Lucinda Elliot

Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Clairmont’: Darkest Humour


I suppose there are books which have a more darkly comic theme than ‘Mrs Palrey at the Claremont’ – Martin Amis’ ‘LondonFields’, for instance, and a few others, including a book I really enjoyed when I was twenty, ‘Safe Behind Bars’ by Andrew Hall; generally, though, I would calll it humour of the darkest type.

Oddly enough, it was recommended to me by an older relative, then in her eighties. She said then that it was funny. I thought parts of it were, and parts of it made painful reading. She is now in her nineties, and when I mentioned re-reading it, she claimed she only recommended it to me, ‘Because you like reading grim things like that.’

As a matter of fact, my grandmother and mother knew Elizabeth Taylor: I am not doing a bit of name dropping, but stating that because the impression I had of her from their accounts – producing a version of ‘Six Men of Dorset’, tempting the child actors in the opening scene (my mother was one) with new potatoes in a potato eating scene, seems to have been of a cheerful, exuberant person.

Perhaps that follows; maybe we can only face writing about the grimmer aspects of life, when we are by nature optimistic. The topic of ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ is about the upper middle class Mrs Palrey, recently widowed, and eager to avoid living with her insensitive daughter in Sctoland, who goes to live at the Claremont Hotel in the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, as one of the regular boarders who receive reduced rates. These are generally old people who are spending their declining years in affluent surroundings. The blurb of my Virago Modern Classics version sums it up well: ‘Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight of their twin enemies; boredom and the Grim Reaper’.

It is hard to tell how old they are, because with the developments in medicine, life expectancy has increased massively since this era. They are perhaps in their late seventies, which would have been regarded as very old back in 1971 when the book was published. Mrs Palfrey, whose husband was in the colonial service, has spent some happy years of retirement in Rottingdean, a coastal village in Sussex.

They lived in a rented house, so perhaps house prices were as comparatively expensive there then as they are now. Mrs Palfrey’s strict code of behaviour includes the injunction ‘never touch capital’ , so perhaps actually buying the house when coming back to the UK after a life spent in the colonies was seen by herself and her husband as that. I mention this, as perhaps Mrs Palfrey might never have thought of moving out, had they owned the house, and so come to her melancholy feeling of rootlessness in London. But perhaps she would, for Mrs Palfrey now finds domestic chores and the administrative tasks of running house to be beyond her.

Interestingly, there is a pub there called ‘Ye Olde Black Horse’ rather appropriate ot Mrs Palfrey; perhaps that inspired Elizabeth Taylor to write of her. One of her fellow lodgers later thinks of Mrs Palfrey as ‘a dark horse’…

Remembering this life later, Mrs Palrey thinks: ‘After their hard, often uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous married life, that retirement – the furnished house in Rottingdean – had, simply, been bliss.’

She is a sympathetic character, and I found the depiction of her former happiness truly tragic. The most tragic thing is that she remembers taking it for granted.

‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put pieces of coal on the fire, building what he called ‘a good toast fire’. ‘

Mrs Palrey is no delicate flower -in fact, she is described as looking, in evening dress, like a man in drag- but suffering from heart problems, varicose veins and increasing stiffness, she becomes alarmngly aware of her failing health and increasing loneliness, for she makes no real friends among her fellow residents at the Claremont.
Mrs Palrey is no delicate flower -in fact, she is described as looking, in evening dress, like a man in drag- but suffering from heart problems, varicose veins and increasing stiffness, she becomes alarmngly aware of her failing health and increasing loneliness, for she makes no real friends among her fellow residents at the Claremont.

There was at this time an exclusive club called the Claremont not so far away in Mayfair, where Lord Lucan used to gamble every day before he fled the country in 1974 as the prime suspect in the attempted murder of his wife. Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor was thinking of this upper class estabishment when she named her hotel, though one of the guests at her Claremont, Lady Swayle, who only visits London once a year, describes it as ‘cheap and cheerful’ and no doubt to her, it is.

These days you would need to be a multi-millionare to live in a hotel in South Kensington, but obviously at the time of the story, presumably around 1968 – the union jack shopping bags and student demonstratons I remember from my childhood are mentioned – it was just affordable for those with a middling sort of income. In fact, Ludovic Meyers, the writer who rescues and befriends Mrs Palfrey when she falls in the street, has inherited a sum of money from his recently deceased grandmother and is able to afford to live a spartan existence in a basement flat somewhere in South Kensington. To save on heating in the winter, he goes to write every day in the then open Harrods banking hall.

What he is writing before he comes to Mrs Palfrey’s rescue when she slips and falls outside his basment flat is far from clear – though he does seem to be fascinated by the twilight years – but afterwards it is ‘We’re Not Allowed To Die Here’.

Jolly stuff.  Actually, like Elizabeth Taylor herself as recalled by my older relatives, the writer himself is seemingly an optimist by nature with an acute sense of humour.

