Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

I'm not sure whether I found this book or it found me.  Mrs. Palfrey goes to the Claremont because she is old.  The Claremont is what we would call "Independent Living", although it is also a hotel, where, occasionally, a "rather noisy little band of commercial travellers"  or other temporary guests will invade.  It is economical, well-located in London, and serves sensible, unvarying food.  The regular inhabitants, including Mrs. Palfrey and the one male resident, Mr. Osmond, are tenderly drawn by the author.  There is comedy, but these are not comical characters.  Dignified and idiosyncratic, the Claremont regulars pass their days waiting for the daily menu, gossiping about one another, knitting (oh yes!), awaiting visits from relatives and walking about the  neighborhood.

The novel was originally published in 1971, so that the setting is a London where the young are discovering freedoms that no generation before them has enjoyed.  It was republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1982.  The author, Elizabeth Taylor, was an aclaimed British novelist who wrote thirteen novels and four volumes of short stories before her death, at age 63, in 1975.  The introduction to the Virago edition I am reading describes Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as Taylor's "penultimate" novel.

I needed this book.  At my regular Thursday knitting circle, I was browsing the used book shelves of our library, as I always do, and it dropped into my hand.  At home, the email inbox on my laptop was stuffed with lacerating messages from several of my siblings accusing me of incompetence in the management of my elderly father's affairs.   I didn't (and still don't) know where this outburst originated, but understood clearly enough that what my brothers, at least, were advocating was Dad's removal to his own "Claremont Hotel".

I began to read my "new" book that night, to try and slide my mind toward sleep.  I expected a light comedy of manners.  Instead, I got insight into the elderly mind - not insistent information as in a nonfiction "help" book or a doctor's summation, but the interior of Mrs Palfrey's mind, described by Taylor in a compassionate, no-nonsense, often rueful murmur.  

My heart simply contracts with love and pity as I continue to read the book each evening.  This passage, from Chapter 10, particularly struck at me:

     Full summer; and Mrs. Arbuthnot left the Claremont.  It was going downhill, she said.     Trippery people coming at random.  It was not the place she had once known.  "We used to have bridge," she said wistfully. "A dowager countess stayed here."  In truth, Mrs. Arbuthnot had become incontinent, and in the nicest possible way, which in the circumstances could not be very nice, had been asked to make some other arrangement. 

We don't understand the old.  We begin to, at around age 50. But as long as we can move freely without pain and the intimate fear of it, remember most things easily and have control over our own bodily functions, we cannot understand them.  

I don't know where Ms. Taylor is taking her Mrs. Palfrey.  I haven't finished with her myself yet.  But I do know that my father will remain with the people who he loves & who love him for as long as I am able to manage it.

This book is highly recommended.



  1. Lovely review, Karen! I hear nothing but praise for Elizabeth Taylor.

    Good luck with your own family conundrum.

  2. There's a charming British movie from around 2004 based on this novel with the so accomplished Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. Do you know it? Not as good or as sad as the novel, but certainly worth viewing.

  3. Thanks, Lyn! I love Joan Plowright!