I’d heard of Stead because of her more famous work The Man Who Loved Children but The Little Hotel sounded intriguing. So I nominated it for the discussion at the ReadingGroup List and it made the schedule. THEN!! I found that my blog-buddy, Lisa over at Anzlitlovers.com , had written a review and it all fell into place.
Why did it intrigue me? I’ve read some great hotel novels going back to Arthur Hailey’s Hotel and including Mrs Palfrey at the Clairmont by Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner , Hotel World by Ali Smith, I Hotel by Karen Yamashita and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. There have been others over the years, I’m sure. Hotels make for intriguing settings. The whole transient atmosphere of a hotel is a rather closed and anonymous yet intimate, somewhat artificial but at the same time quite real to its residents. (See character list at the bottom of post.)
The Little Hotel
by Christina Stead
1973 / 191 pages
rating – 9
In the case of The Little Hotel we have an establishment which is distinctly not top-of-the line, but has a very nice owner. Living there are Mrs Trollope an English woman and Mr Wilkins who pass themselves off as cousins but are really a long term couple. There’s also a mad mayor, a rich but eccentric princess with a singing dog, a couple of Americans and a woman whose rich doctor husband just really doesn’t want her to be at their home – and she’d rather not be there anyway. (see character list below)
The setting is Switzerland not too long after WWII when the world was restructuring round the Cold War fears of Communism and the advent of the Americans on the scene, coming to Europe with all their cars and money. But the older generation including those staying at the hotel were not quite ready to forget racial issues and social status was still important although most of it now depended on money.
There are a couple sections where Mrs Bonnard , the owner, acts as 1st person observing. The rest of the novel is in 3rd person omniscient following the adventures of Mrs Trollope (note that name) as she tries to get through another year in another hotel away from her home in England in order to stay with Mr Wilkins who really treats her quite badly after many year together.
On the surface it’s really quite funny in its own way, but also sad as well because Mrs Trollope has been trapped by her love. Some of the other residents are trapped different ways, Miss Abbey-Chinald by her age and illness, Mrs Blaise by her drugs and the rejection of her husband. And it seems to me it’s a completely character driven novel – there isn’t much plot although there is one and it’s obvious by the last 1/3 of the book or so.
Mrs Bonnard – Swiss owner of the hotel (favorite)
Roger Bonnard – her husband – French farm boy, uneducated, admires Germans –
Mayor of B – Belgium – nervous troubles, nuts, drunk, etc. doesn’t like germs or Germans (no one in the hotel is German).
Mrs Powell – American widow- hard of hearing, worries about Communists, rich but tight with money. Looks much younger than her 78 years. Seems racist. Dislikes Mrs Trollope – calls her an “Asiatic” – also doesn’t like Mrs Blaise because Blaise complained about Powell’s snoring.
Mrs Lilia Trollope – English – main interest – wants to marry but … (like Stead with Wm Blake?) – friends with Mrs Blaise. She’s nervous about money and the future.
Mr Robert Wilkins – English – Mrs Trollope’s married lover who is living off her. He’s irritable – irritating. Says he’s bound to his mother by a promise made years ago but he’s really just not going to marry anyone ever.
Princess Bili di Rovino – rich American widow was married to old Italian prince – rich – wants to sell her dog, Angel.
Madame Blaise – from Basel Switzerland – fat – negative about everything – money in US – friends with Mrs Trollope.
Dr Blaise – husband who visits Mrs every weekend – feeds her drugs as needed – lives a pretty high life.
Miss Abbey-Chilland – English, very poor and ill, picky eater and cheap, can’t pay her bills but the hotel expects reimbursement – she has nowhere else to go.
There are a few others thrown in – housekeepers and other hotel residents.