Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Arnold Bennett's Hotels

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Arnold Bennett's Hotels

Article excerpt

Hotels are exercises in practical salvation.

--Wayne Koestenbaum

Virginia Woolf famously accused Arnold Bennett of caring more about the mundane houses characters live in than about those characters themselves, neglecting the interior defining qualities of characters in favor of superficial descriptions that reveal too little. "He is trying to make us imagine for him," she tells us in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), "He is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there" (328-29). Bennett's fascination with the hotel space, in life and in art, would seem to support this claim. In Those United States (1912), a collection of essays detailing his first transatlantic voyage, Bennett confesses "[his] secret ambition had always been to be the manager of a grand hotel" (149-50), though this ambition was hardly as secret as Bennett suggests. Two of his most popular novels, The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) and Imperial Palace (1930), feature hotels based on London's Savoy as the setting for nearly all of their action. A number of his other novels and short stories--notably The Old Wives' Tale (1908), his masterwork--similarly take place in and around hotels. (1) Yet in these works, Bennett enthusiastically reconceives accepted notions of home and domestic life, resituating his characters within the parameters of the hotel, and thus creating new kinds of characters, representing in new ways individual subjectivity and its relation to material space as he explores the modern hotel in all its various incarnations. In doing so, Bennett addresses the very questions he is accused by Woolf of avoiding, illuminating the deeply complicated relationship between internal and external conditions, between domestic selves and public identities.

Chronologically situated between Victorianism and high modernism, Bennett closely examines the transition of his characters from the one period to the other, and thus focuses, in the most pragmatic sense, on the question of where they live, how they define and are defined by the rooms they occupy. Where Woolf sees this as banal materialism, we might recognize Bennett's acute realization that the houses of the nineteenth century--and the identities they shape--were becoming obsolete, and something needed to replace them. While Woolf accuses Bennett's characters of "deserting even the well-built villa in the Five Towns" for "an eternity of bliss spent in the very best hotel in Brighton" ("Modern" 148)--leaving a dull though solid grounding for an existence wholly trivial--she ignores the very real significance of such relocation as Bennett represents it. As brilliantly as modern authors might explore inner psychological worlds, the physical realities of characters' lives remained important, the inner worlds and the outer realities shaping one another in a variety of ways. Domestic life might change radically--as it does, time and again, in Bennett's works--but it remains crucial to character.

Bennett's two explicit "hotel novels" were written at opposite ends of his career. Imperial Palace was Bennett's last completed novel and is a far lengthier and more ponderous work. Each book focuses on the operations of a London luxury hotel (modeled on the Savoy) and each is deeply invested in the question of Englishness, signaling Bennett's concerns with larger issues of nation and identity. The Grand Babylon Hotel is filled almost entirely with non-English characters, while within its walls the Imperial Palace offers a miniature reproduction of England--specifically of its class system. Even more urgently, perhaps, these novels are concerned with the desire to find or create a home in the modern world, and how the hotel, seemingly at odds with such desire, becomes the means by which a new model of domesticity can be identified.

Modernism has traditionally been defined by its rejection of Victorian notions of the domestic, a breaking away from home and family, and from all the network of connections and loyalties that such material conditions and relationships entail. …

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