Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Monuments of an Artless Age: Hotels and Women's Mobility in the Work of Henry James

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Monuments of an Artless Age: Hotels and Women's Mobility in the Work of Henry James

Article excerpt

In Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), when the sick American heroine, Milly Theale, decides to move from labyrinthine London to picturesque Venice, she insists on renting an old Venetian palace and "no vulgar hotel" (283). In her mind the palace "with servants, frescoes, tapestries, antiquities" might conjure "the thorough make-believe of a settlement" (284) and protect her from the aggressive impulses of London society, which thrived in the publicity epitomized by such modern institutions as the hotel. Milly is one of few Jamesian heroines who protest against the vulgarity of hotels in a literary oeuvre brimming with women and men voyaging across the Atlantic and throughout Europe and, inevitably, residing in large metropolitan hotels or smaller pensions. Milly's complaint, "no vulgar hotel," on the one hand, expresses James's anti-touristic sentiments (Jolly 352) but, on the other, prefigures his negative response to hotels during his US visit in 1904-05, a visit that prompted the writing of The American Scene (1907), in which he devotes several pages of criticism to the pervasive hotel culture he witnessed in America. Before Siegfried Kracauer, Norman Hayner, and Joseph Roth, all of whom theorized the impact of the hotel on urban life and personality in the early twentieth century, James, in The American Scene, sees the hotel not only as a ubiquitous architectural presence in the US cities that he visited, but also as representative of a modern American mentality or instinct. He says, "one is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself; "the present is more and more the day of the hotel" (79). In his dense and idiosyncratic narrative, hotels are positioned alongside established and historical institutions, like city halls, museums, hospitals, and libraries, acquiring equal, or even, in cases, more important status within a culture which privileges newness and ephemerality. With his complex critique, consisting of metaphor, emotional response, and intense social criticism, James acknowledges the hotel's role as a new institution and landmark in the modern urban scene. (1)

James's critique of the "hotel-spirit" in The American Scene has received attention from many critics who have explored his aesthetic or socio-political position. (2) In this article I wish to look at James's early and late fiction through the lens of his important insight about the hotel, focusing on the way in which women characters experience the challenges of this transitory space. For James's heroines, who travel extensively for recreation, marriage, and business, hotels, which simulated domesticity at a high or low price, frequently function as sites of temporary stay and repose or even as permanent albeit precarious homes. Hotels, large and small, appear throughout James's oeuvre, and it is my aim to examine the ways in which these spaces affect women's subjectivity and at the same time to highlight the role that women played in the social production of such newly conceived spaces and norms. For James, as many critics acknowledge, the hotel contributed to--if not initiated--the reconfiguration of urban spatial boundaries, thereby upsetting conceptions of privacy and publicity and launching a new culture of publicity and mobility that became a predominant mind-frame rather than merely a principle of spatial organization. James's early texts demonstrate the ways in which women, with their passage through spaces of transit, appropriated this mind-frame and, in cases, challenged the conventions that hotels engendered. For James's itinerant women, the hotel became a space in which conflicts between mobility and stasis, variety and monotony, as well as familiarity and strangeness were consistently played out but not always resolved. Before turning to his fictional representation of women in hotels, my paper will first look at some of the characteristics of James's "hotel-spirit" in order to ascertain those aspects of the hotel's institutional logic that impinge on the development of his heroines even before James formulated his important cultural critique. …

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