Thursday 6 July 2017

'Never Touch Capital': Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago, 1971) Elizabeth Taylor evokes a 60s/70s England - postwar, post-Empire, pre-Thatcher. It's a time of reticence, discretion, austerity, decline. Mrs Palfrey has her rules, her code of behaviour. 'Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital' (ch. 1). It's an England I remember, yearningly, from my childhood. I find it too in Barbara Pym's 70s masterpiece Quartet in Autumn, though both novels were contemporary in their time.

Nostalgia is a slippery concept, and it's different for different people. For Mrs Palfrey the 'honeycomb housing and the isolation' of modern bed-sitters represent a world that is hostile to her interests. She recalls instead the era of her youth: cooks attending ranges, 'rattling dampers, hooking off hot-plates, skimming stock-pots, while listening to housemaids' gossip brought from above stairs' (ch. 6).

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a novel about old age - 'the disaster of being old', as Taylor puts it in chapter 7. Mrs Palfrey, a widow, has decided to live the rest of her life in a hotel. She arrives, tries to fit in among the other residents. It's a 'reduced and desiccated' version of school (ch. 3). She is immediately scrutinised and judged. Days are difficult to fill, other than with small-minded spiteful perpetually class-conscious conversation (Elizabeth Taylor was a fan, and friend (if that were possible), of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and the influence shows). Mealtimes are of enormous importance:
None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food: but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and disappointments, as once life had. (Ch. 2)
The comparisons between Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and the novels of Anita Brookner are obvious. One thinks not only of Hotel du Lac but of Brookner's exemplary novels of ageing: Strangers, The Next Big Thing, Visitors. Taylor's style* is simpler and her novel more social, less introspective, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is often as frightening, as unsparing, as those later Brookners.

I remember John Bayley's review of Brookner's A Private View, another story of the later part of life, and comparable with Mrs Palfrey for another reason. We could, Bayley says, go on contemplating George Bland's circumstances indefinitely - they're as satisfying as poetry - but the show or the plot must go on. In Brookner's novel a young woman insinuates herself into Bland's life, and he falls disastrously in love. Mrs Palfrey similarly encounters a young man, Ludo, and a relationship blossoms - a relationship nowhere near as unwise as Bland's with Katy Gibb, but ambiguous nonetheless.

Mrs Palfrey's experiences are closer to those of Mrs May in Brookner's Visitors. Ludo gives Mrs Palfrey a 'new stake in youth' (ch. 5); whereas for Ludo, an aspiring writer, Mrs Palfrey is potential material. It is a confrontation between youth and age, but the novel's instincts are largely (but not wholly) in the direction of comedy rather than anything darker.

The novel's characters are memorably but sketchily drawn - at least when viewed in comparison with (say) Brookner's intense emotional voluptuaries. But Taylor is dealing with people who don't quite know themselves. Mr Osmond, for example - is he gay? Or Mrs Burton - how and why did she start drinking? Or even Mrs Palfrey - has she ever before entertained unsuitable feelings?

For there is a falling in love. It isn't as violent an experience as George Bland's but it isn't as sublimated as Mrs May's. 'She felt suddenly tired, from love', and later, also in chapter 9:
'What a strange friendship we have,' she murmured, and looked away with a clumsy movement.
The novel is full of such moments - so understated, so aching, so authentic.

(I have actually read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont before, perhaps about twenty-five years ago. I remembered it for its sharp comic elements. What I got this time was a greater sense of fear, fear in spite of the comedy - fear of old age, of incapacity. It takes a special kind of writer to scare us in that way.)

(I haven't seen the film. It seems to have
a disappointingly modern setting.)
*Taylor's style is of that variety that's difficult to pin down, at least at the level of the sentence. Here's Hilary Spurling, writing about Taylor's style in her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett: 'clear, pure, almost transparent on the surface, full of ambiguities of humour and feeling below' (Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The later life of Ivy Compton-Burnett 1920-1969, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984, ch. 8).

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