Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1)

As my part in the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebrations, organised by Laura, I'm hosting the celebration of Taylor's 11th novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  As I've read it before, I thought I'd enlist the help of two friends to help me discuss it.  So without further ado, may I introduce David, and Jo.  I met both of them through blogging, although Jo is the only one of the two to have her own blog which you can find here.  We ended up having such a good discussion that I've decided to split it into two posts, so do pop back tomorrow for some more chat.  We would love to hear your own thoughts on the questions posed if you've been joining in with this month's readalong or have read it before, so please join in on the comments box and we will hopefully be around to reply!

So, David and Jo, what was your first thought when I suggested that you read this book?

David: First, I was flattered to be asked to take part in any group read. As for this particular author and title, I had already heard of the book as I recall Simon Thomas speaking highly of it on Stuck in a Book some time back. It is not one of Simon's "50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About" that stares at you every time you visit his blog, so I must have been sufficiently impressed by his review for it to stick in my memory as a novel that might be worth exploring.

Jo: I thought, oooo good, I have been meaning to read one of Elizabeth Taylor's (ET) novels for so long. I have seen so much on various different blogs about her and felt I was late to the party on this author. It also meant that I was reading something which was out of my normal reading habits. The fact that when I read the opening paragraph, it was set in a hotel I was even more intrigued. I love books where "institutions" are used as a setting, to me it gives a vast scope for characters and plots. 

How did the book compare to your initial conceptions?
David: Given where I first heard about this book, I came to it expecting something set in the 1920s or 30s, that would probably not contain much action or suspense, but would instead offer quiet contemplation of characters leading quiet lives, presented in elegant but not pretentious prose. I was probably also expecting a smattering of gentle humour.

I got pretty much what I was expecting, the only exception being the period. One of the things I most enjoyed about the first few chapters was trying to figure out exactly when it was set. Mention of Union Jack shopping bags, the length of Ludo's hair - on the longer side if I recall correctly - and later of long haired protestors suggested a 1960s setting.

It did not let me down on the gentle humour front either. There was one episode or remark I found particularly amusing, but since I failed to note it at the time I have since been unable to find it again. The most comedic situations arise as a consequence of Mrs Palfrey's decision to pass-off Ludo as her grandson. This leads to some awkward moments when they are talking with, or in earshot of, other Claremont residents. Not surprisingly, when the real Desmond turns up, he gets pushed out for a walk on a somewhat inclement evening, leaving him to wonder whether his grandmother is losing her marbles.

Jo: I thought I was going to be reading about the goings on of a hotel - quite simply. How wrong I was, but certainly not disappointed. I was also expecting something that I would have to concentrate on reading and the language would be rather stilted, again how wrong I was. Other than these things, I really did not know what I was going to be reading - this being the very first ET novel I read. 

What did you make of Mrs Palfrey, and how did you feel about her friendship with Ludo?
David: I found the friendship forged between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo perfectly believeable, even in a decade when the old and young were moving apart like never before. They are both lonely people, even though Mrs Palfrey has a fellow residents and Ludo has the company of Rosie. They also share a precarious grip on financial respectability. Ludo may be closer to the brink of poverty, at one time having to hold down several jobs in order to support his mother, but Mrs Palfrey is also very much aware of that her circumstances are constrained and likely to become more so the longer she lives:
One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lower standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go. (p.45)

Ludo's poverty is represented by his threadbare clothes, using Harrods banking hall as his writing studio (unusual as it may be to associate Harrods with poverty), and above all by his basement flat. As Mrs Palfrey observes about such residences when walking in Ludo's neighbourhood:
Some of the basement windows were covered by vertical iron bars, so that it must be like being in prison to live behind them, she thought. One could peer up at the feet going by, and the wheels of cars; but no sky ...

Despite the differences between the Claremont and Ludo's sub-terranean flat, the two places share a sense of sadness and decay. The Claremont is no longer a popular choice for elegant tourists, and its permanent residents have all passed their prime; meanwhile, the streets were Ludo lives have also seen better days, the homes of the wealthy, and their basement kitchens, having since been converted into cramped flats and dingy bedsits.

