First published in 1927 The Hotel was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel, published following two collections of short stories. For a first novel it is very assured, remarkably so, written with great insight and subtlety.
In a hotel on the Italian Riviera, a certain kind of genteel English tourist spends the summer during the 1920’s. Here we meet spinsters Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, unassuming and a little stuck in their ways, as the novel opens there has been an upsetting quarrel. Mrs and Miss Pinkerton are used to having things just their way, the exclusive use of the bathroom opposite their rooms’ just one of the comforts they have come to rely on. Sydney Warren, an attractive, scornful young woman, at the hotel with (and at the expense of) her cousin Tessa Bellamy, who’s vague ailments keep her largely to her room.
“Miss Pym never went near the tennis courts, but a prospect of walking down there and appearing with Mrs Kerr was delightful (poor Emily, scrambling alone in the hills!) She abandoned a plan she had, still embryonic, of going down to the shops, and wondered whether their two names – her own and Mrs Kerr’s – might not, henceforward, begin to be coupled. She had a quiet little thrill and held open the swing-door with gratitude, almost with reverence. Mrs Kerr with a vague inclination of the head passed out before her. They crossed the gravel together under the hundred windows of The Hotel.”
Popular middle-aged Mrs Kerr is glamorous and quietly manipulative, and Sydney falls under her spell. Mrs Kerr is subject to a great deal of speculation from the other guests, sought out and admired, Sydney can bask a little in the glow of her aura although her fledgling friendship with Mrs Kerr becomes the subject of a little mild spite.
Middle-aged clergyman James Milton is a late arrival at the hotel, and not aware of the unwritten bathroom law – he relaxes from his arduous journey with a soak in the Pinkerton’s bathroom. His transgression is hardly a good start, and at first he is viewed by his fellow guests as a fairly unexciting prospect. The pretty Lawrence sisters are also popular with several of the guests, they are cynical and witty, and quite conventional, Veronica Lawrence is wearily certain about her eventual future being that of an inevitable marriage. Unwittingly Veronica’s attitude to love and marriage has quite an influence on Sydney, leading her to make a surprising decision. The Lawrence girls; trying to throw off their conventionality, with their air of world weary cynicism, but their very conventionality is infectious. Sydney is as influenced by them as she is by Mrs Kerr, and between both of these outside influences she becomes less and less certain of what she wants. James Milton is very much in the market for a wife, and it is probably not so surprising that he should look towards Sydney.
It is when Mrs Kerr’s twenty year old son arrives at the hotel that we begin to see her cool manipulation in action. Ronald and Sydney don’t entirely hit it off at first, but as Sydney seems to be drawing closer to James, it hardly seems to matter.
“ He pushed his way back into the drawing room, now quite vacant and in yellow shade from the awning. He sat down on a sofa, leaning back, crossing his legs, and waited for his mother to appear in the window, as she almost immediately did, and after a moment’s blank stare into the dusk to perceive him and come over royally. She did concede, and generously he could approve the concession, a few words back over her shoulder, perhaps to Miss Warren out there. Then she sat beside him, most beautiful in the half light, her attitude settling into complete repose as silk settles into folds.”
Bowen is a master at observation, and here she has recreated the claustrophobia of a genteel hotel, and the chilly relationships that exist behind its rarefied exterior, brilliantly.
The world of the hotel one of tennis and bridge, cliff side-walks, picnics and dining room conversation, is not an entirely comfortable one. This is a closed, privileged world, set among the olive groves and sunshine of the Riviera, everyone knows just how to behave, yet there is little sense of real enjoyment. Before the summer ends Sydney falls further and more resolutely under the spell of Mrs Kerr, neither she, Roland or James will be left untouched by the intensity that has risen up between them all.
Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is absolutely sublime, I find she needs to be read slowly, there is perhaps little in the way of plot, but really who needs plot? There is in fact a lot going on in the polite conversations, the side long glances, unspoken passions and future hopes. My favourite Bowen novels (I have yet to read them all) so far remain Death of the Heart and The House in Paris, but this is an excellent novel, and would actually make for a great place to start for anyone new to Bowen.