Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor is a name that has been cropping up on my blogosphere for a few months now, and due to the amount of praise and fantastic reviews I have read I knew I had to read her work sooner rather than later. My Mum bought me The Collected Short Stories for my birthday, however I decided to opt for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my first read, mainly because I have recently recorded the film on telly.

Mrs Palfrey is an old lady who fills the living space between family home and nursing home with a stay at an hotel, The Claremont. This in itself screams of a bygone era, I can’t imagine people living in hotels in the present day (but then I could be wrong) and I instantly get this fantastic image of the two old ladies and the major who lived at Fawlty Towers, so I had a clear visual picture of the sort of person who would spend time living in a hotel, whether by choice or by force. Mrs Palfrey refuses to submit to the routine of the regular guests and mixes up her days of knitting, sitting, reading and waiting for the dinner menu to appear, by taking walks in the local area. It is on one of these walks that she takes a tumble, a tumble which leads to her meeting Ludo, a young man who spends his days sat in the Banking Department in Harrods writing a novel. The pair strike up a strange, but endearing friendship, where Ludo agrees to pretend to be Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, as her real grandson is too ‘busy’/slefish to visit her. Both Mrs Palfrey and Ludo appear to be at a crossroads/standstill in their lives, and their friendship almost bridges the gap and makes the transition between stages of their lives somewhat easier and light-hearted. Unfortunately their lives do eventually go in very different directions, but I left the novel feeling satisfied that they had brought some happiness and comfort to one another’s lives.

This novel was all I was hoping for and more. I read a review earlier, one that I had been saving until I too had read the novel, that pointed out how nothing really seems to happen in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and this is so very true. And yet it is such an endearing novel and I found the narrative, character descriptions and the portrayal of the elderly people just left at the hotel so heartwarming. As mentioned Mrs Palfrey meets Ludo after she takes a fall outside his basement flat one dreary afternoon; their first meeting is beautifully described:

‘Light streamed out across wet stones and ferns and a dustbin, and up the steps a young man came, hurrying. He took her in his arms and held her to him, like a lover and without a word, and a wonderful acceptance began to spread across her pain, and she put herself in his hands with ungrudging gratitude.’

If it wasn’t an elderly woman and a young man (not that I am ageist) it would have been a romantic meeting. Perhaps this unconventional description of their first meeting paves the way for their strange relationship and the humourous deception they play on the other guests at the Claremont.

For me Taylor creates truly memorable and endearing characters, whether they are cranky old ladies who are reluctant to admit that age is creeping up on them or a poor, young writer struggling to make ends meet in order to achieve his dream. Ludo’s financial difficulties did make me smile; I am currently umming and ahhing about moving out of my shared house and living alone, as I feel the need for independence and I really want a pet (something I am not allowed in my current house, boo!) Poor Ludo cannot afford heating, and can barely afford food. ‘When Ludo reached home, he was cold; for he had no overcoat. He decided to allow himself the luxury of half an hour’s gas-fire before going to bed and he knelt before it rubbing his hands.’ What a romantic image of living alone. I did wonder, ‘will this happen to me if I live alone?’ and then I remembered that I live in a slightly different era, but you never know. I might not find it so romantic if it was a reality!

On that note, I must go. I have a cake in the oven, but I will end this with words of wisdom from one of the old ladies who lives at the hotel, ‘one can always read a good book twice…in fact one always should read a good book twice.’ and I am sure I will be doing that myself with Taylor’s work.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a story I know well, but shockingly a novel I have never read. Yes, I am guilty of the ‘watching the film before reading the book’ excuse, but in my defence I was pretty young when the film was realised and it seems to be on telly every few months, so I couldn’t exactly miss it. Now I have finally read the book I am a little sad that I never read it in childhood, as it is just the type of thing a younger version of me would have loved.

The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox a young girl growing up in India. Her beautiful, wealthy mother has very little time for Mary, and leaves her in the care of a fleet of servants, meaning that by the time we meet her as a 10 year-old she is spoilt, selfish and obnoxious. A cholera epidemic kills off Mary’s parents and most of the servants, and when a hungry, tired and abandoned Mary is discovered days later she is shipped off to an uncle who lives in a large manor house on the moors in Yorkshire. Mary’s uncle had little time for a small child; he is still in mourning for the wife, a wife who had a secret garden that has been locked since her death ten years before. What an enticing mystery for a small child with little else to do with her time. So yes, a secret garden, a large house with hundreds of disused rooms, an uncle who has been in mourning for a decade and cannot cope with being in the same country as all his memories…oh and some strange crying noises in the dead of night.

This novel followed on well from The Mayor of Casterbridge as it paints such a beautiful image of the British countryside, albeit I have seen a move from the West Country I know so well to the Yorkshire Moors, but that has just reinforced the fact that our countryside offers so much variety and is just spectacular. When Mary first discovers the garden she is not sure if it is a lost, dead garden, but as she tends to it and grows to love it, the garden also begins to grow and flourish and evolve into a place of beauty and life. It also becomes a place of new hope and takes Mary and those around her on a journey to overcome their problems, and thus grow and develop themselves.

I did enjoy this novel and it was comforting to read a narrative I know so well, and yet still offered surprises, the biggest one appearing in the form of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. In the film Mrs. Medlock is brilliantly portrayed by Maggie Smith, and is a formidable, strict and sometimes scary lady who frequently puts Mary in her place. However in The Secret Garden Mrs. Medlock is still somewhat formidable, but to me she seemed more humane and quicker to realise the positive influence Mary brought to Misselthwaite Manor. She is more accepting of Mary and does not come across as such a dragon. I could argue that the novel misses out on this and needs a tougher nemesis for the spoilt Mary to battle with, but Burnett’s writing and characterisation fit so well together it would have seemed strange to have a more dominant, overbearing Mrs. Medlock.

