The Hotel: A Novelby Elizabeth Bowen, Maud Ellman (Foreword by)
In his introduction to a collection of criticism on the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen, Harold Bloom wrote, “What then has Bowen given us except nuance, bittersweet and intelligent? Much, much more.” Born in 1899, Bowen became part of the famous Bloomsbury scene, and her novels have a much-deserved place in the modernist canon. In recent years,
In his introduction to a collection of criticism on the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen, Harold Bloom wrote, “What then has Bowen given us except nuance, bittersweet and intelligent? Much, much more.” Born in 1899, Bowen became part of the famous Bloomsbury scene, and her novels have a much-deserved place in the modernist canon. In recent years, however, her work has not been as widely read or written about, and as Bloom points out, her evocative and sometimes enigmatic prose requires careful parsing. Yet in addition to providing a fertile ground for criticism, Bowen’s novels are both wonderfully entertaining, with rich humor, deep insight, and a tragic sense of human relationships.
Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel, is a wonderful introduction to her disarming, perceptive style. Following a group of British tourists vacationing on the Italian Riviera during the 1920s, The Hotel explores the social and emotional relationships that develop among the well-heeled residents of the eponymous establishment. When the young Miss Sydney falls under the sway of an older woman, Mrs. Kerr, a sapphic affair simmers right below the surface of Bowen’s writing, creating a rich story that often relies as much on what is left unsaid as what is written on the page. Bowen depicts an intense interpersonal drama with wit and suspense, while playing with and pushing the English language to its boundaries.
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By Elizabeth Bowen
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1931 Elizabeth Bowen
All rights reserved.
Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again. Ladies under discs of coloured shade from their parasols came walking down the middle of the road; they deflected their course to pass her. Their faces conveyed nothing, but now and then they would smile, and Miss Fitzgerald felt her throat and chin contract as custom wrenched from her a small, stiff bow. She stood there helplessly, as though she were waiting for a friend.
That Miss Fitzgerald should, after so violent an exit, simply continue to stand there had been beyond the calculations of Miss Pym. She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters—tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase. The lift-shaft rose direct from the lounge and the stairs bent round and round it: she stared down for a long time through the wire netting case of the shaft to assure herself that the lounge was empty. It was. There was not a soul down there; not a movement among the shadows, it was eleven o'clock and everybody would have gone out to the shops or the library, up to the hills or down to the tennis courts. Not a shadow crossed the veiled glass doors of the drawing-room to interrupt the glitter from the sea. Not a sound came up from the smoking-room. Miss Fitzgerald was not there.
Miss Pym had been quite sure she would not be there but all the same she let out a sigh of relief. Miss Fitzgerald had gone out: having discharged with such bitterness of finality that last shot in her locker she would have fled. At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.
Miss Pym, waiting about in the lounge, glanced back diffidently at the last few minutes, then turned round square and faced them. She was surprised to find herself cool, explanatory and reasonable. Her wait prolonged itself, the minutes seemed interminable; now and then she glanced at the lounge clock. She read the announcements pinned to the notice-board, looked along the letter-rack and read the names on the envelopes stuck prominently on the concierge's desk to await new arrivals. These long-forecast shadows for ever darkening the threshold of the Hotel excited Miss Pym; for some new arrival that never arrived she was storing up tenderness. She found that they were to expect (quite soon, perhaps) a clergyman, a Rev. J. D. L. Milton—John? Three letters for him and something that looked like a bill (or perhaps a receipt) had been forwarded from an address she knew quite well, a country house in Derbyshire. Gratifying how one's intimate world contracted itself, how one's friends wove themselves in! Society was fascinating, so like a jigsaw puzzle!
Miss Pym heard somebody beginning to come downstairs and moved quickly away from the notice-board. Those firm steps coming down unhurriedly in a light, continous, increasing ripple sounded like Mrs Kerr's; it was Mrs Kerr herself who appeared at the turn of the stairs, drawing her loose white gauntlets over her wrists. Without troubling to look down into the lounge she called 'Sydney ... Sydney,' as though she did not care to question or need to command but expected Sydney to take form somehow out of a limbo to which forgetfulness had consigned her, and be drawn up the stairs to where her friend stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility.
'Miss Warren isn't here,' said Miss Pym. 'She'll have gone on down to the courts, I dare say: she went past me in the corridor with her racquet quite a little time ago.'
Mrs Kerr said 'Thank you,' smiled and accepted this; she did not seem really to care whether Miss Warren were there or not, her 'Sydney ... Sydney,' must have been quite perfunctory. 'Well, I shall go down to the courts,' she said, and came on down to take her parasol out of the rack. She was accustomed to leave her nice parasol leaning up in the rack there quite casually, for anybody to borrow, instead of taking it up to her room with her. Miss Pym watched eagerly, and Mrs Kerr must have felt a conjunction to be inevitable, for having made a show of hesitation between three parasols not at all like each other, and feeling Miss Pym still behind her, she asked charmingly, hopefully: 'And are you going down?'
Miss Pym never went near the tennis courts, but a prospect of walking down there and appearing publicly 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 queer 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.
