Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor (the other Elizabeth Taylor) initially crossed my radar because I had heard Taylor compared to Barbara Pym. I’m still trying to eke out Pym’s novels, and I thought that maybe this would meet my need to read beautiful prose about complicated friendships. It certainly did, though it wasn’t quite what I expected. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a novel about an elderly woman who moves into a hotel populated mainly by older people who are there as permanent residents – think the Major, Miss Tibbs, and Miss Gatsby in Fawlty Towers, but rather less funny. Mrs Palfrey moves there after her husband dies, and the novel is primarily about her settling into this season of her life. Through a series of events, she becomes acquainted with an unsuccessful young writer named Ludo, and their attempts to develop a friendship run through the novel.
The book is a stunning exploration of human loneliness, especially in older people. Published in 1971, and presumably set then as well, the novel reflects the huge societal changes that have occurred in the 60s without ever really mentioning them. Mrs Palfrey, and her peers at the Claremont, were already middle-aged adults when these cultural shifts really gained momentum. The rapid pace of change has cut them off from their upbringings, while also making it more difficult to engage with the present. For instance, one of the older men in the novel is probably gay – the 70s euphemisms make it difficult to tell for sure, but I think that’s the conclusion we’re meant to draw – but he has not personally benefited from the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967. Instead, he is a widower, who misses the wife whom he cared about, and the comfortable, conventional life he had for decades. He is caught between a past he can’t go back to, and a potential future that he is too old to engage with. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character – I’m not sure anyone is, save perhaps Mrs Palfrey herself – but he is written thoughtfully. Taylor isn’t decrying the social upheaval – she’s simply exploring the effects it had on this particular generation of people.
It’s against this background of awkwardness and isolation that Mrs Palfrey forges a friendship with a young man who is living a modern life, very different to the one either she or her husband would have lived at that age. Ludo is an impoverished writer who works in the Harrods dining hall all day because it’s warm – the equivalent of making one cup of coffee stretch for several hours to get free wifi, I guess. He’s in a casual physical relationship with a woman who doesn’t really like him and resists his attempts to turn their connection into something more meaningful. The generational gap between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo is glaringly obvious in places – she awkwardly refers to his “friend”; she tries to approve of the damp, cold, trendy garret he lives in. The novel is, in many ways, about her one brave attempt to step out of the mothball, standstill life that she and her peers have been shoved into before their time.
The friendship between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo is, in a lot of ways, transactional – at least, it starts out that way. Mrs Palfrey wants an edge on the complex jostling for position at her hotel; Ludo wants fresh copy for his lagging, unfinished novel. Their underlying agendas remain largely unspoken throughout the novel, and it is difficult to feel that they are not taking advantage of each other. However, the friendship evolves, and seeing these two people come to genuinely value each other is a strange and lovely experience. This is not the type of novel which has twists, exactly, but I was surprised a few times by the direction of the story, always underpinned by people attempting to connect with the people around them.
With all the intergenerational conflict currently in the news, it’s a refreshing reminder both that it’s been around for, well, generations (pretty sure there’s plenty of it going on in Vanity Fair), and that it is perfectly possible to get on very well with someone who comes from a different time and value system to your own. One of my good friends is in her late sixties – a few years older than my mum – and I love spending time with her. Sometimes when I read intergenerational friendships in books, I think that the author either makes the participants too similar or over-eggs the contrast for plot reasons. I thought that Taylor did a brilliant job with that balancing act. Even though her characters are products of their time and see the world very differently, there are plenty of points of connection between them, which she draws out into a natural and believable relationship.
Returning to the comparison with Pym that I started out with, I can certainly see where it’s coming from – but I’m not convinced (at least not on the strength of this novel). Pym is melancholy and hopeful at the same time; her conclusions are bittersweet. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is much more bitter than sweet. This is a far sadder and less funny story than either of the Pyms I have read. That is not to say that it isn’t a stunning novel. It is. I’m glad I read it. If you like Barbara Pym, I really recommend this. It is a different kind of story, but it is still a small, beautifully told account of loneliness, friendship, and kindness.
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