This is Bowen’s first novel, and I’ve been saving it up for a while. I was looking forward to being able to read it from the perspective of having already read her greatest works, and I hoped it would provide more of an insight into her development as a writer. I wasn’t disappointed, but I was surprised. For, far from the slightly inferior novel I expected, The Hotel is just as good as those she wrote during the pinnacle of her career. It is slightly more conventional, perhaps a little easier on the reader than her more abstract later novels, but by and large, the skills she demonstrates in her masterpieces – To the North, The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart – are already on display in The Hotel, which is a remarkably polished, acutely observed and absolutely mesmerising piece of writing. I was more than a little galled to discover she wrote it at my age. I might as well just give up now!
It’s the roaring twenties, and in the small, select Riviera hotel chosen by a certain type of English tourist, there are a diverse group of individuals thrown together to winter in the Italian sun. Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are seemingly mild mannered, timid spinsters, but this exterior hides a volatile, passionate relationship. Mrs and The Hon Pinkerton like to steep themselves in luxury, and know just exactly how things ought to be done. Mrs Kerr is a glamorous beauty, whose wisdom is much talked of and company much sought after by the other guests. Sydney Warren is a young flapper, searching for her identity. The Lawrence girls are keen to defy convention wherever possible. And poor Reverend Milton is looking for someone to take home with him. Amidst the stuffy Victorian furniture and rigid routine of the seemingly never ending days, spent shuttling between the tennis court, dining room and cliff top walk, love, passion, despair and disapproval hang tremulously in the air as each visitor imposes their own desires upon those of their fellow guests.
Like all of Bowen’s novels, nothing remotely dramatic takes place; the action is all in the tense, painful conversations where no one is quite able to express exactly how they feel – in the careless, frighteningly true observations of a child – in the veiled looks across a crowded room. Bowen operates in a world of shadows and silences, where the air is thick with all the words left unsaid. Outside the hotel, the idyllic countryside and warm sunshine are barely seen by the guests, whose personal lives remain their intense preoccupation. For some the hotel is the scene of great happiness and laughter, and for others, it is suffocating and full of despair. No one will leave untouched by their experience; especially not Sydney Warren, who is really the heart of the novel. Taken in by the domineering, slightly sinister Mrs Kerr, she falls passionately under her spell. Aloof and beautiful, she is much admired by the other guests, but she doesn’t really know who she is or what she wants, and her failure to understand her own heart and mind will prove to have tragic consequences by the time the last sleeper train arrives to take them all back to England.
Written in a series of beautiful, lyrical, wry and often very funny vignettes, The Hotel is a wonderfully evocative distillation of a world long gone. I got completely lost in it. If you’re looking for an entry point to Bowen, this would probably be a good place to start. Make sure you take your time and drink it all in, though; Bowen was a poet, and no word of hers should be wasted.