The cover of the Virago edition of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont shows Rupert Friend wearing a modish blue muffler, with his head tossed back as he roars with laughter, and Joan Plowright (also mufflered, though hers is pink) in profile, looking robust and contemporary. It’s a still from the 2006 film of the book, and you can’t blame the publishers for using it, but as I read, the image got further and further from the book’s action. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is Elizabeth Taylor’s foray into Barbara Pym land and there’s very little in the way of full-throated laughter. In fact it’s hard to know how it could have been made into a film without being made either cutesy or sentimental.
There is certainly humor in the novel: Taylor’s sharp observations can be very funny. But by the end, this is an unflinching look at the loneliness and humiliation of old age that tallies in many particulars with Penelope Lively’s How It All Began. The difference is that Laura Palfrey, the heroine — yes, I think we can call her a heroine — of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is a woman of a different era from Charlotte Rainsford of How It All Began. Like Charlotte, she’s a widow with a middle-aged daughter. We glean that she spent a great deal of time abroad as a Foreign Service wife. Stoicism and patience are her strengths. She certainly needs them at the Claremont, a dreary London hotel where she takes up residence. We get to know a core of other long-term boarders and at first we might be in E.F. Benson territory, with the bibulous Mrs. Burton, the mousy Mrs. Post, the wicked Mrs. Arbuthnot on her crutches and ludicrous Mr. Osmond with his perpetual letters to the newspapers. Taylor isn’t above poking fun at them — even Mrs. Palfrey is described amusingly: “She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”
Funny is too easy, though. One day Mrs. Palfrey trips and falls outside the basement flat of the charming young Ludovic Myers, who takes her in and cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea. This, obviously, is the Rupert Friend part. The two form a desultory friendship and at the Claremont Ludovic is taken for Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson. Possession of an attractive young person does wonders for her status, and Taylor could have played this for laughs: the real and impostor grandsons, the jealous old ladies, the hand-knit sweater with the too-long sleeves, intended for Desmond (real) but given to Ludo (fake). Instead, with the lightest of touches, Taylor indicates Ludovic’s own loneliness and his own sense of honor and independence. It’s honest and touching, but far from heart-warming. Much more interesting than that.