Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) was first published in 1971. It might be the saddest book I have ever read in my life. I mean sad. Not brutal, not war crimes, not poverty and despair. Just run-of-the-mill sad. It's less than 200 pages, but I took several days to read it because I felt it so personally and there was no rush to find out how it ends. It was clear from page one how it would end, although it took a few days for my irrational ember of hope to finally wink out.
It's about nothing more (nor less) than how people disappear as they age—from the outside in and, then, eventually, from the inside out. At 65 years of age, I already experience no longer being seen. It's a relief, in a way. But Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont illuminates without mercy or judgment the small moment-by-moment ways that this erasure happens and how little relief there is as your meaning to other people finally disappears.
The story begins with Mrs. Palfrey finally deciding to go to The Claremont Hotel near London because she saw an ad in the paper announcing “reduced winter rates.” It's a hotel of sorts, but mostly populated by old people who live there permanently. Nobody dies there. They go to the hospital for that.
We get the impending sense of doom as her cab driver tries to find The Claremont:
She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own desperation. If it's not nice I needn't stay, she promised herself…
But of course we know she will stay, and she does, becoming one of the old people who live there with their passive aggressive ways of sniping and bragging—much of it centered on who is going to have a visitor. Mrs. Palfrey talks boastfully about an upcoming visit from her grandson who works at the British Museum. She's already started to knit him a sweater.
Oh, yes, Desmond will be coming. He knows where to find me. We have always—had a link, d'you know.
But Desmond never visits and it becomes a terrible prick of shame for her.
On another afternoon, Mrs. Post is sitting in the anteroom waiting for her cousin to pick her up for an outing. The weather is dismal and her cousin is late:
“Please God, let her come soon, Mrs. Post was praying....Mrs. Post put her fist to her mouth. She thought bitterly of sitting there, waiting for someone to turn up, out of the kindness of their heart. Will they come? Or won't they, and so make oneself a fool?
Mr. Osmond doesn't boast of visitors, instead he insinuates himself on the staff, imagining exclusive friendships with them that don't exist. One evening, in full view of the residents, he intercepts the waiter with some inconsequential irksome story:
The old pink face had a false, waylaying animation, for it was strenuous work holding his listener captive.
This is the sadness of the book: the cloying, plodding desperation which Taylor shows through the tiniest telling details of the quotidian existence of these old people and their loneliness. They want to live vibrant lives, but find all the supports for doing so crumbling beneath them. Nobody cares about them enough, and what few signs of care there are come solely from duty.
One afternoon, on one of her short outings to break up the day, Mrs. Palfrey falls and a young man named Ludo rescues her, takes her into his apartment and bandages her leg. He gives her tea and a biscuit and she invites him to come to lunch on Saturday at the Claremont, which he reluctantly agrees to do. After she leaves he pulls out his notepad and writes:
...fluffy grey knickers...elastic...veins on leg colour of grapes...smell of lavender water (ugh!)...big spots on the back of shiny hands and more veins—horizontal wrinkles across hands.
With just this detail we see that she means nothing to him except as material for his novel.
Taylor gives close attention to these unending indignities including physical and mental decline, and how that profoundly limits not just life, but life’s meaning:
Mrs. Palfrey was trying to walk off a stiffness in her hip, but it would not be walked off. It seemed, instead, to be settling in, locking her joint, so that every step was consciously achieved. She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating on it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.
They are sitting in the anteroom playing cards and a new resident at the hotel is returning from a walk. None of them can remember his name:
Mrs. Post could not remember, either. “I'm afraid it's escaped me, too,” she said. “I always have been hopeless at people's names.” But this was not true It was only lately that she had become so absent-minded and she struggled to cover up her forgetfulness. It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddles, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.
Months after first coming to The Claremont, Mrs. Palfrey is returning from her daily, mid-day walk, and she finally admits to herself what we have known since page one:
She walked towards the Cromwell Road, and it was quite dark now and the stillness of fog settling down. Back at home..., she began to think, and then checked herself. She stumped on grimly. It had come to her naturally—that the Claremont was home.
Even the relationships they forge at the Claremont aren't given much consideration or value by others. When residents get sick, they are taken to the hospital and often die. Yet their friends at The Claremont only find out by reading the obituaries in the newspaper.
This happened when Mrs. Artuthnot died. They are in the anteroom and Mrs. Burton reads the obituary aloud:
There was a shocked silence.
“It seems only yesterday,” Mrs. Post said at last, “that I was waving her good-bye.”
“I would have gone,” said Mr. Osmond crossly. “I should have hired a car.” He glanced at Mrs. Palfrey. They might have gone together to pay their last respects, dressed suitably and in a suitable frame of mind.
“We are not even to know where it is to be,” Mrs. Burton complained.
“Or when,” added Mr. Osmond. He looked again at the newspaper. In spite of his feeling quite upset, he could not ignore the gratification of seeing in print the name of somebody he knew.
“It would have been nice if we could have sent a wreath,” Mrs. Post said. 'From her friends at The Claremont', or something like that.”
But that's the trouble isn't it? It didn't occur to anyone that Mrs. Artuthnot had friends.
What I love about this book is that it is a long, unflinching gaze at the inner and outer life of a group of people mystified and disconcerted by where they find themselves. They are surprised and ill-equipped for the loneliness, their irrelevancy, and the bald fact that their bodies are breaking down. Nothing much happens in this book except that they are trying to survive. They take baths, put on nice clothes, order sherry. They develop small rituals to break their endless days into bits they can get through. But none of that successfully battles their erasure from the lively world. Their conversations always flag. Their visitors never come.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is an unblinking view of what for too many is the disaster of being old. It is a worthy investment in a few hours of sadness.
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About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >