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.