The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

A Space of Her Own: Hotels in the Interwar Short Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Elizabeth Bowen

Anna Despotopoulou
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Chryssa Marinou
Hellenic American University in Athens


This paper explores the representation of hotels in Virginia Woolf’s “Lappin and Lapinova” ([1919] 1938), Katherine Mansfield’s “The Lost Battle” (1917), and Elizabeth Bowen’s “Salon des Dames” (1923), discussing the ways in which this modern space of commercial hospitality engenders and hosts, but also challenges, the creativity of women characters. Amid the lingering uncertainty and loss of the interwar period, hotels become spaces of bodily and mental emancipation but also of anxiety, unresolved conflict, and violence, and spaces in which women face the challenge of shifting gender ideologies. Facilitated by the non-domestic, temporary space of the hotel, the women characters of the three stories fashion alternative selves by pursuing sexual liberation, self-determination, and the expression of their creativity. They are encouraged to mentally wander: to write, figuratively and literally, their own stories. Hotels, which are less socially determined than the home, may thus be viewed as thresholds, generating restlessness and transitional states. While women may thrive in such spaces of temporary occupancy and not of dwelling, they may also be forced to compromise. In this sense, the hotel becomes an in-between space, a porous space of instability, which, though not inscribed specifically with war, does become one of its literary geographies.

Keywords Hotels / women / women’s creativity / violence / home / interwar literature


This paper explores the representation of hotels in women’s fiction of the interwar period, discussing the ways in which this modern space of commercial hospitality engenders and hosts, but also challenges, the creativity of women characters. Scholars such as Bettina Matthias, Emma Short, and Robbie Moore have examined the hotel as a literary setting in Anglophone, German, and Austrian works of the first half of the twentieth century, considering “the hotel’s disruptive effect” and the modern “intersections of the spatial and the subjective” that it fostered (Moore 3). Focusing on class, gender, and sexuality, Short has commented on the “liberatory potential” the hotel has for women, as its public and private spaces do not seem linked with forms of domestic oppression traditionally associated with the home (148). For the women characters of authors such as Elizabeth Bowen and Jean Rhys, the hotel becomes a universe that is cut off from the rest of the world, offering a “refuge from the scrutiny of the public sphere” (Short 148-49). Moreover, the hotel provides women with opportunities for sexual exploration and experimentation, as this neutral, impersonal setting may incite new temporary relations which place more emphasis on spontaneous bodily proximity rather than on long-term intimacy.

Facilitated by the non-domestic space of the hotel, the women characters of interwar fiction fashion alternative subjectivities by pursuing not only sexual liberation but also creativity and imagination. While hotels have emancipatory potential for women that might continue gains achieved during wartime, their liminal status renders women vulnerable as the emancipation is tenuous and easily retracted when patriarchal norms reassert themselves. Our paper explores the gender tensions and violence that ensue from women’s presence in hotels, focusing on three little-discussed short stories, Virginia Woolf’s “Lappin and Lapinova” ([1919] 1938), Katherine Mansfield’s “The Lost Battle” (1917), and Elizabeth Bowen’s “Salon des Dames” (1923), which interrogate the precarious relation between women, space, and the expression of creativity. As Jennifer Poulos Nesbitt argues, “Between 1918 and 1939, female novelists reshaped and reworked literary conventions of place to unseat conventional notions of masculinity and femininity” (26). We argue that in the interwar period, a period of lingering uncertainty and loss, hotels become spaces of bodily and mental emancipation but also of anxiety, unresolved conflict, and violence, spaces in which women especially face the challenge of shifting gender ideologies.

Concerns about British national identity after World War I centered on women’s place and on gendered perceptions of the private sphere (Nesbitt 4). Scholars such as Deirdre Beddoe, Sue Bruley, and Adrian Bingham have argued that in Britain, from 1918 to 1939, a rhetoric of domesticity and motherhood, cultivated in legislation but also in popular media such as women’s magazines and the radio, aimed at curtailing women’s wartime emancipation. As research into these discourses has demonstrated, the blurring of gender differences during the war generated a need to reassert domesticity and apply the dominant political and social conservatism to women’s lives and roles (Bruley 59). As Bruley writes, “[t]he rapid growth of radio broadcasts to individual homes from 1922 emphasized this new family-centred world, where the new woman could contentedly care for her family” (60), despite the growing feminist interest in professions and achievements, such as the vote in 1918, recorded in more high-brow literature.1

Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas (1938) exposed this “formidable” tendency of the media to exclude “undesirable subject[s]” such as feminism from its pages (289n16),2 and called for a “conspiracy” “of speech” to counter the patriarchal “conspiracy” of “silence” (124). This social and political atmosphere led to the mass expulsion of the female workforce in many sectors—factories, government departments, local authorities, and businesses—but also to cases of violence against working women (Bruley 61-62).3 It is no surprise, therefore, that for many women writers, the domestic hearth threatens to become the locus of repression and subordination, a space of regressive, Victorian gender ideology. As Alison Light argues, interwar writing is characterized by a “powerful reaction on the part of many women against the ideologies of home and womanliness which belonged to the virtues and ideals of the pre-war world, ideals which had proved so lethal” (10).

