On Sunday, an old friend and his wife came to lunch at short notice, bringing with them his 85-year old mother, Doreen, who has recently been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. To get to our house, they had to drive for an hour and a quarter: a regular outing for the young and not-so-young amongst us, who spend our days zipping from place to place. For Doreen, though, it was quite an adventure, as she has only recently started to go out again after a spell in hospital and being cared for in her own home.
My plan for the afternoon had been not to roast a chicken (without garlic and with stuffing, in the English way), but to savour the prospect of BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub and listen to it live, having learnt the previous day that Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the book to be discussed.
An afternoon in the company of a frail 83-year old who spends most of her time alone provided a timely prelude to the podcast I downloaded just before 5 o’clock, shortly after the visitors had headed back south. The last of Taylor’s 11 novels to be published in her lifetime, it tells the story of the widowed Mrs Palfrey and the new life she creates for herself in a genteel hotel in west London. With the precision and economy that is Taylor’s hallmark, she depicts life in the Claremont, drawing us into the routines of domestic life lived under a roof not one’s own and sketching Mrs Palfrey’s fellow residents with their quirks, tastes and opinions in ways which are as poignant as they are humorous.
The discussion with the audience, of which the grandson of the writer was a member, was led by John Humphries. It held no surprises for listeners familiar with Taylor’s work. Are the characters convincing? Should the reader see the relationship between Mrs Palfrey and her fantasy grandson and writer Ludo as a love story? What might the characterisation of Ludo tell us about Taylor’s views of herself as a writer?
What was a surprise, though, was the choice of studio guest as the guide through the book. For a novelist who gets pigeon-holed (wrongly, in my view and that of many of admirers of her work) as a 20th century Jane Austen, the choice of novelist and comedian David Baddiel – Jewish, American, middle-aged and male – made me sit up on the sofa in astonishment.
From his first comment, though, it was evident that he was a wise choice. He elaborated on his view that Elizabeth Taylor is the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike, a comment he first made (and was criticised for) in The Independent when he was the subject of the Cultural Life feature in 2010. He pointed out that Elizabeth Taylor’s timing was, through no fault of her own, poor: she was a woman writer putting middle-class life in the south of England under the microscope at a time when the working class, macho writing of John Osborne and his fellow angry young men was fashionable.
It set me thinking about books to read when I go on holiday later this month, something I start to think about in earnest every year when July arrives. Heading the shortlist at the moment is the second volume of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn (my Winter reading project was the Palliser series but I only got as far as Can you forgive her? and then Christmas came and other reading took over); Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, set in Jackson, Mississippi on the eve of the beginning of the African-American civil rights movement (I saw a special screening of the film on International Women’s Day which brought it to my attention); and The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2009 fictionalised account of the household of muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo (because she’s a writer I admire and I picked up a copy in my local Age UK for £1.99).
To add a new dimension to this annual ritual, I have been amusing myself thinking about which writer I would invite to review each of my choices if I were the producer of Bookclub. For Phineas Phinn, I choose Jonathan Franzen, for his unruly families and broad-brush painting of our own age, which could provide an intriguing perspective on Trollope’s more measured social customs at a time of political turbulence. For The Help, Owen Jones, who knows a thing or two about how stereotyping works and what its consequences can be. For The Lacuna, Brian Sewell, not just because he knows about painting but because he is one of the most unlikely writers I can think of to review a successful and serious woman writer. (Martin Amis would be another, but as far as I am aware, he doesn’t have anything original to say about art.)
So here’s your challenge, OCA students and tutors: tell us your top three Summer book choices and pick a writer to review each one.