Two Widows
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve re-read two novels about widows — and, for the first time, as a widower myself. One of them is probably more familiar as a film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. The other happens to be the novel that ties for My Most Favorite with Jane Austen’s Emma. Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will never be really a favorite novel of mine, but it is a jolly if often bittersweet read, and, unmistakably, an entertainment. I would not be without it. In contrast, there is nothing entertaining about Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s fourth Enniscorthy novel by my count. It is one of those fascinating books — fascinating to some, but certainly more fascinating with each re-reading — in which nothing much seems to happen

The heroines’ widowhoods are quite different, as were the marriages that preceded them.  Laura Palfrey, of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, enjoyed a long, companionable, and sensible marriage, in which it would appear that both spouses knew exactly where they stood and where they were going. They were in accord about their respective roles, and managed without much if any fuss. For Laura, the corset of duty has long since become as indispensable as makeup used to be for many women; she would not care to be released from it. She might be happier if the people around her could manage to be more correct, better-mannered, less vulnerable to weaknesses of temper. Taylor introduces her as someone who “would have made a distinguished-looking man”; she might remind older readers of Queen Mary or Margaret Thatcher, but she has a kinder heart. Possibly something of a dragon in person, she is, on the page, an appealing woman, someone to root for. Taylor plays her as the straight man in a funny farm: the other inmates of the Claremont Hotel (located in London’s Cromwell Road; the novel is set in 1968 or so) are all “characters.” Mrs Burton drinks a great deal, but not too much, as if the world still accommodated the Bright Young Things of 1930. Mrs Post is a mousy woman who “wouldn’t dare” — whatever it is — and who pines for love or friendship. Wretched Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled by arthritis, puts off nighttime trips to the loo one too many times, and is asked to leave, but not before establishing a reputation for poisonous remarks. (Taylor doesn’t quite make you feel Mrs Arbuthnot’s pain, but the portrait is sympathetic enough so that if you’ve been there yourself, you won’t need her help.) Odd Mr Osmond will strike some readers as closeted, but to me he is just housebroken and exigent, the author of endless letters to the editor about such things as the impropriety of hiring Australian newscasters. A ghastly creature, Mrs de Salis, comes and, mercifully, goes. soon entertaining her new recent friends at the flat in Bayswater to which she moves, at a drinks party that seals the tomb of their acquaintance. It is all good comedy-of-manners stuff, to which Mrs Palfrey is an agreeable witness.

Dan Ireland’s film quite understandably sets all of this somewhat in the background and makes a good deal more of Mrs Palfrey’s accidental friendship with a young man, Ludo Myer, than is to be found in the book. Ludo is a starving artist (writer, actually) who picks her up after a fall on the pavement in front of his basement flat. In the novel, Mrs Palfrey has perhaps four meetings with Ludo while she’s in residence at the Claremont; he comes to take the place of the grandson who never visits (until he does). This is more a social than an emotional position, as the other inmates of the hotel are keen to meet any young man. (We’re made to suspect that the dreadful old vampires would be happier to discover that poor Mrs Palfrey made him up.) To Ludo, Mrs Palfrey is little more than a nice old lady — but an old lady — who might lend him some money for his improvident mother. And to Mrs Palfrey, Ludo is a more agreeable version of that grandson, someone she can fuss over a bit, but mostly just someone to salve the ache of loneliness. As Ludo’s concern for his indifferent mother suggests, however, Ludo proves to be a man of duty. This makes for a smiling finale. In the film, things are more “emotional.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont presents an elderly woman at the end of her days. Nora Webster is not elderly. She is in her mid-forties, and while her girls are grown (or nearly), her boys, Donal and Conor, ferment in adolescence and need her attention as much as ever. Nora’s decision to spend her late husband’s last weeks (months?) away at his bedside in a Dublin hospital has upset Donal enough to beset him with a stammer. The town is watching.

I can only begin to do justice to this novel in this post. The great pleasure of it, for me, is watching Nora navigate the rules or expectations of the townsfolk among whom she has lived all her life. For a widow in Catholic Ireland at the end of the Sixties, these rules are as manifold and tricky as white water. Nora knows them well enough, and is smart enough herself, to understand how far they can be bent without breaking. It is not that she intends to strike out in some exotic direction. If she takes a job, it is only because she is asked to do so; she also needs the money, but that is secondary. The problem with the job in the eyes of the town is that it requires her to leaves her sons alone and unattended at home in the afternoons; eventually, Nora arranges to work mornings only. What Nora wants is not a new life but autonomy; she wants never to be told, however well-meaningfully, what she ought to do. It slowly emerges that the lack of autonomy is the one thing about her marriage that she does not miss. She and Maurice were a very happy couple, but with him has died her willingness to submit. Her independence takes the form, utterly undramatic from our point of view, of refreshing the paint and upholstery in her home and exploring her budding love of serious music. She has always had a beautiful voice; at the end of the novel, she has been accepted by a choir for a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem. I believe that Nora Webster is unequivocally that rare thing, the serious novel with a happy ending.

It is also a novel that puts a very serious question to any bereaved reader. Habit, loyalty, or purpose? The question often pushes its way into consciousness, but not always. Am I doing this because I want to do it (or because it’s useful to do), because it’s an old habit developed during years of companionship, or out of loyalty to my late spouse, as a way of honoring our commitment? To do something for the last reason is not always wrong, but it usually is. There is an awful difference between honoring a memory and attempting to recapitulate happier days; the latter is patently ghoulish as well as futile, and, to be honest, needy. Companionate habits can be deadening, too; left unexamined, a habit may take a long time to reveal itself as no longer meaningful. For Nora Webster, the matter is equally one of thinking. Her late husband did the thinking  not so much for Nora as for their household, as the husbands of Enniscorthy and elsewhere generally do. Now Nora must distinguish between continuing with Maurice’s program, as it were, and developing one of her own. Undertaking to make her own decision is precisely the project that obliges her to consider the town’s expectations. It would be much easier just to carry  on with what Maurice did with regard to spending priorities and so on. Nora’s arduously-acquired skill in acting on her own, in contrast, enables her to act swiftly and effectively when someone rather powerful surprises her by trying to take advantage of  Maurice’s absence from the scene. One can easily imagine what Maurice himself would have had to say if some other woman in the town threatened a “widow’s curse” upon her opponents. And one can overlook (with a wink) what stock Nora herself places in such curses.

These novels are old friends, although I wouldn’t ask them to tea at the same time. Actually, I wouldn’t invite either of them to tea. Mrs Palfrey is always up for a brisk walk,  and with Nora it would be lovely to sit quietly and listen to records, as we used to say. If only I could sit quietly…