On holiday in France a couple of weeks ago we were strolling around the lovely little town of Le Crotoy on the Bay of the Somme, when we came across this: a redundant phone box that had become a book exchange. There was nothing that tempted me, but it was nice to see a copy of an Ellis Peters’s novel there, especially as I was planning to be in Shrewsbury the following week and that is the town most associated with her and her books.
There is a particular pleasure in finding books in unexpected places. Last summer I spent a happy quarter of an hour browsing among the books offered for sale just inside the English Church on Lake Como. That time I came away with a copy of an Ed McBain novel and a Pan edition from 1966 of Victor Canning’s The Scorpio Letters. (Victor Canning has been having a bit of a moment over on Moira’s splendid blog, ClothesinBooks.com.) I discovered Elizabeth Taylor when I picked up a copy of A View of the Harbour in Austin’s second-hand furniture emporium on Peckham (long since closed): I had gone to buy a wardrobe, which I did, but I also came with a new author. My copy of Michael Gilbert’s Fear to Tread came from the second-hand book shop at Killerton, a wonderful National Trust garden in Devon, that we used often to visit when my mother-in-law was alive and our daughter was small. It is freighted with precious memories. So is my copy of Christie’s Murder on the Links, picked up at another NT house, Standen, on a rare trip out with just my husband, the year before he died.
What unexpected find sticks in your memory?
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’ve decided this year to try to make more of my London Library subscription. I’ve been a member since 1984 – I think – around thirty years at any rate and since 1990 I haven’t actually been living in London, though I was pretty close when I was in Cambridge. Sadly Sheffield does not have a subscription library and though I have sometimes toyed with joining the splendid Portico Library in Manchester (it has interesting events too), I know I wouldn’t go enough. I manage to get to London once a month, but one of the really marvellous things about the London Library is that they will post books out to you and very prompt and efficient the service is, too. And as I am a country member I am allowed to have fifteen books out rather ten. You can keep the books out for as long you like if no-one requests them and in my case, while I was doing my Ph.D that was literally years. All the same there have been times when I haven’t used it very much and that is a waste, given how much the subscription has gone up in recent years.
So I’ve got a pile of books now,and I have been reading with pleasure, The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet. The Ritz, the Savoy, The Dorchester, Claridge’s. What glamour the names of those hotels conjure up: women in silk dresses, men in evening dress or uniform, famous dance bands such as Ambrose and his orchestra. And, Sweet shows, how unsavoury the reality often was. Sweet points that if they ‘were the homes of Cabinet ministers and military leaders, plutocrats and aristocrats’ London’s war-time hotels were also awash with spies, crypto-fascists, adulterers, con artists and swindlers, and young men and women on the make. The stories are all here: of aristocratic jewel thieves, Nazi double agents, deposed monarchs and governments-in-exile. No wonder hotels have been such a useful resource for writers: all kinds of people who are not necessarily what they seem can meet and mingle in them. Agatha Christie often used them as ways of bringing people together or even as settings: Evil Under the Sun, At Bertram’s Hotel, A Carribean Mystery. And it’s not just crime novels. Elizabeth Taylor’s fine novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Cleremont, makes good use of the poignant setting of a residential hotel where the elderly residents eke out their days and try to hang on to their dignity.
I was eager to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the wonderful novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve admired since quite by chance I picked up an old Penguin copy of A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR about twenty-five years ago in Austin’s second-hard furniture emporium in Peckham (long closed, alas). I was actually looking for a wardrobe – and I bought one too.
THE OTHER ELIZABETH TAYLOR certainly gripped me, because as well as being the other Elizabeth Taylor, a middle-class mother and housewife, married to a sweet manufacturer, she had another life as a member of the Communist party and as the lover of a fellow communist, an ten-year affair which began soon after her marriage in the early 1930s. I had no idea either that she knew David Blakely, who was murdered by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.
And yet as I read on, I became ever more uneasy. There was so much speculation: ‘Elizabeth must have thought . . . Elizabeth would surely’ and so on. She was a very private person, so perhaps this was inevitable to some extent, but there was an awful lot of it. What I found even harder to take was a reference to ‘poor Elizabeth.’ The biographer’s relationship with their subject is a delicate one and in my view the biographer should never presume or patronise. I didn’t always agree with Beauman’s assessment of the novels either
The biography was authorized by Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, John, and the biographer certainly met him, yet there is a curious void where one would have expected him to be. I had little sense of him as a person and there isn’t even a photograph of him. Taylor’s children were, to use their own words, quoted by Beauman, ‘very angry and distressed’ when they read the manuscript and would not endorse it. Was this because of the book recounts extra-marital affairs on the part of both parents? It’s not made clear.
When I finished the book, I had a strange feeling. It was as if I had glimpsed Elizabeth Taylor in a mirror that had slightly distorted her.