Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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.


  1. Audrey says:

    How funny…I saw and enjoyed the film of Mrs. Palfrey but I’m not sure I knew that Elizabeth Taylor wrote it. I read several of her books a long time ago but nothing lately, so this is a good reminder to turn back to them.

    I’ve been enjoying “our” reading list too!


    1. bookssnob says:

      I want to see the film – I think they make it a bit more warm and fuzzy so I should most probably like it more than the book! I have most of ET’s books but haven’t read many – I need to read more!

      I’m so glad! I hope some people might like to read a few titles along with me as I go!

      1. The movie is lovely…yes, bittersweet…but the way true life is.
        I loved Joan and Rupert…made their characters come alive…feeling like you know them.
        A film to be enjoyed over and over again!

  2. “Ageing is one of those upsetting realities that I try my best to avoid thinking about…”

    I’m entirely with you. There have been times, while backpacking in perfectly beautiful areas, that the sight of withered grass or a mouldering tree will make me gasp or give me a twinge of pain.

    Good luck in your move!


    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Kevin, thanks for coming by!

      I totally agree – there is a real sadness in seeing the disintegration of what was once a vibrant life…it’s difficult to come to terms with really.

      Thank you very much!

  3. Aarti says:

    What an excellent review. My grandfather lived to be 100 years old before passing away a few years ago, and even though he lived in his own house surrounded by his family, I couldn’t help but think that his life must have been so lonely and isolating. He slept a lot, he couldn’t hear well, and he had lost so many teeth that eating was just a way to sustenance. And he had been a widower for about 40 years. I can’t even imagine how that would feel, and I think that is one of my great fears of growing old- the isolation that seems to be an integral part of it (especially for someone who currently doesn’t seem likely to either marry or have children). I also think it would be horrifying to have the (if I may say so myself) sharp wit and intelligence that I have now, but NOT have a body that can keep up with my mind.

    1. bookssnob says:

      That’s really sad, Aarti. I sometimes think it’s a shame that our medical advances allow people to live so much longer now – are people who have outlived everyone they love really happy to get those few extra years? I don’t know.

      The isolation terrifies me too – if marriage and children don’t happen for me, who will I have when I’m old? It’s a frightening thought. And yes, the whole being trapped in a useless body thing scares me too. Not much to look forward to, then!! There must be some compensations. Lots of time to read?!

  4. le says:

    I read this book and found it greatly touching too. The sadest thing for me when reading this book is the fact that i work in a care home for the elderly and you see this all the time. Some people are lucky and have familys that visit every week, yet some people have no one and it breaks your heart sometimes. If you havn’t read it can i also recommend All Passion Spent by V Sackville West as a good read about growing old. Its a vmc aswell and is slightly more uplifting in spirit although still touching.
    Good luck in America and although this is the wrong bit did anyone suggest grace paley? Id also reccomend Property by Valerie Martin.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi le, thanks so much for reading! That must be so sad – I don’t think I could handle that. I get upset when I see people eating in restaurants alone so working in an old people’s home would kill me!

      I haven’t read All Passion Spent but it’s on my shelf – I might pick it up now you say it is similar to this. It would be interesting to see another writer’s perspective on old age.

      Thank you! Yes both of those are on my list to look through – so many suggestions, I just don’t know which ones to pick for my final list!

  5. Laura says:

    Your review moved me almost to tears. I read this book about two years ago and thought it was pretty amazing. It was my introduction to Elizabeth Taylor and now, having read more of her work, she’s one of my favorite authors.

    But I don’t think I could read this book today. I’m a “little bit” older than you; my parents are now 75. And in the past year their own abilities have changed substantially. They’re not at the “Hotel Claremont” stage yet, but their lives are becoming much narrower, restricted, and routine. It’s difficult to deal with, and I don’t need a book (no matter how beautifully written) to remind me of that.

    Looking forward to seeing your American reading list!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m sorry Laura! I think ET is marvellous – I need to read more of her books, and I have no excuse, as I have almost all of them sitting on my shelves waiting to be read!

      I can imagine that’s really hard. I hate the thought of my parents getting old. I just hope they remain mobile and active for as long as possible.

      Good! I will have it ready soon I hope!

  6. m says:

    It’s desperately sad, isn’t it? She’s such a brilliant writer, and this is one of her best.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes it is Mary! I can’t wait to read more of her books – I have a feeling each one will be slightly uncomfortable yet brilliantly written, which will make the uncomfortableness easier to deal with!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Dear Booksnob,
    What a thoughtful evaluation of Mrs. Palfrey which I read ages ago and loved in spite of its difficult theme.
    Gosh, it takes guts to get old.
    My mother in law is 88 and terribly pathetic and confused.
    Anyway, I’m an English person living in Manhattan and am interested to see which American authors have been suggested for you to read.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Elizabeth! It does, doesn’t it? It’s so sad to watch people disappear inside themselves.

      I will be joining you soon! The list will be up shortly – it’s difficult to choose just 50 from all of the great suggestions I’ve been given!

