So far I've done nothing at all to celebrate Elizabeth Taylor's centenary - something that I've been mildly ashamed of because I have a pile of her books unread on my Virago shelf. The original green spined covers are particularly attractive, and the back blurbs sound so good that I've managed to collect any number of them without ever actually finishing one of her books - worse still there have been a few false starts. 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremount' was one of a few half read volumes in the collection and after Verity's conversation it seemed imperative to finish it.
Until I discovered some of her short stories a few years back I'd rather given up on Taylor, but I loved those stories - they finally gave me an insight into why people love Taylor so much. This time round I read Mrs Palfrey in a day, for me I rather think she needs to be approached like this - at something of a gallop. The writing is lovely, she's funny and perceptive with a deft touch for the tragic, but there was still the fear that when I put the book down it just wouldn't occur to me to pick it up again. Maybe this is because in this case Mrs Palfrey's age made it unlikely that she had much to look forward to but death.
Mrs Palfrey is an elderly widow looking for somewhere to spend her last days after realising life with her daughter and son in law would be impossible. She settles on a cheapish hotel off the Cromwell road - because there's so much going on in London, and there's the proximity of her grandson Desmond who she was close to in his childhood. Widowhood in a dull hotel where the residential guests are none to welcome in the eyes of the management is destined to hold few charms for Mrs Palfrey - or her fellow inmates. What the hotel does represent is freedom from the indignity of old peoples homes and hospitals and for that it's cherished.
Desmond proves to be a disappointment - one of the many that the elderly have to bear. He couldn't be less interested in his grandmother, but Mrs Palfrey finds somebody else to love - a young writer called Ludo who in his own way is just as in need of somebody to be loved by in a grandmotherly sort of way. Like all love though there is a possessive element to it, especially on Mrs Palfrey's part, but then she has rather less in her life to look forward to - nothing really but the maintenance of appearances, so having something to hold onto matters rather more to her.
Taylor's vision of old age is quite bleak - Mrs Palfrey and her friends are treated shamefully, it's bad enough that their families don't want them, but worse that the services they pay so much for are so grudgingly given - the impatience that the hotel treats it's guests with is a stark reminder of how easy it is to exploit and mistreat the vulnerable.