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No Country for Old Women

The British novelist Elizabeth Taylor was a master of awkward and complicated feelings

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. NYRB Classics, 224 pages.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was first published in 1971, the eleventh of twelve novels by the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor. It has claims—I don’t know the numbers—to being her most popular book. It takes its place in Robert McCrum’s 2015 Guardian list of the one hundred best novels in English. On its first appearance, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize, then in its third year. Students of the prize will tell you that a good big one—or sometimes only a moderately good big one—will usually defeat a good—or even a very good—little one, and that’s what happened this time too. The prize duly went to V. S. Naipaul’s (I think rather messy book) In a Free State. The story goes that a jet-lagged Saul Bellow, acting as celebrity judge, thought he heard a lot of tinkling teacups in Mrs Palfrey, and there went her chances. By my reckoning, just one cup of tea is drunk in the entire novel—the one in Ludo’s basement pad—and that doesn’t tinkle. There are a handful of other references to tea, as it were unconsummated, and all of them non-tinkling. Bellow’s crude point would have been better made by complaining about the presence in the book of pounds and pence, or the references to medium sherry. But sometimes Anglophobia, or perhaps the unbearable imputation of gentility, only has to harrumph to get its way.

Kingsley Amis described Mrs Palfrey in his New Statesman review as a novel about “loneliness, old age and approaching death.” In terms of brute fact, his message is about the same as that of a standard contemporary reader’s review, which sees a “detailed description of old people, slow, and a little depressing.” That, though, comes with a steady subcutaneous drip—in “detailed,” in “old,” in “slow” and “little” and “depressing.” Even “description” strikes me as disingenuous and wrong. One can hear in it the whine of mingled plaintiveness and balked self-adoration, the authentic who-needs-this huffing of our Tripadvisor-y times, the Age of Experian, or the New Irk. What we like is “relatable,” whatever that means, while what we dislike or makes us uncomfortable is “depressing.” What hope is there for our species if narcissism governs us even when we are reading? In Angel, her historical novel about a popular historical novelist, Taylor writes of her heroine’s reading habits: “She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her.” This surely is “relatability” in all its stupid glory, and fifty years before it was even invented. I find Amis’s description to be true, candid, and economical. It even manages to sound a little zestful.

One can read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as an authoritative dissenting take on Swinging London.

Mrs. Palfrey—Laura Palfrey—is a recently widowed grandmother. The Claremont is a residential hotel on Cromwell Road, the great traffic artery leading west out of London to Slough, Heathrow, and, ultimately, Bristol, on its way slicing through the tony borough of Kensington and Chelsea. (“I like the idea of Kensington Gore,” Taylor has written elsewhere. Like all good novelists, she likes her names and place-names. They are free words, words she doesn’t need to write. The biddable Mrs. Post. The bibulous, button-pressing Mrs. Burton. Ludo. Rosie. Old Bordon the boarding-school teacher. “Basil whom?” Coming from Taylor, even “old friends from Potters Bar” has an ominous ring: it is where people go to get potted.) Mrs. Palfrey has arrived at the Claremont by way of Rottingdean (another real place, near Brighton), and before that, Burma, where Mr. Palfrey—Arthur, her one-and-only, or once-and-future—will have been something in the colonial administration. (The British left there in 1948, just before Partition.) Burma (Myanmar) was known as the Scottish Colony, but only because of the preponderance in its government of men called Scott. Mrs. Palfrey’s daughter, Elizabeth, has gone to live in Scotland, and has—troublingly even to Ian, her husband, let alone Mrs. Palfrey—become more Scottish than the Scots. (“She was not bred to Hogmanay, or dancing reels, or going out with the guns.”) In Foreign Office parlance, she has “gone native.” In its dry way, and while hardly an allegory, this novel about a handful of decayed gentlefolk, with its cast of female outlivers and one or two retired army officers, is a book about the state of post-imperial England. Somewhere near the end, Taylor writes: “It was like watching a famous statue topple over. Prone, and broken, she was hardly Mrs Palfrey.” The theme is the theme of England: the possibility of retreat, of a managed, or even dignified, withdrawal (because morning in England, to coin a fanciful expression, was in the seventeenth century). This is the seventh age. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be of interest to us in our project—individually, nationally, collectively—of staying alive. To Mrs. Palfrey, the old colonial hand, with her startling memories of teeming rain and snakes and restless natives, London is seen as a reasonable card to play, with the Natural History Museum within striking distance. (Not that she, or any of the other residents of the Claremont, ever goes there.)

