English Life After Empire

As British political life exhibits ever more morbid symptoms, the reissue of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is well-timed. Its sharply observed and amusing portrait of England’s post-imperial decline speaks to us across the decades.

Regent Street in Central London, circa 1971. (Daily Mirror / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

“You could not shock her more than she shocks me,” wrote W. H. Auden. “Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.” The shocking “her” of these lines is not, surprisingly, one of Auden’s outré modernist contemporaries, but a novelist usually associated with staid domesticity: Jane Austen. “It makes me most uncomfortable to see,” Auden continues,

An English spinster of the middle-class

Describe the amorous effects of “brass”,

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.

As Auden realized, the most politically unsettling works of art often have little to do with politics — or their authors’ intentions. Austen herself — a “spinster of the middle-class” — would almost certainly have feared revolutionary change, but her novels are rooted in a radically economic understanding of human relationships. Take, for instance, the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” While the plot of the novel will be about finding a spouse, Austen makes it clear that the fortune comes first: beneath the soft surface of the marriage plot lies the hard kernel of economic reality.

Austen’s successor, in this respect, is twentieth-century English novelist Elizabeth Taylor (1912–75). Long described as underrated (and overshadowed by the actress who shared her name), Taylor has increasingly been acknowledged as a major writer: “Was there any better chronicler of English life as it unfolded in the 30-year period after the end of World War II?” asked Geoff Dyer in the New York Times. Taylor’s radicalism was more conscious than Austen’s — she was a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s — but both wrote sharply observed stories of middle-class English life that insist, unsettlingly, on the primacy of the economic.

The Condition of England

To understand Taylor’s brilliance, consider Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), which was reissued by NYRB Classics in December. A comic novel about the elderly, middle-class residents of a London hotel, at first glance Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont doesn’t appear to be radical. The book was nominated for the Booker Prize, but lost after the guest judge, Saul Bellow, complained that he heard “the tinkle of teacups” in Taylor’s work. Bellow mistook the novel’s domesticity for quaintness, yet it is precisely the tinkling of teacups that often reveals the most shocking truths, as Austen knew well. Under the veneer of chicken fricassees and glasses of sherry, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont offers an unsparing, materialist critique of post-imperial Britain, showing how capital shapes identities and creates a stunted world of isolation and futility.

Set in the late 1960s, the novel centers on the elderly Mrs Laura Palfrey. Recently widowed, Mrs Palfrey can no longer afford her comfortable home near the seaside, so she moves to the Claremont, a hotel in Kensington that accommodates both short-term guests and elderly long-term residents; for the latter, the Claremont is likely their last stop before the hospital or nursing home.

The residents occupy themselves with routine — for instance, waiting in the lobby to see the day’s dinner menu posted. “None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food,” writes Taylor, “but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and disappointments, as life once had.” (This sentence is typical of Taylor’s style: dry until suddenly devastating.)

The residents of the Claremont while away their time, eating alone at their individual tables in the dining room, knitting in the lounge, spending their nights tossing in arthritic pain and wondering if their grandchildren will visit. Taylor sketches them with vivid concision: Mr Osmond, who tells dirty stories to the hotel waiter but can’t remember which parts to whisper (“the most enormous sex organ,” he shouts. “Quite enormous”); Mrs Burton, who smells of “hair-spray and her lunch-time whiskey;” Colonel Mildmay, whose military grandeur is undermined by the revelation that he served in the Catering Corp.

Their conversations frequently descend into farce: when asked if she received a “local anaesthetic,” one resident replies, “No, we were living in Norfolk at the time, and my husband insisted on coming to London.” Kingsley Amis called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont a novel about “loneliness, old age, and approaching death,” and one of Taylor’s feats is to make such grim subjects so funny and readable.

For Mrs Palfrey adjusting to life at the Claremont is a struggle. After years of middle-class comfort, she has decided on the Claremont because its “reduced winter rates” fit her widow’s budget, but worries that the hotel is déclassé: on first arriving, she thinks that her room resembles “a maid’s bedroom.” Her social slide leads to a loss of identity. Her husband was an official in colonial Burma, and without him and the empire, Mrs Palfrey feels adrift:

When she was young, she had an image of herself to present to her new husband, whom she had admired; then to herself, thirdly to the natives (I am an Englishwoman). Now, no one reflected the image of herself, and it seemed diminished: it had lost two-thirds of its erstwhile value (no husband, no natives).

