I want to write about this book and give it the praise and justice it deserves, but I don’t know if I can. Elizabeth Taylor is a magnificent writer whose prowess is drastically underappreciated. Her prose is not showy or complicated, but she has that rare skill of being able to find just the right words to perfectly encapsulate an emotion, a feeling, a place, a fleeting moment, and make it profound. Her characters are just ordinary people, who, in their superbly, succintly realised ordinariness, are heartbreaking, because their lives and their experiences and their feelings could just as easily be mine or yours. Their fears are my fears; their tears my tears. I love/hate reading Elizabeth Taylor, because as much as I love marvelling at being drawn into a world so exquisitely alive, I hate being forced to confront the often disturbing and profoundly upsetting realities of life she reveals in all their ugliness on the page. Ageing is one of those upsetting realities that I try my best to avoid thinking about; having watched my grandparents disintegrate into shadows of the people they once were, I am terrified at the thought of being trapped in a body that is racked with pain, imprisoned in a life that grows smaller by the day. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont portrays both of these things unflinchingly, and at times I was so overcome with sadness that I could hardly bear to go on. I love life and believe that every stage we pass on our journey through it has its own unique beauty, but old age can be so terribly isolating and painful and frustrating that it’s hard to find the beauty in this often bleak season. I certainly couldn’t in Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal, and though it was a fine and thought provoking and brilliantly executed novel, I didn’t, and couldn’t, enjoy it one bit because of that.
There is an all pervading melancholy about old age; the faded sepia photographs of people who have become nothing but wispy memories, the sadly struck out names in old address books, the growing number of pill bottles on the counter, the reduced mobility offered by ever stiffening, weakening limbs, the gradual shrinking of the parameters of life. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont perfectly captures that melancholia, in its depiction of a group of elderly women and men who are no longer able to manage a home of their own, and so are forced to live in a hotel. The Claremont is a reasonably smart establishment on the Cromwell Road in South Kensington; coincidentally where I happen to work, though the Claremont appears to be situated at the rather seedy Gloucester Road end rather than the Brompton Road end where I sit and while away my 9-5 days. Nowadays the hotels that cluster around Gloucester Road, up past the Natural History Museum and the Lycee Francaise, are dingy looking affairs whose clientele tends to be more foreign exchange student than elderly person in reduced circumstances, but for Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents, The Claremont is a good compromise in a lively location. From the velvet curtained lounge they can hear the rush of the traffic and the clip clop of high heels, and feel that they are still part of life, and that there are a myriad of places they could go to, if they so chose.
However, the sadness of their lives is that none of them do choose to go anywhere, and their days become long vestiges of boredom, ordered around the routines of meal times and television programmes aired in the lounge. All of them are desperately lonely; Mr Osborne, the only male in the establishment, irritates the waiter every night at dinner by detaining him to tell pointless stories that there is no one else to listen to; the women speak wistfully of grandchildren and siblings and nieces and nephews who only emerge once or twice a year to bother to take them out. All are longing for spouses lost, homes much missed, full and happy lives ebbed away into nothing but memories by the tides of time. Now and again a dashing elderly visitor will arrive and stay a few weeks, busy with their own social lives, an enviable reminder of what their lives used to be. With little money and no one to take an interest in them, the residents of The Claremont are trapped in a tedious routine that takes them no further than the shops around the corner of the hotel.
One day, on one of her walks to the local shops, Mrs Palfrey has a sudden fall in the rain. Ludo, a dashing young bohemian writer, emerges from his basement flat to help her. As a thank you, Mrs Palfrey invites him back to The Claremont for dinner, but, embarrassed by the fact her grandson, of whom she often boasts, has never turned up to visit, Mrs Palfrey concocts a plan with Ludo to make him pretend to be her grandson to save face. Ludo agrees, and an unlikely friendship springs up between the two of them. Ludo becomes a bright spark in the darkness of Mrs Palfrey’s life; she was used to having a husband to rely on, and now she relishes having Ludo. But he is young, and has a life of his own, and their friendship cannot go on forever. The old, Mrs Palfrey soon discovers, are easily forgotten, and they increasingly become passive agents in their own lives. All of the residents are at the mercy of others, rendered as vulnerable and dependant as children as they gradually become pushed to the side of their own lives.
I told you this was sad. I cried when I finished it. I thought of all the times I haven’t been to visit my own grandparents when I knew I ought to. I’ve already lost two; the others live close by but I only go and see them once a month at most. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont made me realise how limited life can become when you’re old; that the energy and mobility and health I take for granted can reduce your life to four walls and a television set out of necessity and not choice. I often feel frustrated that my surviving grandparents have allowed themselves to become practically housebound, but now I think I understand a little more about why they do live like that. The outside world can be a scary place when you’re 80 and surrounded by technology you don’t understand, fast moving people and vehicles and an exhausting array of noises and experiences and shops and people talking and general hustle and bustle. It’s easy for the young to take their youth for granted; to dismiss the old, to ignore them, avoid them, disrespect them. But they were us once, and we will be them, in our turn. Even though this book depressed and saddened me, it also gave me the determination to treat the elderly with more respect and tenderness, and to visit my grandparents more. The elderly have an important place in society; they are vessels of history, and of wisdom. They link us to our pasts and remind us of our futures. They have much to share, if only we would take time to listen. I want to do that. I don’t want to run away from ageing. I don’t think ageing in itself is frightening; Mrs Palfrey and her friends seem to accept their bodies’ natural process of slowly shutting down with quiet resignation; it’s the loneliness and isolation that was the most terrifying and demeaning thing for these characters, and most probably in real life too. Unlike illness and pain, loneliness is easily avoided, if only those the elderly love were more mindful of their isolation. Taking the time to pop in for a cup of tea, to give a helping hand with the shopping, or just to watch a film; all simple acts, but to Mrs Palfrey and her friends, they would have meant the world.
So, in summary, this is not an easy read, not by any means; but a necessary and thought provoking one nonetheless. Elizabeth Taylor isn’t afraid to look reality in the eye, and I think perhaps those with a romantic rose tinted view of life, like me, need to be unafraid to sometimes as well. Even if it means our reading experience is not as pleasant as we would like.
On a lighter note, what a joy it has been to read all of the replies to my Reading America post – such excellent suggestions, thank you all so much! I am slowly going through the list and looking up the recommended titles – it’s so exciting putting together a reading list! I’m going to hopefully have it finished by the weekend and then I’ll post the master list for all of you to see.