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Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor.

January 21, 2015

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. Virago, 2013.  First published in 1971.

4 stars

A witty and sad novel about a widow and her aging friends who live at a London hotel.

The Claremont is an old-fashioned hotel in London where a small cluster of elderly people reside among the more transient guests. The permanent residents share the big fears and small pleasures that many of us today observe in the elderly people we know or in ourselves as we age. Mrs. Palfrey is the widow of a colonial administrator and a noble; a “manly” woman, she struggles to maintain her self.  “When she was young, she had had an image of herself to present to her new husband, whom she admired, then to herself; thirdly to the natives (I am an Englishwoman). Now no one reflected the image of herself, and it seemed diminished: it had lost two-thirds of its erstwhile value (no husband and no natives).”  Determined to be upbeat about her new surroundings at the Claremont, she struggles to live up to her own code of behavior.  “Be independent: never give way to melancholy; never touch capital.”   When she falls in the street, she is rescued by a young man who is trying to become a writer. She convinces him to pose as her grandson and to visit her at the Claremont.  Even though he retains his distance, he brings joy to her days.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912 –1975) was a popular English writer who wrote a dozen novels shrewdly describing the daily lives of middle and upper-class English people. She has a real knack for capturing her characters’ essential qualities.  Mrs. Palfrey and her other elderly characters are treated with gentle humor and empathy as if by laughing with them we can escape their triviality and sadness.  Yet as I read, what I felt was anger that our society, today as when she wrote, offers little beyond triviality and sadness to those of us who are aging.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was published by Viago Modern Classics, which since 1978 has been “dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works.”  This is an important goal, and this book is a fine example of why it is an important one.

I recommend this book to those brave enough to think about growing old, particularly to be an aging woman.

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