Her crisis points to the larger ambitions of the novel. “The theme is the theme of England,” writes Michael Hofmann in his introduction to the new edition, “the possibility of retreat, of a managed, or even dignified, withdrawal.” Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, in other words, isn’t simply the story of one woman’s crisis; Mrs Palfrey’s condition is the condition of England.

Without husband or natives, Mrs Palfrey is free. “I could go to the Victoria and Albert Museum,” she realizes, at random, in the middle of one of her first days at the Claremont. In this sense, she is also of her time: the sixties. The symbols of the “Swinging Sixties” appear in the margins of the narrative: a snatch of Sgt. Pepper’s, a “rail of PVC coats.”

For the young, the decline of the British empire appears to offer liberation from old rules and traditions. Mrs Palfrey notes that “all those long-haired, long-skirted girls seemed to carry Union Jack carrier-bags” and wonders “if they were sincere”; once-sacred symbols of the empire have become cheeky consumer goods. Taylor, however, is intent on seeing the shadow of the sunny sixties. Mrs Palfrey too has dreamed of liberation: “Sometimes,” she says,

when I was a young married woman, I longed to be freed — free of nursery chores and social obligations, one’s duty, d’you know? And free of worries, too, about one’s loved ones — childish ailments and ageing parents, money troubles, everyone at times feels the longing — to run away from it all.

Aging and imperial decline have finally freed her, yet they have also removed anything that gave structure and meaning to her life; she no longer has to care for loved ones, but she no longer has their love either. “That’s the only way of being free,” she thinks, “to not be needed;” freedom, then, is “really not to be desired.”

Taylor’s novel lost the Booker to V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, a more explicitly postcolonial work, but the two books share this skeptical view of liberation. One of In a Free State’s stories, “One Out of Many,” follows Santosh, an Indian servant who moves to Washington, DC, and becomes a restaurant owner and US citizen. By the end of the story, Santosh is free from the constraints of poverty and caste, but he experiences his freedom as alienation: “I was once part of the flow,” he says,

never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.

For both Taylor and Naipaul, liberation doesn’t lead to a joyous freedom, but to an atomization that only looks forward to death. The empire is gone, but no common project replaces it, nothing that puts one into a larger “flow.” All that remains is consumption: the flag gives way to the Union Jack carrier-bag.

To be sure, this view understates the real gains that came out of the empire’s decline; there are good reasons to celebrate the fact that the Britain no longer formally controls much of the globe. Yet Taylor and Naipaul’s pessimism reveals a significant — and even prophetic — element of this historical moment. A decade before Margaret Thatcher, these works seem to foretell the true end of sixties liberation: there is no such thing as society.


Faced with this void, Mrs Palfrey and the other residents of the Claremont cling to their old identities and habits. “She had always known how to behave,” Taylor writes, and though the empire is gone, Mrs Palfrey remains determined to live by its code. “Be independent,” she thinks, “never give way to melancholy; never touch capital.” This last rule means more than simply not handling money directly (though Mrs Palfrey does find that vulgar — when she gives one character a five-pound note, she wraps it in a handkerchief).

Mrs Palfrey and the other middle-class residents live on the interest of their capital; thus, touching the capital — spending it — reduces their income. Knowing “how to behave,” in other words, is not simply a moral code. Mrs Palfrey wants to maintain an identity that is fundamentally economic: the preservation of self is inseparable from the preservation of capital. This code of middle-class propriety is the source of the residents’ isolation, as Taylor dramatizes in one of the novel’s most effective set pieces: the dining room. Each resident of the Claremont dines at his or her own table. “Mrs. Palfrey,” writes Taylor,

was in the corner of the dining-room. It had a single white chrysanthemum and a sprig of greenery in a silver vase. Soon it would have her own packet of crispbread and, at breakfast, her own Allbran and superior make of marmalade. She did not care for hotel marmalade.

The individual tables give Mrs Palfrey and the other residents an illusion of independence and superiority, recreating in miniature the bourgeois homes they can no longer afford. Though desperately isolated, they sit in silence and eat alone; to do otherwise would violate their hardened, middle-class sense of self.