It is 1968 or 1969 (Taylor quotes a couple of lines from “She’s Leaving Home” from Sgt. Pepper’s). Perhaps 1970, when the Queen Mum turned seventy. The world is suddenly getting younger. Men—including the dishy Ludo—have been growing their hair. Women, too. The typical three-story London terraced house is being broken up into flats, and prices are on their way through the roof. The Englishman’s house is his . . . what, exactly? His investment—correct. From the basement—called the lower ground floor—one can see up from the bottom of what is aptly called a well about as far as the knees of passersby (it is Ludo’s first vision of Laura; when he visits his mother’s “frowsty little love-nest” in Putney, so much light and air make him giddy). People are always hungry, always thirsty, always starved of entertainment. Coffee is an unwise—and expensive—pretension, food has not yet been invented. Drink is sought after but, except on very special occasions, ditto. Ludo, one reads, “dived into a corner pub and bought two bottles of light ale, then hastened on to open and warm some spaghetti hoops. Rosie was coming to supper.” Lucky girl. The young people flock like starlings to Trafalgar Square on Saturday nights, to get up to their bit of no good, I’m sure. There are nightly demonstrations on television—nuclear disarmament, maybe, or anti-Vietnam War, the elderly viewers would sooner not know. Accents—even the Queen’s—are going to pot. Manners aren’t what they used to be. The whole country seems to be in a bit of a pother, but, oddly, there are Union Jacks everywhere. Can it be that they no longer really signify anything beyond some get-rich-quick Carnaby Street wheeze? There is plenty for the reactionary-minded Osmonds of the world to react against, in the form of poison-pen letters to the papers, which themselves are spoiled for choice. The long-established post-WWII meanness of locked stationery drawers and no indoor heat and anxiety about sudden taxi fares and the price of stamps clashes with a strange newfangled sybaritism and cosmopolitanism in the young. Foreign travel is now a possibility. Weird restaurants are opened. “Crispy noodles I dote on,” Rosie exclaims. “Oh, water chestnuts!” To some, as they used to say—as it might be, the eaters of the repeating cucumber sandwiches— nasty foreign muck. (This is decades before “Balti Britain.” As I say, food hadn’t really been invented.) Alert readers will pick up a steady stream of authentic fashion tips as well. You can build your very own Rita Tushingham from crushed velvet, “roll-ons” (British for “pantyhose”), PVC coats, white tights, white boots (these last, from memory, especially horrific). There is an unforgettable “description”—perhaps the only actual description in the book—of Rosie, styled almost like a Keatsian corpse: “Her long hair was straight, and dyed an old woman’s grey. Her pale face was touching in its unhealthiness, the mournful eyes, the colourless lips. She was staring ahead of her.” All the old ancestral values have been reevaluated: “Her parents would not have understood that, for the girl flatdwellers, clothes came before food; fun before comfort; privacy nowhere. To him, the priorities were reversed, with privacy first, the assuagement of hunger next (which was different from having a meal), and clothes last.” Among many other ways, one can read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as an authoritative dissenting take on Swinging London. Swingeing London.

Taylor takes great pains to present her heroine as someone who can take care of herself: mannish, well-accoutred, tough as teak.

