About the Book
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.
Format: ebook (209 pages) Publisher: Virago
Publication date: 7th July 2011 [1971 ] Genre: Modern Classics
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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont might well be subtitled ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ so keen is Mrs Palfrey to hide the fact she’s lonely and feels rather abandoned by her family. However, she’s determined to preserve her independence while she can.
The book provides an insight into a mode of living that is unfamiliar to modern eyes where a hotel is a place to stay on business or for pleasure, not to reside in on a long-term basis – and without the convenience of a bathroom of your own. The presence of so many long-term residents is not quite what Mr Wilkins, the hotel’s manager, wants for his establishment either. ‘His dream was Conference trade, drinking businessmen, a board in the hall saying ‘I.C.I. Pompadour Suite. 11am.’ He aspired to that.’
Alongside the reader, Mrs Palfrey accustoms herself to the routines that punctuate the residents’ days – the posting of the menus for lunch and dinner, gathering in the lounge before dinner, repairing to the television room after dinner to watch the latest serial. The author also gives us insightful, sometimes affectionate, portraits of Mrs Palfrey’s fellow residents, their habits and foibles. There’s Mrs Burton who makes frequent use of the bell to summon the aged waiter, Antonio, to take her drink order in the evening. Or Mrs Arbuthnot who has ‘ears sharpened by malice’ but is crippled by the pain of arthritis so that it would be a hard-hearted reader who did not have some sympathy for her. There’s Mrs Post who delights in feeling useful by running errands for others, Mr Osmond whose favourite occupation is writing angry letters on a variety of subjects to the Daily Telegraph, and Mrs de Salis who has ‘the best hearing at the Claremont’, which occasionally comes in handy.
One of my favourite scenes in the book was the party thrown by Mrs de Salis after she has moved out of the Claremont about which one guest recalls, “I’m glad I went… but I shouldn’t have to go again tomorrow“. (I think many of us may have been to parties like that.) Or the Masonic Ladies’ Night at which an entirely unexpected offer is made.
I found the friendship that develops between aspiring author, Ludovic, and Mrs Palfrey touching even if initially they are using each other: she to hide a deception, and he to provide material for the novel he is writing. Through Ludovic the reader gets an insight into London life of the period for those with little money to spare: evenings spent at the launderette, careful calculations about how long the gas fire can be lit for, watching the feet of passers-by from a dingy basement flat. On a lighter note, when Ludovic seeks to augment his income by getting a job as a waiter in a Greek restaurant, there is this wonderful passage. “The Plaka was in a basement throbbing with bouzoukia and smelling of charred lamb. In this deafening noise, Greek refugees became more Greek than ever before in their lives. English Philhellenes Kalisperassed about the place continually.”
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a charming story tinged with humour but also with moments of poignant sadness.
About the Author
Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is increasingly recognised as one of the best British writers of the twentieth century. She wrote her first book, At Mrs Lippincote’s, during the war while her husband was in the Royal Air Force, and this was followed by eleven further novels and a children’s book, Mossy Trotter. Her acclaimed short stories appeared in publications including Vogue, the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)