Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2009

The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

The Little HotelI discovered this interesting little book because I was searching for a book with a building in the title for the What’s in a Name Challenge  (which certainly proves how these challenges can broaden one’s reading).   The Little Hotel was written in 1973 just before Christina Stead (1902-1983) came back to Australia to live after forty years away.  Christina SteadI learn from Perry Middlemiss’s Australian Authors site that she had left Australia in 1928, married a Marxist banker (what is a Marxist banker, and is it safe to save your money with one?) and followed him around the USA and Europe until he died in 1968.  The Little Hotel draws on these travel experiences , satirising the lifestyle and preoccupations of that select group of people who had enough money to live semi-permanently in small family-run hotels in postwar Europe.

The small European hotel has ben used as a setting by a number of writers to create a multicultural microcosm: Anita Brookner did it in Hotel du Lac and so did Katherine Mansfield in In a German Pension.  It used to be common for a certain class of people of independent means to stay abroad for long periods of time: to avoid paying tax; to avoid inclement winters; and sometimes because the impoverished genteel had financial embarrassments necessitating flight; or found it cheaper than maintaining a home to match their expectations.

The odd miscellany of characters in The Little Hotel have these reasons, and more.  Stead’s satirical portraits begin with the strange ‘Mayor of B’ a Belgian who is rabidly anti-German and a manic-obsessive who numbers the documents with which he communicates his endless complaints to Mrs Bonnard, the hotel owner.  A collaborator during the war, he goes mad but escapes from the train en route to the asylum.   There are the ‘cousins’ Mr Wilkins and Mrs Trollope, whose name is ironic, for she is loyal and steadfast to this man who will not marry her, as much as any married woman.  (Now that I’ve read the biographical notes on Wikipedia, I realise that Stead many have drawn on her own experiences for this pair of characters for she was unable to marry William J. Blake until he divorced his wife).  Mr Wilkins has trapped her by wresting control of her money from her and she fears being penniless and vulnerable like Miss Chilland, a truly pitiful character dying utterly friendless and alone.  There’s the  interfering minor Princess Bili, the vulgar Mrs Blaise with a crocodile bag full of photos, and the stingy Pallintosts who won’t pay their share at an excruciating dinner out at a restaurant.

Women are cast in a very unflattering light: dependant, inane, trivial and bitchy. Mrs Bonnard wants a friend, but there are none to be had.  Things are changing: the British have no money any more, American are taking over with flashy cars and loud voices, and long-standing guests are displaced by block-bookings for package tourists.  But more than this is the sense of distrust and blame.  The wartime past of servants and guests alike still leaches out to poison relationships in the present.

There isn’t much of a plot or any grand theme.  The main interest for me was with Mrs Trollope and her struggle for identity.  She has loved Mr Wilkins for a long time, and is much dismayed by his refusal to marry her when he becomes free of his wife.  He claims he cannot marry her because of his snobbish family, but it is really because he is by nature a professional bachelor, living on her money.  Ironically it is the British regulations against exporting money which protect her to some extent and provide her with some choice about what to do.  She agonises about whether to break free and reconcile with her disapproving children, discussing it endlessly with Mrs Bonnard, and while her vacillations show her to be a very silly woman, I found myself caring about her prospects and happiness.

There is a very worthwhile academic essay about this book by Judith Kegan Gardiner, which explores the novel from a feminist perspective, which makes very interesting reading after reading the book.

I must read more of Christina Stead.  The Man Who Loved Children, the novel which made her famous, has been on my TBR for ages!  (Update: I finally read it about a year later: my thoughts  are here).

PS 3.11.09 Deanne at Pykk has gathered together a comprehensive set of links for anyone interested in Christina Stead.

PPS 29/12/13 Guy at His Futile Preoccupations has written a super review here , and I have finally read Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead and reviewed it here.

Author: Christina Stead
Title: The Little Hotel
Publisher: Angus and Robertson, 1973
ISBN: 0207955301
Source: Personal library, purchased from AbeBooks.

Availability

Fishpond: The Little Hotel (Imprint classics)


Responses

  1. Ah Lisa, when I saw you were reading this, I felt very guilty because I thought that if you had read this you surely had read The man who loved children. Now I’ve read your review, I feel SO much better! I am off this arvo to teach one of my f2f friends how to use Facebook and our Blog. Wish me luck!

    Anyhow this book sounds like an interesting little treasure.

    • Hi Sue
      Maybe we can share a guilt-reducing buddy-read some time! Good luck with the lessons:)
      Lisa

  2. Good idea, but when we’ll find the time is another thing. As for the lesson, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I’ve set her homework ie WRITE A POST! This is an easy lesson to test, eh?

    • Put the pressure on LOL!
      We could set it aside as a summer holiday choice, or we could commit to 50 pages a week – it’s about 500 pages in my Penguin so that would take 10 weeks to read.
      Lisa

  3. OK…remind me next summer and I’ll try to do it if you will. 50 pages a week shouldn’t be too hard!

  4. Hi! I came over from the What’s In a Name challenge site and thoroughly enjoyed your review. I’ve not read or even heard of this book, but you’ve made me want to keep an eye out for it. Love all the facts you threw into your review~

  5. Hi Paula, thanks for taking the time to comment:)
    I love challenges – they broaden our reading and lead to all kinds of nice new social networks too!
    Lisa

  6. […] read two of her novels,  The Little Hotel, (see my review), and The Man Who Loved Children, (see my review) listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You […]

  7. […] a Little Chat; and The Puzzledheaded Girl, plus The Little Hotel which I’ve already read (see my review).  (It cost me a fortune to buy a second-hand copy from AbeBooks, though I was very pleased to get […]

  8. […] The Little Hotel (1973) (see my review); […]

  9. […] The Little Hotel (1973) (see my review); […]

  10. […] The Little Hotel (1973), see my review; […]

  11. Hi Lisa, sorry I couldn’t participate in the Christinas Stead week. However, I have just finished reading The Little Hotel. As you say there isn’t a plot and the characters are unappealing. I found them tedious. I was disappointed in the novel, but I did enjoy the witty remarks and observations by Mr Wilkins (even though he was a pain). I loved The man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone. I will look out for Hazel Rowley’s biography.

    • No need to apologise, my ‘weeks’ here are very flexible and I welcome your perceptive commentary any time. I hope you had an enjoyable festive season and look forward to chatting about books with you in 2017!


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