Elizabeth Taylor is a writer I admire greatly. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) is one of her late novels and it is about an elderly lady (and lady is the right word) who arrives at the Claremont, a residential hotel in Kensington, hoping to make a life for herself there after the death of her husband. Taylor went and stayed in such a hotel in order to get the details right and how wonderfully she depicts the routine and the little pleasures its residents cling to, their petty slights and alliances, their hopes and fears. Are there such hotels, populated by lonely old people, these days? I somehow doubt it.
Mrs Palfrey is a redoubtable woman who, after a strenuous life in the colonies with her husband, is neglected by an unsympathetic daughter in Scotland and a grandson in London who fails to visit. When chance brings the handsome young Ludo into her life, she finds herself pretending that he is her grandson to increase her prestige in the hotel. A well-off old lady and an attractive young man: in the hands of a lesser writer, we can guess how this would go. What does happen is far more interesting than that.
Soon after my own husband died last year, I remembered a passage in this novel and went to look for it. Mrs Palfrey is out for a walk on a bleak winter’s afternoon. ‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put little bits of coal on the fire, building up what he called “a good toast fire.” She could picture his hand with the tongs – a strong, authoritative hand with hair growing on it. If I had known at the time how happy I was, she decided now, it would only have spoiled it. I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.’
In another passage Mrs Palfrey in bed ‘lay and listened to the murmur of a married couple in the next room. It was unrhythmical and intermittent, an exchange grown casual and homely over the years. She knew – looking back – how precious it could be, though not valued at the time . . . The two were setting in for the night, peaceably and at their accustomed pace; and Mrs Palfrey, hearing them, felt lulled and comforted.’
I hope I have whetted your appetite for this excellent writer, if you don’t already know her work.
I haven’t been sleeping well these last six months or so – and I won’t need to tell readers of my blog why that is. I don’t usually have a problem getting to sleep, but I often find myself awake at four or five am. That is when audiobooks are such a godsend. I prefer books that I already know – doesn’t much matter then if I drop off and miss a bit – and I prefer them unabridged. And of course it is of paramount importance that the voice is right for that particular novel.
I’ve been enjoying the work of four wonderful actors. It goes without saying that David Suchet is perfect for Murder on the Orient Express, but Hugh Fraser is pretty damn good as a reader of other Christie novels, such as The Hollow and Nemesis. Ian Carmichael couldn’t be better in the dramatisations of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey books, reprising the role he played so well on TV. But the absolute queen of the audiobook is for me Prunella Scales, first with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, and then with Wives and Daughters. This last in particular has just been sheer bliss and toward the end I was listening to it even when I didn’t have insomnia. Her characterisation is so perfect, her understanding of the nuances of the novel so complete – and what a marvellous novel it is, full of insight into human weakness, but full of compassion too. I could listen to her forever.
If there are other listeners to audiobooks out there, I would really welcome suggestions for other good readers – particularly of the classics or of golden age crime fiction. Please let me know your favourites.