  8. Mary Chatfield says:

    This is a reply to an earlier post-when you requested titles of books about the US. Assuming that you will be in NY, go to the NYPL (New York Pubic Library) on 5th Ave and 42nd Street. The building itself is worth a visit. It is one of NY’s greatest treasures. The Library has compiled book lists on all manner of American topics. Branch libraries can be found throughout the city.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Mary, thanks so much for reading! I can’t WAIT to go to the NYPL and to join it too – I will also look up their book lists, thank you for making me aware of them!

  9. Hi there, I stumbled onto your blog by way of various others, and wanted to say how much I enjoyed your review of Mrs P at the C. I love Elizabeth Taylor, and find that her books linger with me long after I’ve finished reading them and, like you, I found this novel incredibly sad and moving. In fact all her novels are tinged with sadness. I think she is a genius – up there with Jane Austen – and yet so few people seem to have heard of her.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Charlotte, welcome! It’s always lovely to see a new face! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review and are also a fan of her writing. I know, I just don’t understand why she is so little known. Perhaps because people don’t like to read sad novels anymore?

  10. Cheryle Price says:

    I am new to your blog and have been so thrilled to have discovered you and Persephone Books! Although American I feel as if in another life I must have been English, I am obsessed with it’s literature and history and just about anything British. I hope although you are moving to the U.S. and understandably interested in our literature, that you will still suggest some good English books? Have a wonderful year in the U.S.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hello and welcome to you as well Cheryle! How lovely to have new readers. I’m glad you have discovered Persephone through me – as you are an Anglophile you will love each and every one of them!

      I am planning on just reading American literature, but from a very English perspective, so I hope you will still enjoy reading along! Thank you so much – I am sure I will!

  11. Penny says:

    I know just what you mean about Elizabeth Taylor. I describe her as one of my favourite authors, but I always find her books so sad that I sometimes have to steel myself to read them.
    My sister, a retired nurse, worked in a nursing home and she has often said that when she gets old she’s going to take up a dangerous sport! Anything rather than live the kind of lives she’s seen… Depressing, isn’t it?
    But I feel we must enjoy the lives we have now, if we can, rather than wishing, years later, that we’d made the most of what we had then. (I don’t think I’ve expressed that very well, so I hope you understand what I mean.)
    I’m much closer than you are to the stage you’ve been writing about. Sixty-three and counting!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes you do have to prepare yourself a bit with Elizabeth Taylor, don’t you? I knew Mrs Palfrey wasn’t going to be a cosy read but I was still a bit shocked at how sad it was. I’ll remember that for my next Elizabeth Taylor!

      It is a bit depressing but then at the same time I think it’s a certain type of person that ends up sad and alone in old age – I think if you are an active and adventurous person then you can still find joy in life no matter how old you are. And yes I totally know what you mean – that is why I push myself to do scary things, because I know I’ll regret it when I’m older if I don’t!

      63 is nothing Penny!!

  12. Your review was so poignant, reminding me that I am closer each year to living at a Claremont type place. It is sad, but, good, I think, to be reminded through books of all the stages of life and your words about aging and the book as well are a little nudge to me to spend some time with those I know that are up in years and who may just want someone to talk to, read aloud to, receive a card or some cookies . . .

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Penny. I can’t imagine you ever ending up like Mrs Palfrey so don’t think that for a second! You are right – I think we need to make ourselves aware about all of life’s stages and prepare ourselves as best for them as we can. It’s also good to have an insight into the lives of those we don’t yet understand, so we can be in a position to offer what they need to be a little happier. ‘Up in years’ is a lovely expression!

  13. This is a really lovely review, and I’m afraid to pick the book up and read it because I know how I am when it comes to sensitive novels. I blubber away and it takes days for my eyes to not be so puffed up. But, it really sounds amazing, so I’m thinking of putting it on the wish list at Paperbackswap. I’m going to have to think about picking it up, I’m really a big baby.

    I’m so excited for your move to NYC!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Natalie! I am just the same – I am too sensitive for my own good! It is a brilliant book and well worth reading, but just prepare yourself beforehand and get the tissues ready. Then have a lovely cosy book at hand to launch straight into when you finish!

      Thank you! I am too!

  14. heather says:

    I loved this too. And cried. So touching.

    1. bookssnob says:

      It really is touching. And very thought provoking. It’s made me even more determined to make this life a good one, and to appreciate my older relatives more. So, an inspiring if depressing read.

  15. sue rosly says:

    Dear Booksnob

    You are a joy to read. I am very fond of Elizabeth Taylor and I loved this perceptive review. When I first read Elizabeth Taylor I was young; now that I am older I can see the melancholy and poignant thread that underlines all her work – you described it so well. You have probably read Elizabeth Jane Howard who is in my top ten writers of all time. If you haven’t read her, can I recommend “The beautiful visit”? It’s a wonderful book.

    What a great response you got to your post on American writing – so many books to read!

