This well-structured tale of an elderly widow seeing out her days in the 1960s as one of a group of lonely and under-occupied paying guests at a London Hotel may not sound a very engaging theme. Everything hinges on Elizabeth Taylor's renowned skill as a novelist. From the outset I was struck by examples of her original, acerbic wit, and strong sense of the humour of the incongruous. We are told that our heroine Mrs Palfrey "would have made a distinguished-looking man and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag." She had a "magnificent calm" and was "unruffled" to find her first home as a young bride "more than damp" from the floods "with a snake wound round the banisters to greet her".
Depressed but stoical in the company of the small-minded, gossipy group of paying guests, who tend to use cruelty, alcohol or eavesdrop "with ears sharpened by malice" to assuage their own loneliness, Mrs Palfrey is saved by a chance meeting with Ludo, a charming and essentially decent young penniless writer. For all her conventional past, Mrs Palfrey is attracted by the young man's natural sense of mischief and vitality, without losing her commonsense. United by a surprising and unexpected friendship, they do each other good turns, although would Mrs Palfrey be quite so well-disposed to Ludo if she knew she was a source of notes for his first novel based on her own comment on the Claremont Hotel, "We aren't allowed to die here"?
The book is inevitably a little dated in reflecting the prejudices of early sixties Britain, but any real weakness lies in scenes like the fraught drinks party which descends into pure farce. Although witty, this lacks the subtle observations and real insights into the mixture of small joys, sorrows and missed opportunities of ordinary life which mark most of the novel.
Despite the room for optimism in an ending which leaves something to your imagination, this is a sad book. It is not only a portrayal of old age as a time when one feels useless, superfluous and often in pain, but also a comment on how an exaggerated concern with convention and respectability can limit one's life unduly. Elizabeth Taylor died comparatively young in her early sixties, and was perhaps glad to escape the darker or drearier aspects of ageing.