When they turned out of the gates, however, Miss Pym flinched and felt giddy. For there stood Miss Fitzgerald, twisting her fingers together and staring straight at them. Had she been awaiting them there, malign and patient? Had they walked into an ambush? Then she saw how drained-out, how void of intention, Emily was. She seemed hardly to see them. She might have crept out here to bleed—but her wounded presence still was an outrage. Miss Pym looked away.
'There's Miss Fitzgerald!' said Mrs Kerr pleasantly.
'Musn't she be waiting for you?'
'You musn't let me be selfish,' said Mrs Kerr.
Miss Fitzgerald, who must gradually have brought them into focus, wheeled round nervously and hurried away. Everything that, abroad, an English lady takes out with her swung from her arm and bumped as she fled: the coloured straw satchel, the native umbrella, the golf-jersey, the net bag supplementing the satchel. There streamed from them, to Miss Pym's perception, a pitiful wraith. With all these, in shining readiness for the day's excursion, Emily had presented herself at her friend's door—less than an hour ago.
'Going all by herself?' observed Mrs Kerr.
'Yes,' agreed Miss Pym, and after a moment cautiously licked her lips.
Mrs Kerr, balancing her parasol on her shoulder, walked on, looking ahead serenely. She did not seem to be wondering what on earth one of them was to say next; she did not look as though it even remotely concerned her. There were so many things that she might have said just now that Miss Pym could have taken up easily, but she did not say one of them, only exposed with indifference her profile to the sidelong, zealous research of Miss Pym. Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring's pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.
Miss Pym, with a welling up in the depths of her, was moved to tell Mrs Kerr everything and did not know where to begin. She was a timid woman, but had for a moment the sufferer's arrogance. She hesitated, pondered, debated with herself, and again with reluctance looked back.
It had been what she would have to describe as a quarrel. It had been a Moment, not a succession of moments, not a gradual divergence of herself and Emily from the path of loving forbearance. It had been a flare—or a blotting out, how could she better describe it?—like the horrible blackness of spilt ink, suddenly everywhere, that makes one crinkle one's face up. They had seen each other crudely illuminated, and they had seen each other as vulgar. She could not remember how it began; she could not remember anything leading up to it; just that there had been something intolerable about Emily from the moment she came to the door ... That is the worst of anger, that terrible clarity. They had had, at that moment when everything tottered, worse than a sense of destruction: they had felt the whole force of a doubt in that moment: had there never been anything there? Isolating doubt which coming upon them suddenly had sent Miss Fitzgerald blindly downstairs and left Miss Pym, trembling, to put away the sketching-blocks and newly sharpened pencils and empty the steaming coffee from the thermos flask into the slop-pail ... If Miss Pym were to tell Mrs Kerr all this, she couldn't imagine what Mrs Kerr would be likely to say.
She realized that she had not made any remark for a long time, and wondered in agony what Mrs Kerr must be thinking of her. A slight turn of Mrs Kerr's head, the ghost of a smile, the quickened twinkle of an earring made her feel all at once she could not tell Mrs Kerr: she was afraid.
'I think many people might maintain,' began Miss Pym laboriously, 'that this was an ideal place to pass the winter.'
'I'm sure it is,' said Mrs Kerr.
'Except, of course, those Spartans who enjoy the sleet and fogs, or say they do, because they maintain that endurance, that is, endurance practised as an act in itself, constitutes enjoyment.'
She pulled out a fine, full stop of sarcasm, but Mrs Kerr seemed to ignore it and said quite seriously: 'Oh, but does anybody think that?'
'I—I suppose they must,' said Miss Pym, flustered. 'But I do think that to the Straightforward Persons who can be frank with themselves and admit that they do like to escape the difficulties of Life and the unpleasantness—if they can do so without depriving themselves of experience or evading Responsibilities, or hurting Other People—then ...'
Where was she? What had she been going to say? This was the way that she and Emily talked all day long, climbing the hills or sitting among those warm rocks that fringe the Mediterranean. They drew in each other's ideas and gave out their own by a gentle process, like breathing. They had pinned down the most slippery, ethical subtleties for absorbing, tireless analysis. Everything they said to each other was so true. Now this was all becoming nonsense, futile in the ears of Miss Pym. Her waves came back bewildered, broken against something. She could not endure the ordeal of this gracious listening. Was Mrs Kerr like this when Sydney Warren talked?
She drew a desperate breath and continued: 'As I say, to the Straightforward Person—and I think, you know, that the more one is that the more one is bound to admit to oneself that one is a Hedonist, and that it is better not to fight or to drive oneself, but to lead and develop——'
'Ah yes,' said Mrs Kerr, 'I think you are so right. One's first duty is, I'm sure, to be warm. Other people may pose about their reasons for not coming abroad, but you and I are much wiser.'