I think that this relative equality between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo strengthens their friendship, as seems to be proven when Mrs Palfrey's loan creates a barrier between them that had not previously existed.

Mrs Palfrey and Ludo are thrown together by accident when she falls over near this home. The friendship that leads on from this chance meeting is not just a product of shared isolation and genteel decline. I sense that the strongest connection is a consequence of mutual emotional need. Mrs Palfrey has a difficult relationship with her daughter, and a grandson who seems not to care; Ludo has a mother who shows him little love but is happy to take advantage of him when the need arises. Mrs P is a sort of surrogate grandmother to Ludo, and in return he becomes the sort of grandson she would like to have. Sadly, of course, the absence of any genuine family ties between them delays his ability to rush to see her when events take an unfortunate turn towards the end of the book. Perhaps the message here is that rather than struggling to keep up appearances we should be honest about our lives, admitting the truth about our economic circumstances and, more importantly, about our families. Then, as now, people would probably have been suspicious about a cross-generational friendship of the kind between Mrs Palfey and Ludo and, as a result, they would probably have needed to invent some kind of familial link, but not making out he was Desmond would at least have avoided some of the difficulties this causes. Not that I am saying Taylor should not have written it as it is, after all, as I said earlier, it is this deception which makes possible some of the novel's more comic situations.

Jo:  I felt Mrs Palfrey was very fragile character and her friendship with Ludo gave her strength. She was an outsider to the hotel and it was obviously going to take time to settle in to the hotel, at that point I was unaware that these residents were here before they went to either hospital, nursing homes or sadly heaven. It made me think very much about the lovely home my nan was in for the last ten weeks of her life and how all the residents used to love the young children coming into visit them. It brought them much happiness. Coming back to the book, I felt that Ludo provided that happiness. All of a sudden Mrs Palfrey had a purpose, something to do and someone to look out for. It was clear her daughter was not particularly caring, otherwise why had she let her mother move all the way to London, her grandson when he did appear was out of duty not love. Ludo also had a purpose with Mrs Palfrey as well as the initial rescuing of her outside where he lived. She gave him an insight into another world which was better than watching life go by in Harrods Banking Hall. This was more real and interactive. Ludo was lost in London as much as Mrs Palfrey and they found each other and I think that it gave them what they needed at the time. Even at the end for Mrs Palfrey, she was not forgotten by Ludo but erased from her own families records as if her death was an inconvenience.

Can you think of any other novels on the theme of ageing and elderly death that you have read, or do you have any thoughts on this topic?
David: One would expect there to be more novels on this theme, particularly in Britain and the rest of Europe where we seem very much aware of having an ageing population. Having said that, Britain in particular has long seemed to me to be obsessed with youth: the older you get, the less important your needs seem to be considered. This is something that already occurred to me in my teens, and not just a reaction to getting older myself.
If you'll excuse me for behaving like the librarian I nearly was, and the data analyst I now am, you may be interested to know that on Librarything, as at 10th November 2012,  the tag "ageing" has been used 8176 times by 3038 members; the tag "youth" is used by a similar number of readers, 3515, but with significanty greater frequency (37,485 times). These results may well be biased by a tendency to regard fiction for young people as a distinct genre, in a way that is not mirrored in what is increasingly being called "later life". Books aimed at young people very often feature young people, thereby increasing a tendency to tag such books with youth-related labels. Nevertheless, these numbers do seem to offer some anecdotal evidence in support of Verity's suggestion that ageing is something of a taboo subject in literature, or at least in literature that is popular.

I found only two other books in my collection that were tagged with "age". One was Catherine O'Flynn's "The News Where You Are", a novel that seems to me to be of its time in a stronger way than might have been the case when Mrs Palfrey was published. The residents of the Claremont Hotel probably seemed like relics from the age of empire even when the book was first published. Even the hotel owner would appear to prefer not to have to rely on their custom. By contrast, the older characters and the old people's home that feature in O'Flynn's book - for all my suspicions about the marginalisation of the old - seem more integrated into a multi-generational story.

