I chose this when “read a book with a female’s name in the title” was pulled out of the hat as part of Sandown Library’s Russian Roulette Reading Challenge. I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor before but had my eye on her for some time. She came to mind on a previous challenge when I had to read a book with a main character aged over 60. This book wasn’t available on the shelves then so I opted for “Elizabeth Is Missing” instead but I was pleased to be able to select “Mrs Palfrey” for this new challenge.
I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) was an exquisite writer of short stories, a format I choose to read less of than I should, but I always suspected she would be able to win me over. This is the 11th out of her 12 novels in a career which dated from her 1945 debut “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (which would also have sufficed for this particular challenge). Virago Modern Classics have done a great job in bringing the works of this author to a new generation and I am sure more or less everyone who reads her will turn into at least a bit of a fan. In his introduction to this book, Paul Bailey states;
“I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time. Theirs will be an unexpected pleasure, and they will, if they read her as she wanted to be read, learn much that will surprise them.”
As one of those to be envied readers I can certainly confirm that I got a lot of pleasure out of this short novel, which I read quickly but which is likely to remain with me for some time.
One of these Elizabeth Taylor’s is a giftes British writer and the other is a Hollywood Icon. Can you work out which is which? !!
Mrs Laura Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London at the beginning of the novel. Widowed and finding her house in Rottingdean has become too much for her she up sticks to this slightly down-at-heel establishment feeling she should still remain at the centre of things. The hotel is a stop-gap for an elderly group of residents, just tolerated by the management, most likely to end in a final move to a nursing home should nothing turn up. And nothing much turns up for them, even visitors are thin on the ground.
This is a delightful bitter-sweet comedy of manners where everyone is keen to say the right thing but which is often delivered barbed with hidden meaning. The residents range from the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot whose pain is used to explain her spite; the flirty and fun loving Mrs Burton; the out of his depth solitary man Mr Osmond and Mrs Palfrey herself, described as looking like “a famous general in drag.” When Mrs Palfrey has a fall on the streets of London she starts a friendship with a young writer who comes to her rescue and in an attempt not to look like the lonely widow she is she passes him off amongst the other residents as her grandson. Other than that, not a vast amount happens, there are quite a few agonising social situations, indifferent hotel meals, a few fadings away and a proposal of marriage and I lapped it all up.
This came so close to being a 5* read but I think it ended too soon and left me with the impression that it lacked a little of the depth I would look for in my search for the very best. This is a great introduction to a new author.
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont was first published in 1971. The Virago Modern Classics reprint first appeared in 1982.