HOTEL LONDON: HOW VICTORIAN COMMERCIAL HOSPITALITY SHAPED A NATION AND ITS STORIES by Barbara Black, Reviewed by Melissa Fegan
 


HOTEL LONDON: HOW VICTORIAN COMMERCIAL HOSPITALITY SHAPED A NATION AND ITS STORIES
By Barbara Black
(Ohio State, 2019) x + 245 pp.
Reviewed by Melissa Fegan on 2020-08-22.

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This book is the final instalment in Barbara Black's trilogy on the great institutions of nineteenth-century London: museums (On Exhibit, 2000), gentlemen's clubs (A Room of His Own, 2012), and now the grand hotel. All three, she argues, are "central to the rise of capitalism and the project of nationhood in the nineteenth century" (9-10). While Black's main focus is London, site of the five grand hotels profiled in the second chapter (Brown's, Claridge's, the Langham, the Midland Grand, and the Savoy), she also considers colonial-era grand hotels in Singapore, Egypt, Burma, South Africa, Thailand, and India, and ends with the grand hotels of her home town, Saratoga Springs, New York.

This wide range of sites helps to show that grand hotels were engines of globalization and connectivity, "cross-border structure[s]" (104) deeply implicated in nation- and empire- building. Black also highlights the grand hotel's central role in technological innovation, mobility, and the imagination. Alexander Graham Bell made London's first telephone call from Brown's; Guglielmo Marconi experimented with radio and telegram transmissions from his rooms at the Savoy and its rooftop; and from 1905 the Savoy advertised "Marconigrams" as a way to reserve rooms while travelling by ship. Founded to serve elite railway passengers, the Midland Grand was later saved from demolition and resurrected--thanks to the channel-crossing Eurostar train-- as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Hotels were also nourished by the arts, which in turn they served. The profits of the Savoy Theatre built the Savoy Hotel, which--along with London's other grand hotels--offered the perfect venue for some of the nineteenth-century's most important writers to socialize, network, perform, stay, and often live for extended periods, and provided an evocative setting for their works.

In Black's account, grand hotels are both paradoxical and transformative. Depending on the context or need, they can be utopias, dystopias, heterotopias, and hyperspaces. They are urban structures enclosing both winter gardens and palm courts. Though "non-places," as Marc Augé says (qtd. 37), they are nonetheless site-specific and richly historical. "[B]oth home and not home" (11), they offer an illusion of domesticity that threatens family values with illicit possibilities, and they enable guests to abjure domestic responsibilities for "hotel living" (the title of Chapter 4).

This meant living in style. To compete with their French and American counterparts and appeal to foreign tourists and dignitaries, grand hotels in London strove to furnish what their clientele expected: American standards of hospitality along with French elegance and fine dining. They also combined modernity with tradition. While relentlessly modernizing their guestrooms, bathrooms and public spaces, and introducing new technologies such as electric lighting, telephones and hydraulic lifts, they evoked the past in their architecture, which was drawn from French Renaissance, Italian Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian, or Persian models, and in their expectations and their rituals. They provided homes for visiting or exiled royalty; on one occasion, a caller at Claridge's who asked to speak to the King was told, "Certainly, Sir. To which King do you wish to speak?" (64).

Yet grand hotels chiefly aimed to attract the aspirational middle-classes by democratizing luxury--for those who could afford to pay. As "a visual guarantee of the respectability" of the hotel (44), they particularly courted female guests and worked to accommodate their needs. The Langham's corridors were wide enough to let two women in crinolines pass each other; the lighting at the Savoy was designed to flatter the complexion; and the revolving door at the Midland Grand, one of the city's first, was divided into thirds rather than quarters to allow space for women's skirts.

For much of the nineteenth century, however, women were segregated in separate public spaces, and "hotel women" were treated with suspicion. Furthermore, even though hotels seemed to offer privacy, discretion, and licensed hedonism, guests in these public spaces were frequently subject to scrutiny and sometimes even criminally charged, as when Oscar Wilde found Savoy staff called to testify against him. The jobs of hotel staff were not easy. Examining in chapter 4 a Savoy apprentice chef named Pierre Hamp, Black shows that hotel work could entail both hard labor and hunger, and in the grand hotels of nineteenth-century Saratoga Springs, an African-American chambermaid named Emma Waite encountered both racial prejudice and exclusion.

Black's case studies are particularly compelling. Chapter 2 includes "biographies" of five grand hotels in London that are all still operating today, though some--such as the Midland Grand--barely avoided destruction. Several of these shrines to luxury were products of high ambition. Many of their original founders were men schooled in service who leased and gradually built their property portfolios, sometimes backed by rich aristocrats keen to provide hospitality and suitable accommodation for noble visitors. In 1837, Brown's Hotel was opened in Mayfair by James Brown, formerly a gentleman's valet; in 1854, a onetime butler named William Claridge took over Mivart's Hotel and renamed it Claridge's.

