Tag Archives: The Hotel

Five Novels set in Hotels

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.

Hotels

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

  1. Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

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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.

281 Last copy

Grand Hotel byVicki Baum. Published in English in 1930 by Geoffrey Bles, translated from the German by Basil Creighton. 315 pp

  1. The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

281 Hotel 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

  1. 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

  1. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

281 hotel du Lac

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.

  1. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

281 Gr Summer

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

Motels

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.

Related Posts

Grand Hotel a review on Jacquiwine’s blog

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Some other novels set in hotels

281 Best ExoticThese Foolish Things (aka The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) by Deborah Moggach (2004)

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie (1965)

Hotel World by Ali Smith (2001)

A Room with a view by EM Forster (1908)

Related posts

Another group of themed novels: Island Novels July 2016

Walking in Four Novels August 2016

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

260 ET Sh Sts

The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

260 ET

Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

I read this thriller twelve months ago and I noted that I expected to reread it and soon. It turns out that rereading is very rewarding, and nothing is spoiled by knowing the plot, indeed the other features of the novel become more evident.

53 Heat cover

It’s set during the Second World War and the tension comes from the suggestion that one of the main characters, Robert, is involved in treason. The novel opens as the creepy Harrison prepares to meet Stella. Stella has already rejected Harrison, ‘asked him to go away and stay away’. We have been warned that ‘he was not, however, through.’ Harrison visits Stella in her flat and reveals his plan to blackmail her: his silence about Robert can be bought if she becomes his mistress and does not see Robert again. The scene in which Harrison reveals his hand, is carefully drawn out in Chapter 2 and is a powerful example of an effective scene in fiction. Stella’s feelings alter from irritation of being bothered by a man she does not want to see to shock and disbelief at what Harrison tells her and finally confusion about what she should do. Can she believe Harrison? What should she do to protect the man she loves? If Harrison is right should she protect Robert? How can she know? The story is set up, the tension holds, as the interactions between Harrison, Stella and Robert run their course.

53 roped off road

One of the most impressive aspect of this novel is the depiction of living in London during the Blitz.

They had met one another, at first not very often, throughout the heady autumn of the first London air raids. Never had a season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear. All through London the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of streets made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side. The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phatasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power – somewhere there was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, force itself into new channels. (p90-91)

Elizabeth Bowen does not forget the dead, and she provides a strong image of them, present through their absences.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected – for death cannot be so sudden as all that. Absent from the routine which had been life, they stamped upon that routine their absence – not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by one passenger. (p91-2)

This passage illustrates her rather difficult style and its density has the effect of slowing the reader, so you have to engage with the direction of the sentence, its meaning, its surprise. In the example above, the sentence that begins ‘Absent from the routine’ by its end has conjured up the non-presence of the dead, and has a very pleasing rhythm.

53 Pauls

The novel is claimed as a London novel, and it is indeed very clearly located around the Regent’s Park area, although, echoing Stella’s confusion, the blackout means that sometimes she does not know where Harrison has taken her. An interesting article about its London-ness, by Jane Miller (author of Crazy Age), can be found on the London Fictions website. The London location and the heightened sensibilities of living there are contrasted with Stella’s visit to the rural calm of Ireland. Ireland remained neutral during the war, although not unaffected by it (Stella uses months’ supply of house candles, unknowingly). A second contrast is to Holme Dene, where Robert’s mother lives, in the Home Counties. Holme Dene is permanently for sale and rigidly in thrall to Muttikins. Elizabeth Bowen’s description reveals a great deal about Robert’s family:

…upstairs life since the war, had up there condensed itself into very few rooms – swastika-arms of passage leading to nothing, stripped of carpet, bulbs gone from the light-sockets, were flanked by doors with keys turned. Extinct, at this night hour Stygian as an abandoned mine-working, those reaches of passages would show in daylight ghost-pale faded patches no shadow crossed, and, from end to end, an even conquest of dust. (p258)

One important theme of the novel concerns allegiances, what individuals owe to other people. In war it is an unquestioned assumption that one will have allegiance to one’s country and abhorrence of fraternization or spying for the enemy. The central questions of the novel are about Robert’s treachery or not, and Stella’s duty to him or her country.

Stella’s visit to Mount Morris in Ireland raises questions about place in allegiance, of one nation to another, and the bequest to Roderick brings up questions of who owes what to whom in the next generation. To whom, Elizabeth Bowen appears to ask, when the chips are down, do we owe our loyalty? Her answer, I think, is to the integrity of the self and one’s love for others.

It is also a novel about appearances and what is concealed and whether you should trust what you see, what you feel, what you want to trust. At the centre of this theme is Harrison, a shady character, about whom we never know much, not his work, his past, or where he goes or what he does when he is not with Stella. And like Stella we do not know whether to believe what he implies. We do not want to believe that Stella’s lover is a traitor.

Stella has the reputation of a woman who shamefully abandoned her husband. Her son Roderick learns the truth from a woman who has been feigning madness for years. But the truth is not that simple, for Stella has preferred people to believe what they thought was the truth rather than acknowledge to the world that her husband did not want to stay with her. Even Stella’s affair with Robert is presented to the reader as not of the real world.

The lovers had for two years possessed a hermetic world, which, like the ideal book about nothing, stayed itself on itself by its inner force. (p90)

Appearances of the characters reflect something about their role in the plot and their characteristics as well as Elizabeth Bowen’s confidence in handling them. Harrison comes and goes in a shady way. Stella is not directly introduced until Chapter 2. Robert does not appear until Chapter 5. Many of the minor characters appear and disappear as acquaintances did in London’s reduced social world.

