Jane Rogers taught English for several years before becoming a full-time writer. She has written seven novels - including Promised Lands, Mr Wroe's Virgins (which was adapted for television) and Island - as well as original television and radio drama. She has also edited anthologies of new writing and The Good Fiction Guide. Her latest book, The Voyage Home, has just appeared in paperback. In 1994 Jane was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She teaches 'The Novel' part time on the Sheffield Hallam Writing MA. Her website is at http://www.janerogers.org/. Here Jane discusses Elizabeth Taylor's In a Summer Season and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Jane Rogers on In a Summer Season and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
I hesitate when asked about my all-time favourite books; there is a short stellar list of writers whose work I have been influenced and inspired by, who have really got under my skin, who have changed the way I see the world - and the novel. But these gods and mentors are novelists who are almost universally recognized to be the greats, so you'd expect that, wouldn't you? And once they become fossilized into a list of favourites, attempting to explain why becomes dry and academic; it makes the books seem schematic. I can only do justice to one of them if I have just re-read it. As I move further away in time from having read a book, then what was vital about it is distilled almost to the state of caricature, like those childhood memories we can only clearly recall because we have a photo of a moment in that day.
Recent favourite books is a much more accessible category: and of writers I've read in the past year, Elizabeth Taylor is outstanding. She's one of those writers I've always been meaning to read and never quite got round to; this year I'm happy to say I did. By chance I picked up In a Summer Season (1961) and having read the first page, was hooked.
There's nothing extraordinary about the subject matter: a respectable middle-aged widow and mother of two teenage children falls for a much younger man. She's mature, comfortably off, established in her life; he's poor and feckless and too fond of the drink. They are desperately in love and they marry. This novel gives us the fallout.
What is special about the book is the extraordinary precision with which Taylor charts her characters' shifting moods and emotions. Her prose is scalpel-sharp; always lucid, never showy, and she is alert to the minute shifts and fractional adjustments of feeling which make up the balance of power in a relationship. And that's not just talk and action and events and thoughts, it's also, centrally, sex. Taylor is one of the very few women writers I can think of who write well about sex.
We see the new marriage through a range of eyes; both partners' (Kate and Dermot), the two children's, and beady Aunt Ethel's. Ethel sends running critical reports to an old friend by letter. The delicate observation of a difficult relationship in which both partners have our complete sympathy, makes for a rare and wonderful novel. Sadly (but please don't let it put you off) the end of the book is cluttered by plottiness, as Dermot's increasingly untidy presence is obliterated by a car crash, leaving the way clear for Kate to marry a handy widower of her own age and background.
Wanting more of Taylor's brilliant prose, I moved straight on to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971): even less promising material, handled even more wonderfully. Mrs Palfrey is an ageing widow of restricted means, with a rather obnoxious daughter. She can't cope with living on her own, she can't live with her daughter (who hasn't offered, anyway) and she moves into the grey world of a genteel residential hotel near Earl's Court. Here a number of other elderly residents are eking out their days until they get moved on to the indignity of an old folks home, or death.
The other old ladies at the Claremont are as bitchy and competitive as schoolgirls, particularly on the subject of visitors, and Mrs Palfrey rashly states that her grandson will soon be visiting. Time passes, the selfish grandson doesn't materialize, and Mrs Palfrey loses face. Then one day she has a fall in the street, and is helped up and given a cup of tea by a charming young man, Ludo - a writer. He's kind and open (and fascinated by her agedness, already translating it into material for his novel) and they make friends. She asks him if he will visit her and pretend to be her grandson.
And that is the story: Mrs Palfrey getting older, juggling courageously with the indignities of age, and somehow managing to remain stalwart and considerate and attentive to others the while; Ludo good-naturedly giving her a little of his time, in between the demands of his novel, his useless mother and his cool-to-cold girlfriend Rosie. Mrs Palfrey is more than a little in love with the poverty-stricken Ludo, but has the tact and good sense to conceal this, simply offering him practical help (food, a hand-knitted jumper, small amounts of cash) when she can.
The triumph of this novel is not just the sensitivity and incredible delicacy with which the characters and their relationships are delineated, but also the humour. From such bleak and unpromising material - a hotel of cranky old people waiting to die - Taylor generates genuine warmth and humour, and it is always humour of situation, of irony, of absurdity. We never laugh at the central characters, though it would have been easy enough for a lesser writer to make them ludicrous. Even the bit players, silly old Mr Osmond with his dirty jokes and outraged letters to the Telegraph, and crabby arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot, are invested with enough humanity to generate our sympathy and a recognition that to this we too must one day come. Here the reader laughs at the awfulness of life, and loves the courage of the living.
In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Paul Bailey quotes from a letter Elizabeth Taylor wrote to him in 1973: 'I feel, after a time, that my books have dropped into a pit, and must lie there for ever and ever.' It would be a terrible loss for such a book to lie in a pit. It ranks, with The Leopard, as one of the best books about getting old that I have ever read; and I can well understand why some reviewers have compared Elizabeth Taylor to Jane Austen.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]