The Langham gets special attention in chapter 2. With six storeys and 600 rooms, it was marketed as London's largest building when it opened in 1865. Purpose-built by a corporation and expressly modelled on American resort hotels, it was meant to dominate its environment. Yet it also treated its staff remarkably well. Though subterranean, their quarters included a library, school, "Fernery," and rooms for recreation, and staff were granted opportunities for profit-sharing as well as other incentives to retain good workers. Good staff were crucial for a grand hotel's success. In 1889, when a Swiss hotelier and former waiter named César Ritz was hired to run the Savoy with Auguste Escoffier as its chef, they "changed," Black writes, "the way London was experienced and the way Londoners consumed" (95), making public dining and nightlife fashionable and respectable.

Besides charting the evolution of London's grand hotels over the course of two centuries, Black shows how the buildings acquired cultural significance by means of the historic events they housed, or the politicians, inventors, or writers associated with them. In Brown's, a public room called The Niagara commemorates the 1891 International Niagara Commission, which met at the hotel to launch an engineering competition to harness the power of the Niagara river for industrial purposes. Likewise, the rooms named for Graham Bell, Lord Byron, and Roosevelt highlight Brown's links with technology, literature and international politics. Curiously, Brown's link to Byron runs through his estranged wife Lady Byron, who had employed James Brown's wife Sarah as a lady's maid and may have invested in the hotel, but whose legacy has been usurped by her more marketable husband. And in homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, whose operettas made the money that built the hotel, the Savoy's six salons (now private dining rooms) were named for their compositions.

In Chapter 4, Black explores the "Hotel Living" of Mark Twain, Pierre Hamp, Oscar Wilde, and the English novelist known as Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée). More than simply a building, Black argues, a hotel is a dynamic space in which bodies and lives circulate and interact, "a theater of sorts for the fashioning and performance of social identities" (10), a public space that--unlike any other--"keeps strangers together in a particularly intimate way" (113). The "social imposture permitted by grand hotels" (151) and their relationship to economic and cultural capital are illustrated by the experiences of three writers--all of whom had to reckon with big bills. To pay off his debts, Twain toured the world's grand hotels, wrote about them, and thus partially succeeded (all aspiring writers should reserve a suite immediately). Ouida was less successful. To free herself from domestic labor so that she could write, to provide a salon where she could enter the literary fraternity, and possibly to provide material for her sensational plots, she moved into the Langham with her mother, but could not afford it and ran up huge bills. Wilde had the same problem. His letters and plays show how easily he--and often his lovers and cronies--could run up hotel bills that proved damningly large. By ejecting him after he was released from prison, the Midland Grand seemed to say that he had not yet fully paid his debt to society either.

Black acknowledges her own debt to the philosophers, sociologists, phenomenologists, and theorists of mobility and space whose work liberally informs this rich study. She cites in particular Walter Benjamin, whom she calls the "presiding spirit" of the book (16), as well as Pierre Bourdieu, Georg Simmel, Henri Lefebvre, and many others. But since Black highlights fictional representations of hotels, I wonder why she fails to mention critics who have studied this topic, such as Bettina Matthias, Martina Krebs, and Randi Saloman, or essay collections like Monika M. Elbert and Susanne's Schmid's Anglo-American Travelers and the Hotel Experience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2018). These studies would surely have enhanced her discussions of literature. According to Black, hotels have been mainly examined by historians (18). Yet while she describes her book as "a deeply historical study" that "operates at times by means of a strong transhistorical drive" (14), she is inevitably drawn--as an English professor--to the role of the hotel in literature and in the lives of nineteenth-century writers. The hotel, she argues, is "a plot-generating device" (18) with a particular affinity for crime, Sensation fiction, and the Gothic, and a peculiar temporal and spatial complexity that makes it an ideal threshold and gateway.

Chapters 3 and 5 consider the portrayal of hotels by authors such as Henry James (who considered himself a "hotel-child" and America a "hotel-world" [qtd. 127, 124]), Ali Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, and many others. Though the sheer number of writers surveyed precludes the kind of scrutiny applied in the case studies of chapters 2 and 4, Black's readings are suggestive and useful, and they build through accretion of example a fascinating argument about the relationship between literary form and the psycho-geography of the hotel. As she states in her conclusion, "hotels are both about a specific kind of space and the narratives that particular space generates" (202). Even when they disappear, hotels are ghostly presences in the landscape and the cultural psyche. Hotel London brilliantly celebrates their longevity and power.

Melissa Fegan is Associate Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Chester, UK.


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