10 April 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

'To the Italian Riviera hotel of my first novel succeeded the large, lonely Irish house.  I am, and am bound to be, a writer involved closely with place and time; for me these are more than elements, they are actors.  The impending close of 'the season', everyone leaving, gives climax to the drama of The Hotel.'

The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen
Edited by Hermione Lee

Oh, this was lovely.  It took me ages to get through because...well, it's Elizabeth Bowen and you absolutely must drink in every heavenly bit of prose that drained from her inkwell.  The Hotel was her first novel and while the average reader, if there is such a thing, could be forgiven for thinking the language bogs a bit I found it to be quite readable.  What is clearly evident in this book is that by the age of twenty-eight, Elizabeth Bowen was destined to shine in literary circles.

Published in 1927, the Italian Riviera is the backdrop for a group of upper-class English holidaymakers...'an ideal place to spend the winter'.  Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald have had a tiff and must find ways of avoiding each other for the time being.  The glamourous Mrs Kerr is searching for young Sydney Warren whose company she seeks out more than any other, a sort of protégé.  With swishing pleated skirts, parasols, and loose gauntlet gloves to protect her ivory skin from the sun, Mrs Kerr begrudgingly invites Miss Pym to accompany her to the tennis courts.  A coup indeed for the timid woman. 

The atmosphere is something like a Merchant Ivory film with its rich seaside scenery, siestas from the heat, romantic pairings, tea-filled afternoons, and a lift with a steel gate, no less.  Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison (always with knitting close at hand) provide much of the social observations, the eyes of the group shall we say.  In one of the more hilarious scenes Mrs Pinkerton ('...with her Olympic cloud of hair') and her sister-in-law encounter an unwelcome guest in their bathroom.  It's supposed to be a shared bath but there is an 'understanding' with the other guests.  Let's set the scene shall we...

'...here in white-tiled sanctuary their bowls of soap, their loofahs: here, too, their maid could do their smaller washing and hang the garments up to dry before the radiator.  There generally were garments drying there, the two distrusted foreign laundresses, perhaps with reason.'

Then James Milton, the awkward clergyman, arrives...

'...going upstairs directly after his arrival locked himself into Mrs Pinkerton's bathroom.  Here he hoped to remove by steaming and by prolonged immersion the grime, ingrained in one till one is almost polished, of a transcontinental journey....He did not notice the bath salts, but, unthinkingly, made full use of the loofah...'

Can you imagine a more cringeworthy moment for the poor Pinkertons?  Oh the upheaval and anxiety!

As the season reaches its end and conclusions become crucial the chapters unfold like acts in a play and in one of my favourite scenes (read three times) from 'Cemetery'...

'Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had been stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writed, opaque in the sunshine.  Above all this uneasy rustle of remembrance, white angels poised forward to admonish....Everywhere, in ribbons, marbles, porcelains was a suggestion of the 'salon', and nowhere could the significance of death have been brought forward more startingly.
"I must say, 'remarked Cordelia, 'I do like Italian graves; they look so much more lived in."'

This is a book to be revisited again and again; something tells me the better you get to know the characters the more there will be to admire and amuse any reader.  Don't ask me to choose a favourite novel by Bowen; so far I like each one I have read but if you are new to her work then I would highly suggest this as an excellent place to start.

19 comments:

  1. That sounds wonderful, Darlene. It's on order at the library but not sure I can wait!

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    1. If you are sick of the cool temperatures and April showers it's just the book for making you feel like you're away somewhere nice and warm. Hope it comes in quickly, Mary!

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  2. I've only read one Elizabeth Bowen but it truly was a book to drink in.

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  3. I love Bowen but have not read this one -- it sounds brilliant, and what a great review. Thanks!

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    1. It is brilliant, Harriet, I think you would really enjoy it. And as I wrote to Mary, it's just the book to help us forget these stubborn cool-ish temperatures!

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  4. Added to the wishlist, it's not a Bowen I've heard of but sounds a good gateway book. :)

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    1. Despite buying up everything I came across by Bowen it was one I hadn't known about either. If you spy a copy, Alex, don't hesitate to plunk down your money!

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  5. This is the one and only book by Ms. Bowen that I have read. Overall I loved it but I couldn't make hide nor tail of some of the conversations. I was totally lost in hidden meanings I suppose. Anyway, I did love her prose and have a book of her short stories that I am almost ready to delve into.

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    1. Bowen definitely challenges the reader and there is no reading her work while having anything else on your mind. Give A House in Paris a try or To the North - both excellent!

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  6. What a treat to discover your blog! Recently I read To the North by Elizabeth Bowen and loved it. I also read your blog post about Barbara Pym and I am very excited about the Barbara Pym reading week. She is one of my favorite writers. I am currently re-reading Excellent Women, savoring every word and each delightful situation.

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    1. So glad you found your way here, Sunday! I'm not sure if you are aware that this is my new home since vacating my rosesoveracottagedoor blog. It was time for a fresh start and to simply post about the books I've been enjoying.

      The Barbara Pym week is going to be so much fun! We are going to be so spoiled for choice when it comes to picking titles. No Fond Return of Love is my favourite so far.

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  7. Oooh, Darlene, this is the only Bowen that I own left sitting on my shelf unread. I must get started...you have made it irresistible. I LOVE her writing SO much. She wrote this when she was 28? My goodness!

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    1. You did come to mind a time or two while I was reading it, I have to say! It would make the perfect summer read with its 'Bowen-Lite' sort of feel...and all that sun!

      Bowen is THE Goddess of Writing. I so want to pull The Last September from my shelf but the need to eke out her books takes precedence. The film is on youtube though and I've watched seven episodes so far but that's it - must leave the ending as a surprise! The cast is fantastic...Maggie Smith, say no more.

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  8. Thanks for this. I share your enthusiasm for Elizabeth Bowen, marvelling at The Heat of the Day for its amzing evocation of London during the war, and also The Last September, which amazed me for its confidence for so young a writer. I have The Hotel on my to-be-read shelf, and your review has made me want to hurry to get to it.

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    1. Pull it from you shelf this summer, Caroline! And did you know a film was made of The Last September? You can find it on youtube; the cast is fabulous. I loved The Heat of the Day too - Bowen and the Blitz just happen to be two of my favourite interests so that read was sheer bliss for me. To the North and The House in Paris are also excellent...but you probably already know that. Have a super day and thanks for stopping by!

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    2. I took your advice last week. Amazing novel. I enjoyed rereading your review. I posted some comments about this and Ellizabeth Taylor's first novel At Mrs Liipincote's on my blog. Both amazing first novels. Both amazing writers.

      I'll take up your recommendations of To the North and The House in Paris next.

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  9. I need to revist Elizabeth Bowen. Thanks for reminding me!

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