“A Long Smudge of Faces”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel

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If ever there was a writer who improved upon re-reading, it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen’s style isn’t simple or easy to follow. Her syntax is famously knotty, often baffling until you figure out which words to emphasize and everything clicks into place. Here’s a classic from her masterpiece, The Heat of the Day (1948), which describes London during the Blitz:

Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs—drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes—presented, between the railings which sill girt them, mirages of repose.

Until you realize that the subject of the sentence is the long noun phrase “parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs” rather than just parks, and that the verb is “presented” not “closed” this makes no sense at all. A reader at Jonathan Cape, Bowen’s publisher, said that her sentences were baffling until you understood the emphasis and then everything clicked into place.

At any rate, Bowen is never straightforward in her syntax. She can contort even simple sentences. Again from Heat: “He seldom was, and was not this time, put out.” Honestly, that one almost parodies itself.

But Bowen’s circumlocution, misdirection, even apparent clumsiness serves a function. I think Rohan is spot on when she says of Bowen’s prose: “that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.”

Nonetheless, especially in her first novel, The Hotel, which I’ve just been reading with Jacqui, Bowen is sometime just plain opaque. Consider for example this sentence:

Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.

A character, a young man, is here reflecting on why he’s left Germany with its economic crisis to come to be with his mother in Italy: the undistress refers to the mother’s lack of interest in the crisis. At least I think so—it’s really hard to tell! The substance of the sentence is as tricky as its context. What is “undistress” anyway? I can just about make sense of it as an adjective, but as a noun it flummoxes me. Is undistress the same as lack of distress? Is that the same as calmness? And why would it be reprehensible? So reprehensible, in fact, as to be tempting. It seems the distress we can’t help hearing in “undistress” ought to have carried the day: as if his mother should have been worried about it. We might think it would be nice to be drawn to someone who’s refusing to be worried about a political crisis, but the language here is more alarming than reassuring.

Not everything in Bowen is hard going, though. There are plenty of good bits. We find, for example, the occasional piece of social commentary, a la the Dowager Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey: here two characters are reading the English papers:

“There’s been the pit disaster.”

“Miners,” said the lady distastefully, “always seem to be getting into trouble. One is so sorry, but it is difficult to go on and on sympathizing.”

More frequent are striking apercus. Sometimes these are given to characters—“She had found that in actually dealing with children theories collapse and one must retreat on the conventions”—and sometimes to the narrator: “Sydney, who was still near enough to her own childhood to mistrust children profoundly, wondered what Cordelia could be getting at.”

And best of all are things that are just plain weird: a woman suddenly plucks a bitter orange from a tree and bites into it: “She glanced shamefacedly at her tooth-marks in the orange, then guiltily up at the windows of the Hotel, then she wiped the orange and tucked it quietly away behind her.” The tooth-marks are good, and so is the wiping and that “quietly.”

More conventional but quite beautiful are some moments of description: “She must have been made conspicuous by her abstraction or by her yellow dress; people turned to stare at her and a tram announced by a hum of overhead wires rushed past with a long smudge of faces turned her way.” I like the smudge.

If I haven’t said much about what The Hotel is about, it’s because I’m not sure. (And also because Jacqui is so good at summaries. Be sure to read hers.) I think—and this is what most makes the book worthwhile, even if it’s not always easy going—it’s about queerness.

The hotel of the title is on the Italian Riviera. The guests are British, and they’re mostly women. Most interesting to me are two pairs: Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, and Sydney Warren and Mrs. Kerr, the mother of the young man who comes to visit from Germany.

The novel begins brilliantly, with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald wandering dazedly around the hotel and the resort after having had a terrible fight. We don’t see the fight, we never learn what it was about, we don’t even know who these women are, and we have to piece together what they mean to each other. It’s pretty clear they are lovers, though, and I really wished they’d been more present in the book. Even in this episodic novel, they disappeared for long stretches of time, though they importantly close the book. On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.

In this sense they comment on the more oblique and much less resolved relationship between Sydney—a young woman who had planned to be a doctor and who has been sent to the Riviera by her family to accompany her cousin, one of those invalids who are really just women who need a break from life of the sort you find in so much fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century, and, they hope, to get married—and the much older Mrs. Kerr. It seems pretty clear that Sydney loves Mrs. Kerr. It’s not at all clear what Mrs. Kerr thinks of her. Sydney is a kind of factotum to the older (richer) woman, sometimes a kind of daughter or even a pet who Mrs. Kerr deigns to take an interest in, and sometimes something much more like a lover.

