My personal Elizabeth Taylor centenary season continues and I am fast losing count of the number of times I have read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and also how many times I have resolutely told myself I absolutely don't want to see the film.
Sadly the cover on the film tie-in version seems so misleading I can't bear to show it on here, much preferring to stick with my lovely old Virago edition with the painting of Mrs Mabel Whitehead by Margaret Foreman, whose website is well worth a visit for more of her stunning portraits.
Screen writer Jean-Claude Carriere talks interestingly about the whole idea of book into film in his conversation with Umberto Eco in This is Not the End of the Book, suggesting that watching a film adaptation of a book can seriously impair the memory of the book even altering first impressions irrevocably. Often the film experience overlays and muffles the reading one, our own memory blurs and the film maker's interpretation can sometimes replace it completely. The consensus of those present on the Elizabeth Taylor day seemed to be that the film was something of a travesty.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont yet another book where Elizabeth Taylor sets her scene and peoples it with seeming consummate ease as Laura Palfrey takes a taxi alone to her new home, the Claremont Hotel in London's Cromwell Road. The 1970s, these are the dying days of the residential hotel where the long-term residents sit at seperate tables and are somehow an encumbrance to the staff. The hotel fulfilling the function of a sort of halfway haven for the elderly in the days when we called them geriatrics when they ended up in hospital, but in the meantime they were still allowed to rub alongside the rest of us. Now of course it is the purpose-built and very expensive residential home, followed by the nursing home
But after multiple readings how different a book can seem each time, and how well I recall my reactions to old hand Mrs Arbuthnot, with her 'ears sharpened by malice' last time round, and when I may have been about ten years younger.
How much more sympathetic I felt ten years on when it finally becomes apparent that Mrs Arbuthnot can no longer stay at the Claremont and must move onto the next stage...
'There was an indefinable melancholy about Mrs Arbuthnot's departure...'
and I felt it too and more so ....for some reason which I suspect has much to do with Anno Domini.
Slowly the residents sport their true colours which includes an insatiable appetite for everyone else's life, and when Mrs Palfrey, returning from the library, has a fall (having passed the age when you are deemed to have 'fallen over' ) and is rescued by the young and handsome Ludo, how easy it becomes to introduce him as her grandson to the other residents in the absence of the real one who has consistently failed to visit. A web of gentle and harmless deceit becomes as tangled as the knitting as the other residents probe and fret over every last detail.
Every conceivable theme is at play here, loneliness, vulnerability, misapprehension, memory, concepts of home and what home is, and belonging, along with the 'disasters of being old', as so many of the residents valiantly fend off, but eventually have to face up to, their own gradual decline.
'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...'
And with that sleight of pen Elizabeth Taylor captures those frequently missed minutiae that contribute so much to the whole...here I was noticing those moments of unspoken and often glossed over awkwardness between two people, and as always her customary nod to the decade in which she is writing. How many writers managed to cover every decade from the 1940s to the 1970s... here it's the words from the Beatles and Sergeant Pepper, 1967 and She's leaving Home.
The group discussion hour at the Elizabeth Taylor celebration day flew by as I pranced around with a microphone and with some wonderful group contributions as we debated the orgins of the book with Joanna Kingham, Elizabeth's daughter. Joanna recounted the tale of Paul Bailey's book At the Jerusalem and how, having been so impressed by it, Elizabeth Taylor secretly sought out the author. At that time he was working in Harrods and Elizabeth proceeded to observe him in some detail for the character of Ludo in the book. And there is a clever circularity to it all as Ludo, writing a book himself jots down every last detail each time he meets Mrs Palfrey, this after he has patched up her leg following her fall ...
'He helped her up the steps and into the taxi and when it had driven off, he returned to his room and leaning over the table, wrote in a notebook 'fluffy grey knickers... elastic ...veins on leg colour of grapes...smell of lavender water (ugh!) ...big spots on back of shiny hands and more veins - horizontal wrinkles across hands.'
I had been blissfully unaware, but had noted in my preparatory reading, that Mrs Burton, the rather glitzy, blousy alcoholic resident was in fact Elizabeth Taylor's own wry concession to the 'other' Elizabeth Taylor, and I was delighted when Joanna Kingham confirmed this, because it adds greater hilarity to a novel that most certainly possesses it, but you are not quite sure whether it is alright to fall off your chair laughing at these poor people...
'Mrs Burton lifted her skirt and tugged at her roll-on,' Well girls, ' she said, 'let's get at it.'
as she leads the residents into a party.
And on returning to her room one night slightly the worse for that extra whisky...
'Mrs Burton felt as if she were swimming along the corridor towards her bedroom, glancing off the walls like a balloon... she pulled up at number fifty-three, steadied herself, mae a forwards movement with the key. Calmly does it. Miraculously, she hit the keyhole first time...'
And now that I have heard first hand about Elizabeth Taylor's wry and glorious sense of humour I am finding it in each book I read, wonderful juxtapositions of pity and pantomime abound.
The ending is inevitably likely to be sad, but even given that, I am not sure there can be a more devastating final paragraph to a book than the one you will read in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
So a book I am sure well-known to many of you, and I am trying to think of more books which focus on the elderly in this way. I have come up with Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel and the feisty Hagar Shipley... but do any others come to mind??
Thank you for all your suggestions, I'm noting them here...
Rules for Old Men Waiting ~ Peter Pouncey,
The Enchanted April ~ Elizabeth von Arnim
All Passion Spent ~ Vita Sackville-West,
It So Happens ~ Patricia Ferguson
Sun City ~ Tove Jannson
Staying On ~ Paul Scott
Moon Tiger ~ Penelope Lively
Noah's Compass ~ Anne Tyler
East of the Mountains ~ David Guterson