We learn about Mrs Palfrey’s fellow permanent residents. There is Mr Osborne, who tells dirty jokes to the Italian waiter and the doorman Summers, and is a dirty old man, though one who wants a replacement wife to regard as ‘above all that’. There is Mrs Arbuthnot, debilitated by arthritis, who is the first to make a friendly overture to Mrs Palfrey, but who, as her arthritis becomes worse, takes to taunting her about the lack of visits from Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond, whom Mrs Palfrey is disappointed to find is not tempted to visit her at the hotel by the good dinners. There is the scatty, hopelessy out of touch Mrs Post, and the jolly, drunken Mrs Burton, whom I rather liked.

Later on, Mrs Arbuthnot has to move into a home, and is replaced by a Colonel Mildmay, a polite, distant man who intends to make countless visits to the nearby museums. Mrs Palfrey herself replaced one Mrs Benson, who went into hospital, never to come out…
Another, younger widow briefly joins them, Mrs de Salis, whom I rather liked. The author comments that ‘Like quite a few show-off people, she sometimes kept her word’ and she does about the party she promises the Claremont residents, when she moves into a flat of her own.

This dreadful party is a highlight – or lowlight, depending on how you look at it – of the grmily comic atmosphere in the book. There is a retired actress who once played Mrs Darling in ‘Peter Pan’ called Fay Sylvester; there is Mrs de Salis’ adorable Willie, now middle aged; there is ‘plenty of plonk for everyone’, there is Mrs de Salis’ sister known as ‘Aunt Bunty’ (wonderful name; I think Elizabeth Taylor has as much as a weakness for ridiculous names as I do), and after the guests have gone, Mrs de Salis says, ‘I was only trying to be kind, as is my wont. I did the best I could, as that ghastly old bishop no doubt said to the actress…’

Mrs Palfrey’s humiliation over the none appearance of her grandson Desmond, about which the increasingly agonised Mrs Arbuthnot taunts her, leads to her initiating a deception. This is the first real lie she has ever told in a straightforward, naively honourable life spent as a colonial administrator’s wife (memsahib?)

In one of her lonely walks about the bleak West London landscape, leaning on her walking stick, escaping from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Claremont, and looking for signs of spring, she slips, and the aspring writer Ludovic Meyers comes to her aid.

Mrs Palfrey decides to thank him by offering him a dinner at the Claremont, and on impulse, passes him off as her grandson, come to visit her at last. This, naturally, leads to complications…

I did find Ludovic a dull character, somehow not fully realised. I’m not sure exactly how this was because we are given access to his thoughts and vulnerabilitis. For instance, he has a selfish and feckless mother who treats him unfeelingly, and his distant and unimpressed girlfriend Rosie (and extraordinary old fashioned name in that era) does too. Despite having worked in the theatre before becoming a solitary writer, he has few friends.

Mrs Palfrey certanly thinks he is charming, and I supose that the reader is meant to as well, but I have come across several characters called Ludovic who are meant to be beguiling in books, and never thought any of them were. His name, anyway, is presumably meant to be as ridiculous as poor Mrs Palfrey’s:

‘”My name’s Ludovic: Ludo.”
“You have to be joking”…’ ever thought any of them was.

That isn’t Mrs Palfrey, of course; she would never be so rude; that is  Rosie, who seems to spend most of her life putting everyone down, from customers in a boutique where she works as one of her jobs, to visitors to an art gallery where she later works at another.

‘Ludo’: remember that game, anyone? Is it even about any more?

Though Ludovic is meant to be interesting, as a struggling writer s, he is somehow not fully realised and never came properly to life for me. This was true even in his hopeless infatuation.

Perhaps Mrs Palfrey dotes on him because he is the one bright spot in her life, and because he represents the sort of grandson she would like to have had.

As for her real grandson, selfish and unfeeling, neglecting to visit her until forced to do so, Desmond when he does eventually turn up suffers the humiliation he deserves, I suppose. Yet I felt that Mrs Palfrey had always found him a disappointment, and when you don’t think much of people, they have an uncanny way of discernng it, however much you may try and hide it…

Her fellow ‘guests’ are all depicted with unsparingly keen vision, but also, thankfully, with compassion. Without being informed by compassion, this book would be almost unbearable to read.

In old age, there is loss of so many things. If people live to be very old, it is a commonplace that they lose all of their own generation, while the world in which they felt comfortable, that of their youth and early maturity, has long since vanished. Faculties disappear.

The awful thing is, this slow decline begins decades earlier.  As a trade union representative in my twenties, I could remember all my appointments without keeping a diary, and a string of phone numbers. These days I need that appointments diary. The other day, I sent a card on impulse to that very old relative who recommend this book to me, and realised that I couldn’t remember the post code…

Grim humour written with unsparing clarity of vision by a brilliant writer, ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ is for those who can endure it. I will definitely be reading some more of Elizabeth Taylor. I liked her short story ‘Poor Girl’ when I read it decades ago, but somehow never got round to sampling more of her work.

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