Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – review

Published by Virago

Publication date

Source – own copy

*A humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man.

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper.

Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unlikely friendship with an impoverished young writer, Ludo, who sees her as inspiration for his novel.

Mrs Palfrey, newly widowed, moves into the Claremont Hotel. She expects that she will not check out again until her death. Chosen for it’s location, with all the sights and sounds of London on it’s doorstep, it’s cheap rates and the proximity to her grandson, she is determined to make the best of it. But things aren’t as expected and the monotony is only lifted when she meets Ludo by accident.

This book quietly works its magic on the reader. Gently, slowly, it worms its way into your heart. There are no big scenes, no fast paced dialogue. It has beautifully evocative prose that allows the reader to easily envisage everyone and everything.

Ludo is of course using Mrs Palfrey, though she is not always aware of it. Using her as inspiration for his writing, whilst he doesn’t always actively seek her out he does come to value her friendship. It could be taken that Ludo should be vilified for this but his actions are so considered and considerate that the reader does not find Ludo to be the enemy. Indeed Mrs Palfrey herself is using Ludo. She uses him to save her own embarrassment but also to stave off her loneliness. She needs a friend, a connection to life and Ludo provides that connection.

The writing is understated yet beautifully done. It is only a short novel at 208 pages yet it does not feel that it has been under written. Everything that is contained in those 208 pages is a necessary part of the story. Any more pages would detract, and less would likewise.

There is a tragic edge to the story. It is after all about aging and the inhabitants of the Claremont have little to do but wait for death. Elizabeth Taylor’s insightful novel examines society’s view of the elderly and shows that it has not much changed in the last half century. It is both of it’s time and yet also ageless.

It is not just a tale of aging. It is also a love story, showing that love can develop over time, can be lost, won or indeed never really be where it is expected.

This is the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor I have read, so engaging was it, I read it in a day. It won’t be my last. I’m looking forward to discovering more from her.

About the author

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) is increasingly being recognised as one of the best writers of the twentieth century. She wrote her first book, At Mrs Lippincote’s, during the war, and this was followed by eleven further novels and a children’s book, Mossy Trotter. Her short stories appeared in Vogue, the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. Rosamond Lehmann considered her writing ‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit’, and Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’

This is book 12 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh I loved this book. Thanks so much for reminding me of it again x

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  2. Karen says:

    I bought this years ago after a recommendation, I must find it to read.

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  3. I loved this years ago, and others of hers but I recall this as my favourite. Yes! Just found it still on the shelf and will now re read… thanks for the reminder.

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  4. MarinaSofia says:

    It is one of my favourites by Elizabeth Taylor – short, sharp and compassionate.

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  5. literaryeyes says:

    A beautiful but disturbing book. This is true: “Elizabeth Taylor’s insightful novel examines society’s view of the elderly and shows that it has not much changed in the last half century.” I can only hope that people reading it now will take note and change their attitudes and behavior toward the elderly. This novel is a classic.

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  6. What a coincidence; I’ve just finished A Wreath of Roses. I had thought I was the only one who knew and loved Elizabeth Taylor! She is a hidden gem. Her prose is tight and atmospheric, her dialogue loaded with dry wit, her characters so alive, and there is always a satisfactory and unexpected ending. When I picked up In A Summer Season, I presumed it was a memoir of the actress, Elizabeth Taylor! (The woman on the cover looks exactly like her). How wrong I was. Savour Elizabeth Taylor’s writing like a good box of Bayonne chocolates.

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    1. janetemson says:

      I’ve discovered I have another of her books on my shelf which was a pleasant surprise. I’m trying to read more older ‘modern classics’ and forgotten writers. I have Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which I’m eager to start. Glad to hear you love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing too.

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