The second book that I tagged with "age" was "Strangers" by Anita Brookner. Stylistically, Brookner is much closer to Taylor than the younger O'Flynn. Of course, Brookner is now in her eighties. Getting older does not oblige an author to write about being old, but it is not suprising if such circumstances prompt an interest in the theme. Perhaps we can expect an increase in the number of books about ageing now that the likes of Rushdie and Amis have turned sixty?

Jo: I have really racked my brains, and continue to do so in regards to reading novels which death and ageing feature strongly in them. I think that there is either very little or it has passed me by. It is not necessarily a theme I would pick up if I am to be honest. Although I have read plenty of novels where death is a common theme but generally with those that are young and not old. At the moment I put this down to the loss of my own grandmother and how even now it suddenly comes over me in a wave the loss, at the most oddest times. It is with the lack of interest by Mrs Palfrey's daughter and son that made me quite cross. I suddenly realised that there are many people out there who are on their own and that no one cares what happens despite them having relatives. 

Verity: I am fascinated by David's analysis of data and the conclusions that he has drawn.  I think Jo makes a valid point that she would not necessarily pick up a book on such a theme as I think that I would agree with that.  Maybe that goes some way to explaining David's findings.

To be continued....


  1. I really enjoyed this post and the perspectives that David and Jo brought to the book. I can't wait for more!

  2. You have some wonderfully insightful guests on your interview sofa, Verity! Great post and like Laura, I can't wait for more.

    I knew Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was going to be a darn good read but it surpassed even this fan's expectations. I LOVED it!

    The issue of loneliness comes up quite a bit when this novel is talked about. Perhaps it's just me but I rather like being on my own and pottering around as an elderly person doesn't put me off in the slightest. The guests at The Claremont all had the capacity to seek out company and that's what they did by venturing down to the lounge every day, just as any young single would do who wanted to make a friend. Yes, to be pushed aside by family can be heartbreaking but people spread out across the globe these days. A feeling of family is where you make it...just look at the kindness and friendship on these blogs! So if I spent hours and hours on my own in a nursing home, don't assume I am lonely.

    Lovely to hear from you again, Verity!

  3. Comment from SoupDragon:

    There's so much to think about here. Ageing in fiction has recently been on my mind after reading a couple of collections of short stories by Alice Munro; one written recently and one written in the 1970s. I was particularly interested to see how the way Munro portrays older characters has changed. In the earlier collection, the elderly feel very different from the young and can't identify with them at all. In the collection written more recently, the elderly still identify with their youthful selves and can't believe that they really are so far away from youth.

  4. A very interesting format and ensuing conversation!

    I read a book about elderly people set in Florida close to when I read this one - "Sun City" by Tove Jansson, but it suffered in comparison with Mrs P!

  5. This is a great post - so nice to hear the thoughts of people who are new to Elizabeth Taylor.

    There are a couple of Anita Brookner novels - that have ageing as a central theme - I'm thinking of Strangers - her most recent novel - and Visitors. Although the charcters in these novels don't live in institutions. They are wonderful novels, but far more melancholic than ET however. Also Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym - from what I remember - again rather sad has a really melancholic approach to thios subject. As a subject in fiction itself - it doesn't put me off - but I can imagine it not being a subject that might put off some people - especially very young people perhaps.

  6. @heavenali - I see we both made a connection between the ageing theme in Mrs Palfey and in Brookner's Strangers. As Soup Dragon commented, one can get melancholic about ageing or simply surprised that age has crept up on you: no doubt many people experience both these reactions.

    @Darlene - I think you are right to identify loneliness as also being a theme of this book. It is a subject that has been on my mind the past few days, leading me to speculate I would have found Mrs Palfrey a tougher read this week than I did two or three weeks back.