Taylor is a master of awkward, complicated, unexpected, and often unacknowledged feelings—it is what makes her such a consummate British artist. The Claremont is not so much full of old bones and replete with fragrant old memories as it is a hive of cruelty, dread, emulousness, arrogance, and humiliation. The phrase “exquisite torment” might have been especially invented for her. In the English way, she inflicts an exotic emotional education on the reader and calls it comedy. Words are either weapons or wounds. An unexpected kindness makes way in an instant for a devastating snub. As Taylor notes, the most outrageous sentiments can come in the wake of a seemingly guileless “I simply wondered . . .” or “I’m afraid . . .” It is as predictably unpredictable as the English weather. No, it is the English weather. “She suffered a little flurry of unpopularity when she asked for their coffee to be served at the table.” One hears the hailstones pattering across her tablecloth. Elsewhere, it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs. “She saw a look of uncertainty on his face, and glanced quickly aside.” “She looked at him with astonishment—her first change of expression from disdain.” “He looked quite astounded at the idea—really appalled; and then the look of glee came back into his eyes.” Was something said a moment ago pleasant or foul? Ought I to feel flattered or dismayed? Is something a rote phrase or does it actually mean something? There are moments of subtle slippage, when one observation is shared between two objects, or possibly neither: “‘So nice,’ she murmured, meaning the party, not the peanut.” The insufferable Osmond roars out his obscenities; later, one feels sorry for him. Is he queer, frustrated, or just infantile? “‘What is plonk?’ Mrs Post asked nervously one morning.” By evening, having found out, she is airing her “new trilling voice.” “Mrs Arbuthnot, on one of her worst arthritis days, condoled with her spitefully.” The combination here of verb and adverb is one of genius. Simpler natures will struggle with it. No wonder Mrs. Palfrey is unable to sleep after being its object. Taylor takes great pains to present her heroine as someone who can take care of herself: mannish, well-accoutred, tough as teak. Ludo writes unkindly of her that “she wore a pair of stout leather gauntlets, as if she had just returned from hawking,” and Taylor tells us “She ate her ginger pudding casually, as if she were unconcerned with what it was.” There is something heroic about her. Soldiering on is what she believes in. “Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought.” Back in Blighty, she doesn’t stand a chance.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is full of pairings. Begin anywhere, go anywhere, they are there. Burma and England. Past and present. London and the country. Ludo and Desmond, the pretend grandson and “le vrai,” both, for their sins, as Ludo is once unable to stop saying, writers. Men and women—or, as it sometimes seems, especially to Osmond, the man concerned, man and women. (Even though at times the categories seem close to being reversed: “They lowered themselves into their chairs. As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.”) Guests and staff. Summers and Mr. Wilkins. Paying commercial guests and long-stay residents. The Major and the Colonel. The sweet and tremulous Mrs. Post helping the birds build their nests with hair combings from her brush, and the actually rather redoubtable Mrs. Palfrey in her maroons (she is marooned) and her ends of fur (as a returnee from the tropics, no doubt she feels the cold). The one outing to see Mrs. de Salis and the other to a Masonic Ladies’ Night. “The hallowed Launderama,” also known as the Coin-Op Laundry; “the hallowed Chinese Lantern,” and the “Ching-chong.” The cheese counter at Harrods and Mr. Osmond’s dream of settling down with Mrs. Palfrey in Suffolk somewhere and hosting, maybe, some “small dinner party, the odd cheese-and-wine set-to.” Desmond’s work in progress on Cycladic art and Ludo’s stint waiting tables at the Plaka. The two “kept” women, rather ill-kept at that, Rosie and Ludo’s mother. Find one of something, there’ll be another. The taxis, the meals, the walks, the sparse, desperate things to look forward to. The books by Snow—the right Snow, or the wrong one. “Roast Surrey fowl or cold Norfolk turkey.” This is what gives the book some of its playfulness, its depth, and its connection to fate. It means there is always the dream of being “set right” or “put to rights” or, best of all, “in the pink.” Poor Mrs. Post, Emily or Last, “she got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen, and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings”— that would be double-o. . . . The wrong Elizabeth Taylor, and the right one. “‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’”

This essay is included in the NYRB Classics edition of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and reprinted here with their permission. © 2021 Michael Hofmann