Why set novels in hotels? Hotels provide the writer with a setting which is contained, but allows the introduction of new characters as people an=re and leave. And there is a definite social structure: both the guests and the staff have their own hierarchies. In this post I explore how the writer has used the hotel location in five novels.
Here are some of the features of hotels that can be used by the novelist. Many of these features can been seen in the 5 novels I have chosen.
- Hotels are enclosed and can be isolated worlds. They have their own boundaries, rules and restrictions within a bigger world.
- People come and go in hotels. The guests and staff can represent the whole world.
- Hotels are often places of performance for the guests as well as the staff. They are presenting a public face in an enclosed world. This is especially fruitful for mysteries.
- The confluence of people is unplanned, people are thrown together, and the combinations have possibilities for surprise and revelations.
- The guests have leisure, and may do new or silly things.
- The contrast between staff and guests can show up class differences and character flaws. Sometimes there are hierarchies with the guests, for example who has which room, as in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel.
- The location is not quite domestic, not quite private and often guests are isolated, consequently there is potential for the characters to be under considerable tension.
- Different things happen to different people, but in close proximity. There are multiple points of view, and multiple stories.
Some of these aspects of the hotel location explain the success of the Crossroads soap and other tv series– some long-running characters, others come and go in an episode – and for films.
Five Novels with hotel settings
- Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
Vicki Baum was Austrian, but the Grand Hotel is in Berlin in the late 1920s. In her novel she makes full use of the transitory coincident of guests.
Nobody bothers about anyone else in a big hotel. Everyone is alone with himself in this great pub that Doctor Otternschlag not inaptly compared with life in general. Everyone lives behind double doors and has no confidant but his reflection in the looking-glass or his shadow on the wall. People brush past one another in the passages, say good morning or good evening in the Lounge, sometimes even enter into a brief conversation painfully raked together out of the barren topics of the day. A glance that travels up does not meet the eyes. It stops at your clothes. Perhaps it happens that a dance in the Yellow Pavilion brings two bodies into contact. Perhaps someone steals out of his room into another’s. That is all. Behind is an abyss of loneliness. Each in his own room is alone with his own Ego and is little concerned with another’s. (241)
The brief intersection of lives is richly mined in this novel. The humble, terminally ill book-keeper from the provinces Otto Kringelein wishes to live for a short while. Dr Otternschlag has nothing, nowhere to go, only half a face (a souvenir from Flanders), and no friends. Baron Gaigern is dashingly attractive and a conman and thief. He provides some experiences for Kringelein, fast car, aeroplane, boxing match, casino. The fading ballerina Grusinskaya, and Kringelein’s boss, Preysing. The rich and dishonest get their comeuppance. Gaigern plans to get money out of Kringelein, but he is killed by Preysing, who is involved in a business swindle and employing Flammchen as his mistress and secretary. Both Kringelein and Flammchen know poverty and win through in the end.
Their stories are told with wit, humour, tenderness and an energy that is very attractive. It is easy to see why see why it was made into an MGM movie
I borrowed Grand Hotel from Devon libraries, which as if announcing the end of civilization, has stamped inside the cover LAST COPY IN COUNTY.
Grand Hotel byVicki Baum. Published in English in 1930 by Geoffrey Bles, translated from the German by Basil Creighton. 315 pp
- The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen
This was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel and is set in an out-of-season hotel on the Italian Riviera in the 1920s. Everyone there makes compromises and mistakes about love. Sydney Warren, a young woman who is too clever for happiness; her cousin, who has come abroad to try out several illnesses recommended by her doctors; the cold and selfish but elegant Mrs Kerr, who cannot remember ever having been loved by anyone; Mrs Lee-Mittison who spends her life trying to pre-empt any annoyance for her husband; Colonel Duperrier’s wife who is miserable because he neglects her; Mr Milton who indulges himself in a bathroom, reserved for one of the more wealthy guests; Mr Lee-Mittison’s picnic to discover anemone roots, even though the Lee-Mittisons themselves have no roots
Elizabeth Bowen cleverly uses the house and the countryside almost as characters in the story. And the crowd scenes (the goodbyes, the upset load of timber) are beautifully captured.
The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1927, available in both Vintage and Penguin Classics.
Here is a link to my review The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen
- Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
The Claremont Hotel specialises in older residents. Elizabeth Taylor uses the setting to contrast three kinds of relationships: the forced and artificial relationships of guests and staff; the unsatisfactory nature of some family relationships; and friendship based on mutual enjoyments, activities and favours.
It also allows her to explore the loneliness of Mrs Palfrey in old age. A classic novel published in 1971.
Read more here: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
- Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
Edith Hope comes to the Hotel du Lac on Lake Geneva to escape her life in London which has gone badly wrong. But she finds herself exposed to new people and forced to assess her life and whether she wants to settle for marriage, with an unreliable man, or make her own way in the world. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1984. You can stay at the Hotel du Lac, a friend reports.
- The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
A family of 5 children and their mother go to a hotel in the Champagne region of France, on the Marne. The mother falls ill and is in hospital for the time of the action. Joss, the oldest daughter, is also sick for the first few days. The remaining four children have an idyllic time, especially when taken under the wing of Eliot, the charming Englishman. When Joss recovers all changes for she is very beautiful, and men are entranced by her. The idyll unravels and Eliot is exposed as a womaniser and a thief, despite some kindnesses to the children.
It is essentially a coming of age story, but also a bit of a thriller. Made into movie in 1961, with Susannah York and Kenneth Moore.
The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden 1958, published by Pan books in 1958. 187 pp
Some motel novels were suggested to me for this post, but they are using the setting in some different ways: transience and travel are the key aspects of the motel novel. It also very American. My five hotel novels are all European.
Grand Hotel a review on Jacquiwine’s blog
Some other novels set in hotels
At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie (1965)
Hotel World by Ali Smith (2001)
A Room with a view by EM Forster (1908)
Another group of themed novels: Island Novels July 2016
Walking in Four Novels August 2016
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