Bowen’s refusal to clarify is brilliant. But she’s clear that other characters (men especially but not only) wonder and worry about it. Consider this exchange, three-quarters of the way through the novel. A visiting clergyman, James Milton, is talking with Mrs. Kerr’s son, Ronald:

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.”

“Mustn’t that be,” said Ronald, “what people come out for?”

“Perhaps some—”

“But are there really people who would do that? asked Ronald sharply, in a tone of revulsion, as though he had brought himself up more squarely than he had anticipated to the edge of some kind of abyss. “You mean women?”

Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly. The reference to friendship is redescribed as a code for same-sex desire, a desire that Ronald, at least, is revolted by. The book is at its best when it’s at its queerest: that is, when it offers us relationships that challenge the homo-hetero binary, relationships that are hard to name.

If Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are straightforwardly gay, Sydney and Mrs. Kerr are, I don’t know, not. They’re something else. But whatever it is it’s powerful. Partly through the book—here come some spoilers now, watch out—the clergyman Milton proposes to Sydney, out of nowhere. She rejects him as gently as she can. But then just as unaccountably she later accepts. All of which leads to an amazing scene near the end of the book when the couple along with Sydney’s cousin and Mrs. Kerr rent a driver to take them on an excursion into the mountains. Coming back down they run up against a timber wagon that has almost tipped over one of the hairpin turns that Sydney has spent the ride silently wishing the party would plunge over. Something about the moment—the shock, or maybe the shock is just a cover for a decision she’s already come to, unconsciously—prompts Sydney to break off the engagement. It has to do with her feelings for Mrs. Kerr, but we don’t know how exactly. Nor do we find out. At the end of the novel, Milton leaves in embarrassed chagrin. Sydney is set to leave too. And only on one of the last pages do we sense that Mrs. Kerr will in fact be devastated by the loss, though whether out of love or out of loss of power is uncertain.

The Hotel is a chilly novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did have a hard time with it, never able to get stuck in it, always reading a few pages at a time, and often having to go back over those knotty sentences.

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However lukewarm I am about The Hotel I certainly do love Bowen in general. She’s sadly underrated and definitely poorly classified. People often compare her to Woolf—with whom she had a rivalrous but also mutually admiring relationship—for no other reason as far as I can see than that they were both women writing at around the same time. But Bowen is much better understood as part of that great British mid-twentieth century tradition of women writers who defy the longstanding and increasingly useless distinction between modernism and post-modernism. This tradition—which for me includes writers like Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Carter, and Penelope Fitzgerald: a pretty heterogeneous bunch!—is uncannily experimental, the strangeness of the works heightened by how ordinary they first seem.

In The Hotel Bowen seems to still be finding her way. When we were talking about it on Twitter, Jacqui said it’s as if Bowen were rooting through English fiction of the period for ideas. Milton seems like someone out of a Forster novel, though perhaps less interested in art. And sometimes the prose, which at its worst is sub-Jamesian, overtly imitates The Master: “The party hung fire, embarrassed by this choice of attractions, then continued to move slowly up the avenue in a close formation.” I thought only James was allowed to use the expression “hung fire”!

In other words, if you’ve never read Elizabeth Bowen before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here. It is, after all, a first novel. (Though first novels often seem to me most representative of a writer’s preoccupations, and that’s not the case here.) I’m curious about her two earlier collections of stories. Bowen’s wartime stories are justly famous—if you’ve never read “The Demon Lover,” you’re in for something special—and I wonder if she had already mastered the form. At any rate, it’s impressive how quickly Bowen improved as a novelist. Her next one, The Last September—a moving description of the Anglo-Irish war—is miles better and a terrific point of entry into her work. More conventional in structure and more compressed in scope than The Hotel, The Last September feels like a novel in a way that the earlier book doesn’t. After that I’d recommend two terrific but dark novels of the 30s, The Death of the Heart and To the North (which has one of the most ominous final scenes ever) and of course her absolute masterpiece, maybe the greatest novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day.

Has anyone read any of her late novels (Eva Trout, The Little Girls, etc)? I wonder what they’re like.

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30 thoughts on ““A Long Smudge of Faces”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel

  1. Pingback: The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen | JacquiWine's Journal

  2. It certainly doesn’t sound the one to start with. It sounds, frankly, difficult. Difficult is not of course a bad thing, but some of those quotes are pretty spiky. Woolf may be an unfair comparison, but Woolf’s language is crystal clear.

    But then, as you say a lack of clarity may be intentional and part of the art.

    Fascinating. I’ll take a look at Jacqui’s thoughts now.

    • Spiky is a great word for Bowen! I often have the same experience with Bowen as I do with James: I can’t make heads or tails of it, I’m bored and frustrated, and then suddenly things click into place. James is harder than Bowen, for sure, and I think Bowen got better in her career. She started to figure out what to do with plot, for example. So I guess I’m saying, don’t be put off Bowen by this review!

  3. A very interesting analysis. I love what you say about Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, particularly this: “On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.” That’s so true. I wish I had written a little more about them – I’m sure it was a conscious decision on Bowen’s part to have them bookending the novel in that way.

    Mrs Kerr, is such an intriguing character, isn’t she? So much of her backstory is opaque, left to the reader’s imagination or fancy. And the reason for her attachment to Sydney is never made entirely clear either. She struck me as being a rather manipulative woman, especially in the latter stages of the novel. Maybe it was a power trip for her, having this hold over a younger woman?

    • Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, I really want to know more about what you make of Mrs. Kerr. She’s *totally* manipulative. But what *is* her attraction to Sydney. I think she *is* attracted to her. (I’ll stop italicizing words in every sentence now.) She’s more than a bit cruel. I admit was quite satisfied when her vague oracular-ness, which I’d found annoying, is destroyed by Sydney’s departure. So power-trip for sure. But also desire, do you think? Does she *want* Sydney?

      • A desire to possess Sydney, perhaps? I never felt there was any warmth and affection in her interactions with Sydney, did you? I agree that the final scenes put a different slant on things, particularly as far as Sydney’s feelings are concerned – that mountainside scene you reference is really terrific.

        It’s interesting to wonder how the connection between Sydney and Mrs Kerr developed in the first place. I admire Bowen for not clarifying this as it leaves an element of mystery to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, I was left wondering how it came about…

      • I didn’t find any affection there, either, until the very end. It’s hard for me to read Mrs. Kerr’s distress there as a function of power. But maybe I’m just naive about how much having a hold over someone could mean to a person.
        Great observation about how they even got to know each other. Bowen really is good at leaving important things unsaid. Is it about money? I think more likely that Sydney’s physically drawn to Mrs. Kerr and the latter knows how to take advantage of that. But if my queer reading has any merit, then the point would be that the exact nature of the relationship *can’t* be named, at least in a heteronormative society.

      • Yes, I completely agree with your reading of the gay relationships in the novel, and with your theory on the likely spark of the initial connection between Sydney and Mrs Kerr – it’s easy to imagine that happening, especially as Sydney is well away from home and the watchful eyes of her parents. I think I need to read that ending again, maybe a little later in the week when I hope to have a little more spare time – it’s been a hectic week!

      • I hear you on the hectic week front. Let me know what you think when you re-read the ending. In this case I prefer queer to gay because queer, as I understand it, is a way to describe non-heteronormative relationships that might not be sexual. Basically every relationship in Henry James, in other words. But in real life too. We’re pretty impoverished in our vocabulary for naming relationships of intimacy and/or importance that aren’t necessarily sexual.

    • So interesting, Tom, thank you. I wonder if Bowen knew Nerval. I’m sure she knew Goethe, though; in this context sounds like she has to be thinking of that moment. Is it in Italian Journey? One strange thing is that it took me the longest time to figure out if the book was set in Italy or in France. It’s more interested in a general Mediterranean-ness.
      By the way, I’ve been studying your style, and tried to approximate it in this post: sort of breezier, with good examples. You may be horrified by the comparison, but it’s a work in progress. Still too long, though.

    • No wonder this sounded so good – I thought it was the book, but it was actually me! Outstanding. “Open a window – more breeze” I am always saying.

      The poem “Mignon’s Song,” which forever poisoned all combinations of oranges and Italy by turning them into literary references, is in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), so twenty years before Italian Journey (1816) but a decade after Goethe’s actual journey to Italy (1786 or so).

      It’s Nerval who supplies the teeth-marks. Bowen read French, at least. “Madame Bovary was the start, with me, of a long career of French novel reading.” So, shrug.

  4. I loved this post, though you have certainly convinced me that my next Bowen should be The Death of the Heart, and not this one. I love Olivia Manning’s description of Bowen’s style as “someone eating bread and milk with their legs crossed over their heads.” It can seem unnecessarily difficult — but I suppose it is a bit like late Henry James in that once you find the cadence, and sort of relax into the convolutions of it — it can give a lot of pleasure.

    • Thanks, Rohan! Jacqui said she liked it more the more she thought about it, which is true for me too. But I did find it tough going. Love the Manning description. Was that cited in the bio? But yes your description of how to get the most out of her writing is exactly what I meant.

  5. i’ve read ‘the little girls’ and had a fair amount of difficulty with it, and eventually threw in the towel. it was fairly dated too, not something that normally bothers me, but here it did and was in the way of any other possible magic or things clicking into place as you say, i had an inkling of that magic tho from her other books which is why i kept going for a while. however, at the end of the day i’ve really always tried to like her stuff but never really succeeded except for ‘heat of the day’ and her not so uncompelling ‘collected impressions’ … woolf/bowen comparison interesting tho bc hermione lee wrote books on both of them. if i ever give it another shot i might try ‘eva trout’. enid bagnold is maybe another one to add to this tradition of writers….

    • That’s interesting–thanks for commenting. It’s odd when writers one associates with a particualr time (for me, with Bowen, it’s the 30s & 40s) is still writing in what seems like quite another (60s and 70s). So I can imagine the dated problem.
      I didn’t know Hermione Lee wrote on Bowen! The Bowen bio I’ve read is by Victoria Glendinning, but I didn’t think it was very good.
      And I’d never heard of Enid Bagnold until just now, so thank you for that! Do you have any suggestions about where to start with her?

  6. i’ve just read ‘the loved and the envied’ and it was ok. the hermione lee bowen book (i love the title ‘an estimation’), don’t know it, assume it must be very good, judging from her virginia woolf biography.
    you’re right, i associate them also with the 30s and so on, but they were around for so much longer. bowen feels dated in a way henry green doesn’t feel dated…

    • Ah Green, how I love him. He stopped writing in the 50s though. Maybe sometimes writers go on too long? Though I can immediately think of plenty of counter-examples… On Bowen I really liked Corcoron’s The Enforced Return and Ellman’s Shadow across the Page. Agree: Lee seems pretty great, though I only know the Woolf bio.

  7. Eva Trout and The Little Girls were two of my favourite Bowens, though unfortunately it’s been a long time since I read them so I can’t quite say why. Something to do with Bowen’s way of making some awkward, irritating characters sympathetic and maintaining dignity for those characters while providing a perspective that at the same time maintains humour with observations that are most naturally associated with cool distance. Something about that combination of the characters’ awkwardness and the author’s feeling for them while the authorial persona seems quite different in quality from the characters is what I feel to be distinctive about Bowen. The author is cool, the characters that stick most in my mind are not, and yet she has chosen them and has not done so to minimise them.

    • Very interesting! Thanks for commenting, Facetious. Very taken with your last idea here: you are right, however distant Bowen might be form her characters she’s not dismissive of them. (Even Louie in Heat of the Day, who starts off as a caricature but becomes someone complicated and substantial.) You’ve made me think I need to give these late Bowens a try.
      Poked around your blog, by the way, and really enjoyed it. Admire how much you say in so short a space. Not my strong suit. Particularly liked the Rhys post. I wrote about her here last fall.

  8. I haven’t read any Bowen (or ever encountered her name before), but I’ve now reserved The Heat of the Day from the library. Will try to return once I’ve read it.

  9. Max nailed it. Spiky is a good way to describe her style. I also thought of some Henry James novels. I wonder hiw translators translated her? Did they simplify like so many English translators do with German authors. I’m thinking of Sebald.

    • Yes, James is definitely in the mix. Good question about the translations. I would imagine the temptation to smooth out that spiky qualities, that heavy, forbidding style, would have been tough to resist.

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