    Thanks for posting at what must be a very busy time for you.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you so much Sue! How kind you are. No I haven’t read any Elizabeth Jane Howard, I don’t think – I shall have to look her up, thank you for the suggestion!

      I know, I am just totally overwhelmed! I am currently weeding through and looking up books to see what takes my fancy. It’s a hard but fun task!

      It’s a pleasure to keep posting when I have such lovely readers as you, Sue! 🙂

  16. Verity says:

    This is another excellent review – I did enjoy the book very much more than the film. The film was disappointing because although the script and the actors felt genuine, the setting was not the period setting of the book.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Verity! Oh I didn’t realise that about the film, that’s a shame! I think I’d like to see it just to see how they brought the characters to life but I won’t expect brilliance!

  17. JoAnn says:

    Have you seen the film, Rachel? I enjoyed it very much, but had no idea the book was by Elizabeth Taylor. The book may be too sad for me to read right now though (parents 75 and in-laws in their 80’s). Your review, as always, is excellent.

    1. bookssnob says:

      No I haven’t JoAnn but I intend on doing so! Yes I think if my parents were older I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to read this. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  18. Rose says:

    I’ve just found your blog and I must say it’s lovely. This book sounds like a gem that I’m afraid to say I didn’t know despite it being a Virago Modern Classic. I will add it to the already very heaving list of things to read and enjoy.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Rose! It’s always a pleasure to have a new reader! Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are all very good and I hope you will enjoy them!

  19. Merenia says:

    Hello Rachel, late to the party as usual…

    Thanks for your lovely review – I always appreciate how you derive lessons for life from your reading, and so honestly too. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is exquisitely carved and she uncovers private everyday suffering so well. ( I think an American equivalent would be Edith Wharton – sometimes excrutiatingly so with EW.) I recommend Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season, and At Mrs Lippincote’s. The later has Bronte references throughout too which you would enjoy. (The Bronte references are not in the annoying modern mode of ‘ l want to be trendy and reference a classic in my modern day novel and be really fashionable and intertextual, which irritates me no end! )

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Merenia, thank you for your lovely comment! What an interesting comparison you’ve made…I’ve only read one EW novel and I can see what you mean. I have nearly all of ET’s novels but just haven’t read them! I like the sound of At Mrs Lippincote’s – I shall have to try and fit it in before I leave! Ha! So true about intertextual references – subtle ones are fine but blatant prizewinning attempts also annoy me!!

  20. lewerentz says:

    Your comment is really good and interesting; well done ! Tanks to your text, I can “relive” what I felt during my reading.
    I read this book (in French) last year and I liked it very much, despite that the story is quite sade.
    (Sorry for my bad English)

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the book despite its sadness – I didn’t realise it had been translated. I learn something new every day! No need to apologise – your English is much better than my French!

  21. Simon T says:

    What a fantastic review, as always, Rachel. I’d forgotten how sad the book was – especially Mr. Osbourne, I think his pointless “man-to-man” anecdotes were the most painful aspect to read. The film certainly tries to inject a little too much whimsy on occasion, but is still very good. I don’t find Elizabeth Taylor’s novels easy (except perhaps Angel) but she is a strikingly good writer, especially on the micro-level, as it were.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Simon, I appreciate that! Yes, Mr Osborne made me especially sad. I’d be interested to see the film – I presume they have jollied it up a bit as no one likes to leave a cinema more depressed than they were when they entered it!

      Elizabeth Taylor does make for rather uncomfortable reading but I don’t mind being made uncomfortable when the writing quality is this good!

      1. Simon T says:

        You’re very welcome to borrow my copy of the film, if you like!

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  23. Candyce says:

    I just finished watching the movie and how I cry every time when Mrs. Palfrey is on thinks Ludwic is Arthur. And I love the scene when he is coming out of the hospital and the old woman is crumpled in the wheel chair. He takes the time to say hello to her and she brightens up and you just love her.

    I found your thoughts on ageing so nice. I like a book , even if it is a difficult read, that gives me insight into others–in this case to older ones. And even better I like it if it makes me want to be a better person. Which I think you felt in understanding your grandparents and seeing through there eyes.

    I want to read the book.
    Thank you for this really nice post.

  24. Amanda says:

    I too love Elizabath Taylor’s work, and happen to live close to where she lived for mots of her writing career in Buckinghamshire. I have written a short story aiming to be in the style and feel of ET, if anyone would be intereeted to read and give me feedback of any kind (I am new to writing so I need as much feedback as possible), please let me know and how I can get it to you, I am on fb and twitter.

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  27. Jacx says:

    Partly agree – but who is Mr Osborne? Mr Osmond lived at the Claremont….

    Incidentally my parents are 80: they have just returned from 3 weeks abroad and are continuing the redecoration on their new bungalow. My dad, who has always gardened, has dug a new plot. “Old” is a moveable concept and creeps up, giving time to adjust.

    Having said that ET showed compassion and humour in this, showing that despite a shrinking world, humans continue to need challenge, interest and interaction. I thought it intelligently- written and very accessible.

    Here’s to spreading the ET word further 🙂

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