Overall a pleasant read. I have an urge to watch the film again, however I think I might have to upgrade from my VHS copy first!

The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been quietly residing on my bookcase (admittedly different bookcases) for nearly two years; a pristine copy just chilling out there between thumbed copies of Frankenstien and Far From the Madding Crowd patiently waiting to be read. Finally, its moment came. I hadn’t planned to read this novel. I hadn’t spend hours agonisingly gazing at my bookcases waiting for a book to leap out at me and be read that instance. Instead I just picked it up, didn’t think about it, and began reading. I relish this pain free method of choosing what to read; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does I appreciate it.

I’m going to pinch a line from the synopsis of my copy, but it is too perfect a summing up of the novel; The Mayor of Casterbridge ‘is about a man haunted by his past.’ Henchard, his wife and small child stop off at village fair, and during their stay in a food tent, Henchard begins to drink:

‘At the end of the first basin the man had risen to serenity; at the second he was jovial; at the third, argumentative; at the fourth, the qualities signified by the shape of his face, the occasional clench of his mouth, and the fiery spark of his dark eye, began to tell in his conduct; he was overbearing – even brilliantly quarrelsome.’

It is whilst he is in this drunken state that Henchard commits the shocking mistake that haunts him for the rest of his life. He quickly swears off alcohol and makes a fresh start in a new village, rising to the position of Mayor. However, his past cannot stay secret forever, and it soon comes back to turn his world upside down and brings new joy, heartache and trials for Henchard to deal with.

I thoroughly enjoyed this return to the beautiful Wessex countryside of Hardy novels. Having grown up and lived in or near the Wessex region of South West England for all my life (thankfully I missed out on the accent) I find a comforting sense of familiarity in Hardy’s writing, despite the fact few places/landmarks are explicitly mentioned. His sheer love and appreciation of the countryside shine through in all his novels, with rural life providing a perfect backdrop for his memorable tales of love, loss and moralistic messages. I currently live just outside a city and every so often I get an urge to move to a bigger city and experience life in the hustle and bustle of a thriving metropolis…and then I read something like The Mayor of Casterbridge and I am reminded that I would miss the beauty and ever changing nature of the countryside, the pheasants pecking about in the fields and the glorious misty mornings where the fog lingers on the hillsides and the valleys for what feels like an eternity. And let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t be allowed chickens in the city, and I really want some. Possibly my favourite description from the novel centres on the countryside: ‘The sun was resting on the hill like a drop of blood on an eyelid.’ Eerie and forboding as well as beautiful imagery.

The narrative was full of many twists and turns, again something I love in a novel, and if I am honest, something I wasn’t quite expecting from The Mayor of Casterbridge for some reason. The rise and fall of Henchard always seems to be balancing precariously on a coin edge, and to a fair degree it is always his own fault and his jealousy and rage that lead to his downfalls. There are many points in the novel where I felt sympathy for Henchard and I could almost understand why it acted in a certain way, and I was delighted by his attempts to come good at the end of the novel. Hardy has created yet another doomed protaganist with a sense of the inevitable clear throughout his novel. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Mayor of Casterbridge and it has left me eager to reread Tess of the D’Ubervilles, the subject of my undergrad dissertation…maybe I will aim to get there sooner rather than later.

In which I realise I might have a slight addiction…

Having had an uber productive day so far, I decided I would do a little blog updating and reflect on all book related tales of October. And this is when my addiction truly hit me! Now I know I have A LOT of books; having moved all of them from house to house over the past few years this is far from being news, but I think my book buying addiction might have got a tad out of hand over the past month. I am slightly OCD-ish about my books, and have a handy little list on my ipod of all the books I own, with tick boxes for when I have read them (yes, I am aware of how geeky this is, but I do love to tick boxes). According to this list I own 52 books that I have yet to read, and there are a further 15 on my Kindle…I’m no mathematician, but that’s nearly 70 books I haven’t read yet…some people don’t even own 7 books, let alone 70 they haven’t read!

October saw this staggering ‘to be read’ list grow even higher with many new book purchases. In the past month alone I have added:

The Winter of the World – Ken Follett (Haven’t read the first in the trilogy yet)

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

Stardust – Neil Gaiman

Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor

to the Kindle, and:

Complete Short Stories – Elizabeth Taylor

Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple

to the bookcase! This list doesn’t even include the pile of books I keep getting out from the library!

When will the madness end?!? So I have come to a resolution…by the end of March 2013 the number of books I own but have yet to read WILL/MUST be under 50! Sounds like a simple enough goal, but I know me, and as soon as I finish one book, another new one seems to take its place. Therefore I must rely on my self control (which has failed me on many ocassions in the past) and I will stick to this goal, especially as I have so many books I want to re-read as well! It is like a never ending circle of book buying bliss!

October Reading

On the plus side I have read a handful of books in the past month, most from the library, but still. I sped through two more in M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, but I have opted not to blog about these when I read them, as I whizz through them in a day and I read them purely for a cosy crime thrill. I have read and blogged about:

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton – Elizabeth Spiller (and even received a comment from the author!)

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I have enjoyed all the novels I read in October, which is a great achievement, as there is nothing worse than perserving with a novel you despise. I have now moved on to Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge which I am loving, and it is will be a tick off the ridiculous ‘to be read’ list!