The Hotel

The Hotel (Penguin Modern Classics) - Elizabeth Bowen

She did not want to go down to the courts again; she knew that if Mrs Kerr sat on here, watching her meditatively, her play would all go to pieces.

‘I have heard so much of your service. Today I am really going to watch it.’

‘This is one of my off days.’ ‘

Dear Sydney, whenever I come you tell me it’s one of your off days.’ Mrs Kerr laughed. ‘I’m unlucky.’

‘Oh, do you notice that? From the moment you come here I never hit anything.’

‘What on earth do you mean, my dear Sydney! How terribly sinister! It had never occurred to me that my eye might be evil. I meant something much more prosaic – that I happen to miss things.’


Well, I somewhat sympathise with Mrs. Kerr. I, too, miss things, and one of things I have missed was the point of this book. I have heard so much praise of Bowen's work that reading her first novel was a huge let down. 


I first read about the The Hotel in connection with the censorship of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. When reading up on the history of the trial and the ban of the book in the UK, some of the sources cite other books published in 1928 which also are attributed with a lesbian theme. Anyway, one of the articles referred to The Hotel not being considered for censorship because it was too "reticent".  


Reticent, indeed. I had no expectations (or indeed any particular wish) to read about any romantic entanglements between the main characters, but I did expect the book to have story or a point but it seems that even these eluded me.


The Hotel is about a group of English tourists (mostly women) who holiday in a hotel in Italy. There is a group of older women, a few younger ones and the two main characters - Mrs. Kerr and Sydney. The tourists basically provide the soundboard of conventional upper-middle class society against which Mrs Kerr and Sydney develop their friendship, though Mrs Kerr is characterised so ambiguously that it is difficult to say whether she is one of the old "conventionals" or not.


Anyway, so during the holiday, Sydney meets Mrs Kerr and the two become friends and somewhat abstain from mingling with the rest of the guests. Their friendship is somewhat disrupted, however, when Mrs Kerr's son arrives at the hotel and one of the other guests, a clergyman, falls in love with Sydney and proposes to her. She refuses, then accepts, then breaks it off. Then guest start to depart.


Really, there is not much of a story.


What was more aggravating than the non-story was the writing. Yes, there were some great paragraphs, one my favourites being:


"On still spring nights the thud of a falling lemon would be enough to awake one in terror."


However, they were so few embedded in so much pretentious drivel that just would not come to any point. 


‘There are situations in life,’ said Mrs Pinkerton, ‘face to face with which one is powerless.’ Though she only meant that in the struggle for life one is sorely handicapped by the obligations of nobility.



The only character that made me finish the book was Sydney, who is a straight forward sensible character.


‘Doesn’t it rain? I like it!’ she was moved to exclaim. ‘If I were Monet and alive now, I would paint this and present the picture to the P.L.M. as a poster for the Côte d’Azur.’ She smiled out at the rain with an air of complicity.