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.

22 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

  1. I’ve liked Joan Plowright in everything I’ve seen her in, and she looks like a dear in this – also, Rupert Friend, mmmm. 🙂

    As to the book, that also sounds lovely. I was curious about Blaming after reading your review, but this one sounds like something I’d definitely go for. Thanks for sharing!

    • You are welcome. I am glad it has been recommended to me after I posted on Blaming (thanks Mrs. Pearl and Danielle). Did you see And A Nightingale Sang with Joan Plowright? It is such a wonderful movie. London, WWII, during the Blitz. No, I don’t mind Rupert Frined at all. I watched Chéri, the movie based on Colette’s book. Rupert Friend and Michelle Pfeiffer are in it together. He is in the Young Victoria as well.

      • I still need to see Cheri, but I enjoyed The Young Victoria. He’s also in the newer Pride & Prejudice with Kiera Knightly – he plays Wickham. Thanks for the tip about A Nightingale Sang – I haven’t seen it but it sounds good!

  2. I’m so glad you had a better experience with this book than the first Taylor book you read. Her prose really is exquisite, but I know what you mean by off-putting characters–that’s the problem I had with that Scottish crime novel not too long ago! 🙂 You describe this book perfectly and make me want to reread it (definitely one for rereading) or read something else by her! There’s another book I think of when I think of this book/theme and that’s The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian author. The books are very different (the protagonist in that book is very curmudgeonly), but she does an excellent job of portraying that feeling of helplessness that comes with aging.

    • Oh great, thanks for that recommendation, I have to have a look. It’s a sad topic and a bit frightening but when a writer knows how to write about old age well it’s also wonderful.

  3. I’m so pleased you liked the book, Caroline! You must see the movie–every single part is perfectly cast, especially Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. Ludovic is quite a lot nicer in the movie too. 🙂

  4. I read this a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. It was so poignant and yet pithy at the same time. Taylor never let it collapse into sentimentality whilst giving us a portrait of quite distressing isolation in old age. And she was funny, too, I recall. I had no idea there’d been a movie made of it. It’s sort of tempting, but I did love the book and wonder whether I might be disappointed.

    • You are right, it isn’t sentimental at all and quite funny. I hear only good things about the movie and will watch it but there is always a danger when doing so especially the one of losing our internal images as the movie will superimpose them. If your memory of the book is to fond than better not watch it.

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