The first in my choice of older women in fiction around the world in the UK is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Published in 1971, in this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents upon whom Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. But her position is threatened when the real Desmond appears.
Ageing in Mrs Palfrey
Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions.
As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.
At the Claremont they experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems yet they are concerned to keep up appearances. The institution infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing to them, their families and to the staff.
How are the old people treated?
- Family neglect
None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions and status. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.
Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.
A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)
Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation.
Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so. (102).
She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.
- Economic exploitation
Providing care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than as guests.
The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)
Mrs Palfrey reflects on the outlook from the room she has been allocated.
From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)
The quality of the food, served in a three-week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.
When Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement.
- Regard them as eccentric
It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.
Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.
Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail: ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.
Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them with ‘I’m afraid …’
I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)
The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21stcentury, makes much less of the privations of age, and encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it because of that.
- Having respect
The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.
… and Mrs Palfrey herself?
Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:
Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)
She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down.
She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)
Not a conventional heroine then.
To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor first published in 1971 and by Virago Modern Classics in 1982. 206pp
Posted by Caroline Lodge of Bookword