Elizabeth Taylor was a well-known and much-loved British author, publishing thirteen novels and short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. She has been praised by writers such as Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel; Anne Tyler compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen. However, since her death in 1975, her fame has faded; somehow women, especially those who write about society and the family are less likely to make it into the literary canon. The Telegraph calls her “one of the forgotten geniuses of the [short story] form.”
I came across her name and this title on one of those lists of best books. Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont on a dreary January day, comforting herself with the words “If it’s not nice, I needn’t stay.” Recently widowed, she is coming from a visit with her golf-mad daughter and her family in Scotland. Once in her room “she thought that prisoners must feel as she did now, the first time they are left alone in their cell, first turning to the window, then facing about to stare at the closed door: after that, counting the paces from wall to wall.” But she thinks this “briskly”. After all:
She had always know how to behave. Even as a bride, in strange, alarming conditions in Burma, she had been magnificently calm–when (for instance) she was rowed across floods to her new home; unruffled, finding it more that damp, with a snake wound round the bannister to greet her. She had straightened her back and given herself a goo talking-to, as she had this afternoon on the train.
I love this kind of everyday courage. It is so rarely celebrated. It stands her in good stead as she adjusts to the routines of the somewhat seedy hotel, where long-term residents mingle with “birds of passage”. The residents are a marvelously eccentric bunch, their world narrowed to the hotel and its inhabitants, the predictable dinner menu a source of endless speculation. Mr. Osmond tells racy stories and frowns on Mrs. Burton’s nightly drinks–they cost extra–as does Mrs. Arbuthnot, a rather stern woman crippled with arthritis, but also the person who first spoke to Mrs. Palfrey, including her in the group, a kindness Mrs. Palfrey never forgets.
Before she realises that visitors are a major topic of conversation, Mrs. Palfrey mentions that her nephew Desmond lives in London. When he doesn’t show up, Mrs. Arbuthnot and the others commiserate with her, something she cannot bear. When she encounters a young writer on one of her walks, Ludo, and repays his kindness by inviting him to dinner at the Claremont, she decides to pretend that he is Desmond.
The webs become ever more tangled, but–as with Anne Tyler–Elizabeth Taylor treats her characters with respect. She may invite us to laugh at them sometimes, but never loses sight of their essential goodness and the courage it takes to face a lonely and penurious old age. I found this novel satisfying and unexpectedly moving. I see that it was made into a film in 2005 and hope that I can find a copy.
What other once-famous writers can you recommend?