The road ran straight ahead of them, parallel with the coast and planted with two regular lines of chestnut trees. To the right the hills rose up with their climbing villas; to the left the town with its gardens crowded down to the sea. As Miss Pym walked on, distressed but concentrated, confessing herself a Hedonist, Mrs Kerr touched her lightly on the arm and said, 'No, look; this way. We're missing the turn to the tennis club!' She kept a hand on Miss Pym's sleeve for a moment longer and guided her gently. Their path struck off at a right angle between high garden walls, a funnel of sunshine so narrow that two could not walk abreast. Miss Pym, elated, deprecating, plunged down it ahead of her companion, who had to pause for a moment to disentangle her parasol from a long spray of creeper that swung down over a wall. Miss Pym felt the heat on her thin back as she hurried crabwise, incoherently talking, but she did not dare to put up her parasol, because parasols are so awkward when one is nervous, and how should she feel if she poked Mrs Kerr in the eye?
She approached the tennis courts and heard the cries, the ping of the balls, and saw the shining, darting figures and the shaded balconies of the pavilion. Miss Pym felt behind her a drawing away of Mrs Kerr and knew that she was now to be abandoned. Mrs Kerr was looking through the wire netting; her eyes went from court to court, then turned dissatisfied to question the pavilion, then the benches underneath the wall where players sat in groups or couples, waiting for their courts. She watched these benches for some time, and Miss Pym watched her.
'Well, it's been so nice ...' said Mrs Kerr. Her voice trailed off into a valedictory murmur. It had been so nice ... Miss Pym could never have brought herself near the tennis courts: she was shy of all the people; she would never have come along. They wore blazing, immaculate white, and bright woolly wraps huddled round them professionally. The quality of their hard, cool stare of indifference yet so penetrating was enhanced for Miss Pym by the glare of the courts, the air charged with sunshine, the treelessness, a kind of positiveness everywhere. She had a sense, so acute from her own ill-health as to become intolerable, of the stored-up, schooled, directed energy in all these fine bodies. She turned in a panic, abruptly, upon Mrs Kerr. 'I'll be going back,' she said. 'I—#8212;'
The other stood still by the turnstile. Her eyes now rested in passivity, as after a homecoming, on a face they had discovered.
'I'll be going back ...' Yes, it was Miss Warren who, over there with a scarlet handkerchief bound round her head, had been galvanized by awareness, half-risen, and remained staring towards them across the courts. Miss Pym spoke again, louder, but Mrs Kerr, who was passing through the turnstile, gave no sign of attention. Only when Miss Pym was half-way up the path in retreat did Mrs Kerr recollect her companion and, turning, make some vague gesture, some unheard sound, of farewell.CHAPTER 2
'But they told me you had come on down!' cried Sydney Warren. Slipping along the wall, at the edge of the courts, she gained the pavilion and the back upper bench where Mrs Kerr had seated herself. Mrs Kerr smiled and looked leisurely round her. From these high seats one had an excellent view of the courts and could hardly be seen from them, sitting far back in the shadow. At one's feet a packed row of spectators leant forward into the sun.
'I waited for nearly an hour,' said Sydney. 'And Colonel Duperrier swore he had seen you go down. I couldn't make it out, but I came. If I'd ever imagined——'
'It never occurred to me you would wait. It would have been dreadfully silly. And, anyhow, it was nice to walk down with Colonel Duperrier.' (Sydney repudiated Colonel Duperrier with a grimace.) 'I walked down with Miss Pym,' Mrs Kerr said contentedly.
'I know—I was horrified. One of the pussies!'
'Oh, is she? She seemed intelligent. She was telling me she is a Hedonist.'
'How Victorian!' Sydney said crossly, and hacked at the toe of her shoe with her racquet.
'Do you think so?' said Mrs Kerr. 'I suppose,' she confessed, 'one forgets: we are rather old pussies.'
'Don't be so——'
'My dear child, I'm her age. We do date when we talk. She had quarrelled, I think, with her friend, the other artistic one. I came on her down in the lounge, nearly crying, and the other, still nearer it, was out in the road. You know, women's lives are sensational. Aren't you inclined to be intolerant with us all?'
Sydney seemed surprised at this quick little gush of humanity. She stared at her friend, who was brilliantly earnest, then turned away gloomily. 'Oh, women's lives ...'
'Well, I suppose it's inconsistent of me,' said Mrs Kerr. 'I'm not a Feminist, but I do like being a woman.'
Any approach to the personal seemed to be difficult. Sydney said airily: 'Oh, of course if one's one kind of woman.——'
'Well, so are you,' said Mrs Kerr, looking abstractedly at her young friend. Sydney, at a probable twenty-two, had a clear pallor and regular features of which the lines were now, as too often, strained and broken up by an expression of over-eagerness. An exaggerated attention to what was being said or suggested would arch up the eyebrows tragically, harden the eyes and draw in the mouth to a line that prefigured maturity's. The forehead was broad and lovely and could have been bland. The scarlet handkerchief bound round the head accentuated her darkness and pallor; it had in common with other details of her dress and appearance a faint kind of nervous swagger.
Excerpted from The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen. Copyright © 1931 Elizabeth Bowen. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) is an Anglo-Irish novelist and short-story writer who spent most of her life in London, where she mixed with the intellectual circle of the Bloomsbury group. Her many books include The Death of the Heart, The Demon Lover and Other Stories, The Heat of the Day, and The Last September.
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