Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

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 …

I am not that easily moved but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont moved me a lot. What a touching story. Elizabeth Taylor is really a wonderful writer. Her style is so exquisite. I am really annoyed with myself as I read it much too fast. This should be savoured sentence by sentence. I think I will have to re-read it. I loved the style of Blaming too but I didn’t care for the characters. I found them so unkind. This is quite different. Mrs Palfrey is really a darling. But the other characters, even the embittered ones, are still endearing. They are all very eccentric and put up a front. They know exactly that the Claremont, that has seen better days, much like they have, will be their last chance at a little bit of freedom. After the Claremont comes the hospital and ultimately death. Their boredom and the way they try to grasp every little bit of excitement is described so well.

I don’t think hotels like this still exist and if so the people who live there must maybe even be richer than those described. The elderly women and the only old man at the Claremont are very well off. And lonely. No one visits them, they have become a burden to their families.

When Mrs Palfrey falls in the streets and handsome Ludo, an aspiring writer, kindly comes to her rescue she takes the opportunity and asks him to be a  stand-in for her own grandson who doesn’t visit her.

The other people at the hotel envy her immediately and she becomes quite a success thanks to Ludo. Their relationship is very special and Mrs Palfrey even develops a little crush. Ludo uses her as the model for his novel that he calls after something Mrs Palfrey said: “We aren’t allowed to die here”. He does have a bit of a bad conscience to exploit her like this but he does like her too and enjoys spending time with her. She is nothing like his own mother who couldn’t care less about him.

The novel is full of bon mots that are like little pearls on a necklace. Some are used by the narrator, some by the protagonists. Some are pretty, many are funny, like this one, uttered by Ludo during his first dinner with Mrs Palfrey: “I have never enjoyed myself more with my clothes on”. Here is what the narrator says about Mrs Palfrey: “She would have made a distinguished-looking man, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” This may sound unkind but Elizabeth Taylor isn’t unkind, she really likes her characters, their crankiness and eccentricities.

I truly enjoyed this novel, it’s sad, funny, bitter-sweet and beautiful. And thought-provoking. After all, none of us is spared old age, let alone the grim reaper. And some of us may have old parents or grandparents. Maybe we really should visit more often.

I would like to watch the movie and attached the trailer for you.

Has anyone seen it? Joan Plowright is a wonderful actress and seems perfect in this role.