53 EB

Despite being a published writer for 25 years Elizabeth Bowen found it difficult to finish the novel. She wrote the early sections during the war but it was not published until 1948. She had fallen in love with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, to whom the book is dedicated and considered the physical model for Robert. Their affair continued, despite his return to Canada, his marriage and frequent separations, until she died in 1973. (For more details of this and other writers’ lives during the war see Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs).

I love this novel. I expect I will read it again and again. I hope I can encourage you to read (or even reread) it.

For another enthusiastic blog review see Book Snob’s here. My reviews of earlier Elizabeth Bowen novels are here: The Hotel, and The Last September.

 

Reminder: the next general Readalong will be in December. If you want to make a reading suggestion please do so. I will announce the choice in the next few weeks.

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Two Elizabeths, two first novels

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen was published in 1927 and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor in 1945. They were written 18 years apart but I read these two first novels one after the other last week. Considering them side by side reveals some interesting points.

Both are novels defined, as their titles indicate, by a place, a building. Mrs Lippincote’s is a house, rented to Roddy and Julia Davenport towards the end of the war. Roddy is in the RAF and Julia is fascinated by living in Mrs Lippincote’s house, and among her things. The old lady eventually appears, like something from another time.

‘I am Mrs Lippincote.’

Superfluous statement.

The leghorn hat with its immense velvet bow, the tussore suit and parasol, the gold chains and watch pinned to the bosom transfixed Julia. The bosom itself intimidated, seemed unrelated to the female body, a structure, a shelf, a thing to pin watches to, hang chains upon. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

The war has displaced her, and her appearance reminds Julia and the reader that there was a time ‘before the war’ and there will be a time ‘when the war is over’.

22 At Mrs L

The Hotel is somewhere on the Italian Riviera, a place where people with money and gentility go to occupy their time. It is out of season. Hotels provided a setting for chance encounters and disconcerting meetings.

The Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton occupied two wide-balconied rooms at the end of the first floor corridor. Five times across the Hotel, each on a floor, these corridors ran – dark, thickly carpeted, panelled with bedroom doors… Mrs and Miss Pinkerton were of course on the sunny side, with their balconies from which the view could be patronized. The view was their own; they were to enjoy the spiritual, crude and half-repellent beauty of that changing curtain, so featureless but for the occasional passing ship. They barricaded themselves in from the assault of noonday behind impassable jalousies. (The Hotel)

We learn so much of the social expectations and assumptions from this description of the accommodation of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. The violation of their bathroom is a great comic scene, one which also reveals much about the participants and more about the social positions in the Hotel. (A jalousie is a kind of louvred or slatted blind.)

22 The Hotel

In both novels the narrative is pegged, so to speak, by the places, the bricks and mortar. The narrative unfolds, scene take place outside these buildings, yet at the end of each day, events are resolved – or not – within their walls. In both places the characters move between private and public rooms, rooms where people retreat and can be on their own and others where the action is played out in the presence of an audience.

The interesting characters in both The Hotel and At Mrs Lippincote’s are non-conformists. Roddy is constantly fearful that Julia will say the wrong thing in front of his fellow officers, and is disappointed to find that he has not been able to mould Julia in their married life. She is wiser than her husband.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

Roddy and Julia must each decide to accommodate their disappointment in the other in order to make a go of their marriage. It is likely, but not certain, that they will, by the close of the novel

In the Hotel the residents all live with the disappointments of love, and most settle for less than love. The Misses Pym and Fitzgerald open the novel on a quarrel; Mrs Kerr cannot remember ever having been loved; her relationship with her son Ronald is dutiful rather than loving; Mrs Duperrier is neglected by her husband who prefers to flirt with the many young ladies; and so on. Mr Lee-Mittison organises an expedition to collect anemone roots, which fizzles out as hosts and guests lose each other in the hills. There is a terrible irony to the Lee-Mittisons’ situation. The wife has a moment of clarity: ‘she felt sick at the thought of their hotel bedrooms that stretched, only interposed with the spare rooms of friends, in unbroken succession before and behind her.’ They have no roots, are perpetual travellers with no home of their own.

It is Sydney Warren who captures our interest. It is the story of Sydney’s unlikely and amourous adventure that forms the core narrative of this novel.

Sydney’s relations had been delighted that she should go abroad with her cousin Tessa. It had appeared an inspired solution to the Sydney problem. The girl passed too many of these examinations, was on the verge of a breakdown and railed so bitterly at the prospect of a year’s enforced idleness, that the breakdown seemed nearer than ever. (The Hotel)

Both Julia and Sydney are more spontaneous than rational, more innocent than the people among whom they live, more open to life’s experiences. The characters around them are shown to have more tawdry and meagre lives by contrast, built up in both novels through small, often mundane actions and scenes.

As an aside, I enjoyed the references to novels in both books. Lady Catherine de Burgh from Pride and Prejudice appears in The Hotel, as does Jude the Obscure. In At Mrs Lippincote’s conversation about the Brontes forges a link between Julia and the Wing Commander. (As well as reading, he knits socks, which is lovely detail.) Her seven-year old son ‘did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.’ He is somewhat unconvincing, and the reader is relieved when he befriends Felicity and they play as children should.

What I find remarkable about these two writers is that they both already had an astonishing discernment for the slightest reactions or movements, the understated but telling observation which is fully evident in this their first novels. For example, in the extracts quoted – Julia’s observation of her husband’s change of expression; Sydney’s relations’ attitude to her.

The Elizabeths became friends, but I think they only met after the publication of the younger woman’s first novels.

I am currently re-reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in order of publication and continue to explore Elizabeth Bowen’s. Any recommendations?

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels