I was thinking about the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when I saw that the University of Chicago was reprinting her titles. What a delight to read her once again.
Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel (199 pages, University of Chicago Press, $16) was first published in 1927. At first it reminds one of E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View. A group of English tourists are gathered in a hotel, in this case on the Italian Riviera, and their interactions form the basis of the novelist’s material. Bowen departs from Forster in that she keeps the characters at the hotel throughout the novel, and she pushes them even more brutally against one another than Forster ever quite manages.
There are many characters who feel very familiar to the novelist, as if she knows them personally, but they only appear in a few scenes and only comment on the activity of others. The central characters include a young woman who is not sure what she really wants; a group of three sisters who are very clear about what they want; and a couple of men of various ages who are panting after the young girls.
Bowen writes beautifully and her irony is positively rich. Her irony creates a distance between the narrator and these young characters, and it places them almost as if they were participating in an experiment. Still, Bowen gives them enough complexity to make them intriguing, and that is the biggest challenge to a novelist.
More interesting than any of these romances or potential romances are the relationships between and among the women themselves. The heroine of the tale, Sydney, is most devoted to an older woman, Mrs. Kerr. Mrs. Kerr is thoughtful and devoted until her son arrives to spend time with her. When she becomes unavailable to Sydney, the young girl loses her head a bit and finds herself committing to a marriage that she does not even want.
Bowen does not say anything directly about the relation between the women, although certain characters gossip about it, but she makes it clear that the women depend on an intimacy that no one else fully understands.
The Hotel is a deeply satisfying novel, and I hope to read (or reread) more of Bowen’s novels. She has been a bit lost among mid-century novelists, but these new editions may find her a whole new set of readers. I am happy to count myself among them.