It is not only the residents who are shaped by capital: the condition is general. In the year after the novel’s publication, Philip Larkin declared that “greeds / And garbage are too thick-strewn / To be swept up now;” there is little garbage in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, but plenty of greed. Every relationship in the novel is shaped by resources.

One of its subplots, for instance, includes Ludovic Myers — Ludo, for short — a struggling young writer who helps Mrs Palfrey after a fall and occasionally visits her at the Claremont. Ludo pursues Rosie, a fashionable “girl flat-dweller” who spends her scant money on clothes rather than food; though unimpressed with Ludo, Rosie agrees to a date because it will provide her a free meal.

“Something in her face faltered,” writes Taylor, “the drooping lines of it wavered, as if against her will . . . It was hunger, he thought.” Ludo’s mother, in turn, is the “kept woman” of an older man known as the Major, who pays the rent on her apartment in Putney; the relationship ends when the Major’s business implodes and he can no longer afford to keep her. “As soon as there’s that sort of bother,” Ludo says, “everything else emerges.”

In Taylor’s vision, our relationships both to ourselves and to others are determined by economics, leading to alienation and indifference. None of the familial relations in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont contain any affection or even familiarity: Ludo feels “like an orphan,” even though his mother is living, and Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, Desmond, avoids visiting even though he too lives in London. Indeed, Mrs Palfrey only comes to the Claremont because she is no longer welcome at her daughter’s house in Scotland, where she has been staying since her husband’s death. “Mrs. Palfrey had not been invited to” stay in Scotland, writes Taylor, “and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it.”

The situation recalls King Lear — a daughter casting out an aged parent — but without the sense of tragedy. The conditions of tragedy no longer hold: Lear goes ranting on the heath because he sees his daughters’ rejection as the violation of a sacred, natural order; in postwar Britain, Mrs Palfrey has no such expectations, so her daughter’s rejection hardly registers. Marx and Engels announced that capitalism had “torn away from the family its sentimental veil” and “reduced the family relation to a mere money relation;” Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems to depict the terminal stage of this process.

The exception would seem to be Ludo and Mrs Palfrey. While not family, they share the closest thing, it seems, to a familial bond in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Their relationship starts out with a transaction: embarrassed that she receives no visitors, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner at the Claremont and asks him to pretend to be her grandson in front of the other residents; Ludo receives five pounds for his trouble. Within this exchange, however, Mrs Palfrey and Ludo demonstrate more warmth than any other characters in the novel: “You are my third and only living grandmother,” Ludo tells her.

Eventually, they seem to outgrow the “mere money relation:” Ludo insists on returning fifty pounds that Mrs Palfrey gives him, and when she goes to the hospital after a second fall, it is Ludo who sits at her bedside and listens to her recite half-forgotten snatches of poetry. But there is a hidden transaction that tempers the sweetness of their relationship. A flailing writer, Ludo sees in Mrs Palfrey and the residents of the Claremont a suitable subject, and after his dinners at the hotel, he rushes back to his apartment to write notes: “fluffy grey knickers . . . elastic . . . veins on the leg the colour of grapes . . . smell of lavender water (ugh!).”

Ludo rejects Mrs Palfrey’s money, but he is nonetheless intent on getting something out of her. (The metafictional framing of this subplot amplifies the effect: Mrs Palfrey is unaware of Ludo’s book, but would be horrified to have her knickers and varicose veins shown to the public — which is, of course, exactly what Taylor’s novel does, implicating the reader of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in Ludo’s violation.) The sordidness of this transaction seems to infect Ludo’s art. When we last see him, Ludo has completed his book, They Weren’t Allowed to Die There (its title taken from a phrase of Mrs Palfrey’s), but he is hardly triumphant: “he felt drained of all feeling, and tired,” Taylor writes, “as if he had spewed up a whole world.”

Austen’s novels end in marriages, reasserting order and resolving any unsettling contradictions. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont has no such illusions. The final part of the novel introduces a suitor for Mrs Palfrey, but she dismisses marriage at her age as “absurd and embarrassing.” Even the younger characters can’t come together for more than a moment: after their date, Ludo pursues Rosie, then Rosie pursues Ludo, but the two can’t seem to get interested at the same time. The marriage plot is exhausted, like everything else in this novel: Austen’s characters live in the bright noon of the empire, but by Taylor’s time, that sun has set. For Mrs Palfrey — and the society she represents — there is only one plot left. She returns to her table and waits for what will come.