We aren’t allowed to die here

Scanning down the Guardian’s list of 100 greatest novels there aren’t many whose author or title are completely unfamiliar to me. Of those, ‘Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont’ stands out because the author, Elizabeth Taylor, shares her name with such a Hollywood legend. Having now read a copy, I’m at a loss to know not only why I’d never heard of it, but why there isn’t a copy on every bookshelf in the land.

Mrs palfrey at the claremont

Every now and then I stumble upon a novel so wondrous that I want to buy it for every book-lover I know. ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ is such a book. It’s not a cheery read, dealing as it does with some of the more depressing aspects of aging, although it is incredibly funny. Mrs Palfrey is an elderly lady who moves into a London Hotel for the long term along with a few other elderly residents wealthy enough to afford a more desirable alternative to a residential care home. With her daughter living far away in Scotland, she is disappointed with her inattentive grandson, her only relative living in London, and striking upon a chance friendship with a young impoverished writer called Ludo, deceives the fellow residents that he is in fact the grandson of whom they have heard but not seen.

The novel is full of sharp observation and phrases that encapsulate so much in so few words:

Mrs Post, in her sad pot-pourri colours, fussing over her knitting.

and of Lady Swayne who arrives from the Cotswolds on her annual visit:

She inflicted herself on old friends, and went to the theatre.

and then amidst the barbed wry observation this sentence which struck me like a blow:

‘It is three thousand days ago today that my wife died,’ Mr Osmond said, to no one in particular.

The story is touching yet unsentimental, elegantly written and brimming with wry humour. Despite the privileged position of the hotel’s inhabitants, their wealth does not grant them immunity from grief, the endless slowing of time, reduced physical capacity and the corrosive loneliness. Maybe we avoid books about age because we don’t want to face the cold bleak truth of what our futures will look like. ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ doesn’t rose tint old age, but if you can bear to take a deep breath and shoulder the grimness, it’ll reward you with a beautifully observed relationship that spans generations, a critique of the stretched oft-resented obligations of family, all accompanied by lashings of incredibly dark humour. Worrying is futile, and you never know, you might just get run over by a bus and avoid it completely.

 Elizabeth Taylor

Not that Elizabeth Taylor