My edition of this novel is the Virago Modern Classics reprint of 2001, which contains an introduction by Paul Bailey. In there he refers to a letter he received from Elizabeth Taylor after a “New Statesman” article he wrote in 1973. She wrote:
I feel , after a time, that my books have dropped into a pit, and must lie there for ever and ever. And there they were, brought to the light of day once more, and by someone who had truly read them.
Well I can’t guarantee that I have “truly read” Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, but I can let you know that I am grateful that this novel made a Booker Prize Shortlist so I was fortunate enough to come across it as part of this reading journey. I am grateful they haven’t fallen into a pit.
As the title suggests our main character is Mrs Palfrey, widowed and embarking upon a new stage in her life where she arrives at the Claremont Hotel, to see out her retirement. The Hotel is also the residence of a number of other elderly residents whose daily highlight is the posting of the evening menu (even though it never changes), gossip, the weather report on the radio and the events in the other resident’s lives.
Mrs Palfrey has a disinterested grandson Desmond, who everyone is dying to meet. A chance encounter with a young writer Ludo, allows Mrs Palfrey to create the impression, to her fellow residents, that this is her grandson.
What Philip Hensher did for the monotony of suburbia in his 2008 shorlisted novel “The Northern Clemency”, Elizabeth Taylor did 37 years earlier for the aged care facilities of England, or the hotels that had permanent residents, as the aged couldn’t afford full time care. Primarily a novel about aging, but including characters that suffer writers block (or procrastination) and subjects such as boredom and jealousy this is written with such precise and luminous prose that you cannot help to feel for the main characters.
It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.
The ordinary people of Britain, the ones novels are rarely written about, the ones with the “stiff upper lip”, the ones who give themselves a “good talking-to”, are the ones whose lives I entered through my time with this novel, and I am grateful of that time. A whole “middle class” too rarely seen in the pages of award writers novels.
This was one of my favourites from the 1971 list and in summary one that I personally believe deserved the main gong, slightly in front of Lessing’s “Briefing for a Decent into Hell”, Kilroy’s “The Big Chapel”, then Naipaul’s winner and Derek Robinson’s “Goshawk Squadron”. I am still on the hunt for the missing “St Urbain’s Horseman” and once I find myself a copy will post a review here.