the same time, it’s also so very very good. An excellent novel!

Mrs Palfrey is an ageing widow who has enough money left to avoid the disgrace of a nursing home: she can take a room at the Claremont, a formerly respectable residential hotel located on a thoroughfare in London. While the hotel does cater to fly-by guests, the permanent residents are all in the same boat as Mrs Palfrey: approaching death, proud, but barely wealthy enough to maintain the status-quo.

From this setup, Taylor develops a genuinely distressing story. The elderly residents live all but fake lives: their social dynamic revolves around pretending that nothing is changed, that they are doing fine, that money is no object. And so their interactions become merely sustained hypocrisy where real relationships become impossible. Any family member who is still alive and who might visit becomes someone to boast about -- bonus points if they’re young and handsome, then one can really lord it over the others. The inmates are too set in their ways to admit even to themselves that their bodies are inevitably betraying them -- their appetites and their mobility cannot be seen to have diminished. In short: one-upmanship is the sole source of social status, and appearances must be kept up. This entails the saddest, most distressing aspect of the book: there is no recourse for these people, no help to be got, and it is all their own fault.

Taylor’s writing in this book is wonderful: its matter-of-fact dryness cuts mercilessly through the pretense. Taylor frequently feels compassionate about her côterie of end-of-life losers, but has no patience with their sham lives: she trains her scalpel squarely on the social niceties that cover a less-than-perfect reality, and she does so with an attitude that ranges from impish humour to absolutely brutal editorial comments that leave people's hypocrisies bare and raw. The style reminded me of Arrested Development, where characters say or do one thing, and the narrator bluntly contradicts them for tragi-comedic effect.

No part of this novel is sentimental; on the contrary: it is almost harrowing in its unflinching directness and desire for honesty. And the writing is so confident, so perfect in tone and delivery. My SO and I now have both read this, and our summary of this book goes “It’s so sad! But so good! But so sad! But so good!”. ( )
2 vote Petroglyph | May 2, 2019 |
Elizabeth Taylor is another writer who was virtually unknown to me, but was brought to my attention by The Mookse and the Gripes group on GoodReads. This is a very entertaining book, but ultimately quite a poignant one.

Mrs Palfrey is a widow who has chosen to spend her retirement in a London hotel which is populated by similar lonely old people. She has talked about her grandson in her early days of her stay there, but it becomes clear he is not interested in visiting her. When a struggling young writer helps her after a fall, she concocts a plan for him to pretend to be the grandson, and much of the comedy in the book results from the misunderstandings that ensue, and the complications that occur when the real grandson turns up.

Taylor's observations are razor sharp and the characters are memorable. Definitely a writer to investigate further. ( )
1 vote bodachliath | Apr 3, 2019 |
What strikes me is the loneliness of Mrs. Palfrey. She delights at small errands she can run as it helps her to pass the time, and she forms an unlikely friendship with a young man, Ludovic, who is a poor budding writer. She doesn't know that Ludovic is creating a character based on her. And Ludovic is not sure of what he thinks of her. In the end, he is the one at her deathbed when she dies, away from her daughter who couldn't get there in time. ( )
2 vote siok | Oct 19, 2017 |
With an atmosphere so pronounced, this novel demands to be read only at dusk for the light of day would wash out its impact and make readers impatient to find the sun. Give it what it requires and the rewards are generous in spite of the story being a melancholy tale of the desolation of loneliness in old age.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont may be a slim novel, but it is a hefty work. The construction is perfect, built around the seasons from late winter to the end of fall that symbolize the main character's life. Mrs Palfrey's life of retirement to a private hotel in a discreet and secluded part of London is traced in quotidian detail. The reader's acquaintance with her becomes swiftly and totally intimate -- we share the pain of her varicose veins, her fear of making a spectacle of herself, her yearning towards youth, her awkward fumbling in and about love, and her perpetual estrangement and drift that are the natural companions of an old lady without attachments, widowed, neglected by family, and unsure of her status in society.

The Claremont is at best a 2-3 star establishment, teetering along with all its better days behind it. While its owner entertains fantasies of his establishment becoming a thriving hive for business travelers and their professional conventions, he runs, instead, a place that is less of the road and more "end of the road." Guests at the Claremont are mostly the old left-single men and women who can not really afford to live in sunnier brighter retirement conditions but must settle on the barely affordable dreary and crabbed hospitality and execrable food available in its lounge, dining room, and bar.

In spite of her surroundings and the death's waiting room residents whose habitat she shares, Mrs. Palfrey manages a bit of harmless deception that injects her spirit with life-affirming tonic when she befriends a (literally) "starving artist," Ludovic, and invests him with false kinship, identifying him to her fellow boarders as her grandson.

Taylor's genius is in characterization and tone. It is hard to think of another author who creates a feeling of calm inevitability that is punctuated with acidic, witty observation of each of the characters' personalities. Taylor is the perfect BBC writer. By that I mean she is the creator of precisely the kind of domestic dramas that are masterfully acted by ensemble casts as one sees in such TV series as The Duchess of Duke Street. Or, in a literary sense, Taylor writes like Virginia Woolf would have written had she been an extrovert. ( )
4 vote Limelite | Aug 15, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
First published in 1971, in a period setting perfectly depicted -- a cheap London residential hotel where a few widowed old people pass their later, solitary years. The pitiful circumstances of the ageing residents, and heartlessness of their remaining families and friends, are beautifully observed and portrayed, though, as universal themes. The hotel residents encounter helplessness, humiliation, increasing forgetfulness, loneliness, boredom -- the daily chore of passing the time, knitting as a social duty, with prospects only of increasing bodily feebleness, perhaps a nursing home, and death. Their few visitors `did their duty occasionally ... and went relievedly away'; the hotel manager resents these permanent guests, `cluttering up the place and boring everybody'.
Mrs Palfrey has one child, a daughter, now married and living in Scotland, who waits there until her weekend houseparty is over before travelling to her mother's hospital bed when she breaks her hip; her grandson, learning of the accident, feels that it `suited him admirably', having had some fear that she might remarry and change her will. Thus we rejoice when someone does appear to be showing Mrs Palfrey human kindness and friendship -- but young Ludovic is in fact deliberately observing her and her fellow Claremont-residents for a book he is writing on old age. Eager for copy, he makes notes after every meeting with Mrs Palfrey, whom he sees as `doting on him, to his embarrassed boredom'. He is `banking on her being dead -- or out of his life -- before [his book] saw the light of day'.
Nevertheless, Ludovic brings Mrs Palfrey her only happiness in her last months, and despite the pity and pain, the book is pleasurable to read. Taylor writes with delicacy and subtlety, and shrewd, witty observation of the characters she exposes. There is much humour in the depiction of rivalry and one-up-manship in the hotel. Certainly the book also offers much subject for group discussion. Is Ludovic wholly to be condemned? What could or should have been done to ameliorate the fates of the elderly residents? How different would their situation and the events have been today?
added by KayCliff | editNew BooksMag, Hazel K. Bell (May 28, 2016)
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Taylorprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bailey, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Mrs. Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January.
I have to begin this appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor's penultimate novel on a personal note. (Introduction)
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As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It's like being an infant again...Of course, it's nice to be given a treat, but not if it's ALWAYS that way round.
Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. {...} Both infancy and age are tiring times.
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On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies--boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs. Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love.

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