In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor expertly sketches the lives of the elderly long-term residents of the Claremont Hotel, a somwhat shabby-genteel premises on the Cromwell Road which acts as a (bare) alternative to the nursing home.
Mrs Palfrey, widow of a colonial administrator, takes up residence in the Claremont. Unvisited by her grandson Desmond “who works in the British Musuem”, and ignored by her daughter in Scotland, Mrs Palfrey ends up engaging in one of the first deceptions of her life – pretending that Ludo, a writer who she meets through a fall on the street, is her grandson.
Ludo himself lives a hand-to-mouth existence, “working at Harrod’s” – meaning he writes his novels in a café there – and making occasional resentful visits to his narcissistic mother and her new lover, “the Major.”
Anyway, all this is as prelude to this wonderful passage with its play on the trite phrase “for my sins.” A final background – here we meet Lady Swayne, who uses the Claremont yearly as a base for a London fortnight, and condescends spectacularly to all present:
At that moment, out of the life stepped brocaded Lady Swayne. Mrs Palfrey, who had sometimes in her life been majestic, but never graceful, thrust out the violets as Lady Swayne paused beside her.
‘A breath of spring,’ she said. She seemed un-coordinated, Ludo thought, like a robot that gone wrong. Lady Swayne took full advantage of this state of mind, with a flowing, gracious gesture. ‘Exquisite,’ she breathed, in the softest of tones. ‘Alas though! They never last.”
‘My grandson,’ Mrs Palfrey continued wildly, nodding towards Ludo.
‘Ah, I’ve heard of you, heard of you.’
‘Desmond,’ Mrs Palfrey added firmly. ‘Lady Swayne.’
‘You are at the B.M., I believe’, said Lady Swayne.
Mrs Palfrey was alarmed, but Ludo’s pause was brief. ‘For my sins,’ he said, smiling. He had often thought of using this meaningless phrase, which was one of the Major’s favourites.
‘Do you know Carr Templeton?’
Mrs Palfrey was now mesmerised like a startled hare. ‘Only vaguely,’ said Ludo. He had quickly summed up Lady Swayne, and decided that Carr Templeton must be grand, or would not have been mentioned by her. ‘I am hardly on that plane as yet,’ he said, and almost added ‘for my sins’ again, but took a grip of himself. He might have extricated himself by talking of being in different departments, if he had known what Carr Templeton’s department was. He was not even sure of his own, and felt that the British Museum background should be gone into in greater detail.
‘You are young,’ Lady Swayne was saying graciously. ‘Your time will come.’
‘My Grandmamma is going to give me a glass of sherry.’ (‘For my sins’ would have gone beautifully with that, too.) He moved a little, and took Mrs Palfrey’s elbow.
‘That will be nice,’ said Lady Swayne. ‘ Your grandmother has such peaceful, quiet evenings that you will make a little change for her. Unlike poor little me.’ (She was at least give foot ten, and with shoulders like a bison’s.) ‘I am whirled round London in a way more fitting to a deb than an old, old lady. Yes, a taxi, please, Summers. This evening … ‘ – she sighed – ‘I’m off to the Savoy,’ and then, to Ludo’s immense delight, she added, ‘for my sins.’ It is infectious, he decided.