The hotel, however, resists straightforward definitions, being at once a site of publicity and privacy, mobility and stasis, anonymity and intimacy.4 An important setting of modernist fiction, the hotel becomes “a testing ground for a transformation in gender relations” (Moore 17), and even for the transformation of narrative itself, as this transient space often constitutes the new channel through which women’s subjectivity and consciousness are developed. In the years following World War I, the short fiction of Woolf, Mansfield, and Bowen makes use of hotels to question the supposed virtues of home, to address issues of psychological and physical violence that originate from women’s relegation to the private sphere, and to challenge the separation between war and home.5 The hotel in “Lappin and Lapinova” incites the heroine’s sexual fantasies; in “The Lost Battle” it hosts a woman writer’s attempt to transgress patriarchal boundaries; and in “Salon des Dames” it becomes the site of female homosociality, endangered by male presence. While the war is not always directly referred to in these stories, its legacy is certainly felt in the choice of diction, imagery, and theme, all of which allude not only to war trauma but also to the regression of society towards Victorian domestic values and the mythology of the angel in the house that they had spawned.

“Lappin and Lapinova”

Virginia Woolf’s short story “Lappin and Lapinova,” first published in 1938 in Harper’s Bazaar but written around 1919 (Diary 5: 188), develops a contrast between hotel and home to illustrate the interwar tension between woman’s sexual adventurousness and creativity, on the one hand, and patriarchal conventions on the other. It narrates the story of a young married couple, Rosalind and Ernest Thorburn, and their first years of marriage. The hotel (probably Swiss6) features only in the beginning of the story, as the couple’s honeymoon location, but this ephemeral space is strongly affiliated with the imaginary names and roles that Rosalind adopts for herself and her husband and the extraordinary world that she conjures up to accommodate her sexual desire and her free spirit. Many critics have discussed the emancipatory potential of the anonymity afforded by hotels. Barbara Black, for example, connects hotel anonymity with role-playing and with opportunities for self-invention: “individuals checking in to hotels experience freedom, especially from home. […] [H]otels can […] provide the theater for a self’s other selves, thus enabling non-normative identities to emerge in the pursuit of remarkable, even exceptional lives” (21). On arrival at the honeymoon hotel, Rosalind expresses a discomfort with her ordinary identity as wife and with her new married name, which entails the erasure of her first name and thus her individuality: “Perhaps she never would get used to the fact that she was Mrs. Ernest Anybody” (61). She is also displeased with her husband’s first name, Ernest, as its allusions to monarchy, hard materials, and even death (“The Albert Memorial, mahogany sideboards, steel engravings” [61]) seem to arrest her strong physical passion for him. Rosalind’s dissatisfaction with their names heralds her desire to pursue a marital life that escapes the restrictions of high-society manners and expectations.      

Her transgressive imagination is spawned by the liberating anonymity of the hotel and the non-normative identities that it fosters. As a result, Rosalind invents new names and a parallel universe in which her husband exists as a rabbit king, King Lappin, and she as his smaller but spontaneous and mysterious Queen Lapinova: “They were the opposite of each other; he was bold and determined; she wary and undependable. He ruled over the busy world of rabbits; her world was a desolate, mysterious place, which she ranged mostly by moonlight. All the same, their territories touched; they were King and Queen” (63). The text shows the couple negotiating these make-believe roles, with Ernest participating in the fantasy by twitching his nose and nibbling lettuce from her hand. Nevertheless, Rosalind knows that even in this rabbit world, Ernest cannot and will not reject national and gender stereotypes: “he was not a French rabbit. He was simply and solely English born … now a clerk in His Majesty’s Civil Service” (62). Unlike Ernest, Rosalind embodies unknowability and mischief, her nocturnal queendom expressing her sexual desire and transgressive instincts. Short writes that “[T]he anonymity of the hotel bedroom […] can offer […] the potential freedom to explore sexual desires that would elsewhere be morally impermissible” (159). Therefore, the hotel’s private and public spaces could be seen as thresholds whose liminality excites Rosalind’s creativity and sexual curiosity. Her unrestrained sexual adventurousness, symbolized by the choice of animal and channeled into new names, roles, and settings is enabled by the openness of the hotel, by the fact that in its spaces, identity is not socially determined and stories are not pre-written. Even though her name, Lapinova (employing the Russian patronymic suffix7), alludes to a patriarchal social structure (Simpson 152), its foreignness as well as Rosalind’s own function as creator of a mysterious and unpredictable night world and story point to her unsubmissive and undisciplined mind.

Michel Foucault has famously discussed the honeymoon hotel as the “nowhere,” “the heterotopia without geographical markers,” where a woman’s deflowering would take place (24-25). It is a space both real and unreal that confounds the boundary between regulative or ritualistic practice, on one hand, and the potential for subversion, on the other. In the story, this honeymoon hotel embodies both functions; it initiates a ritual of sexual relations by which Rosalind will be written into her marriage story, yet it also inspires her to create her own romantic and sexual story, one that destabilizes the routines of the former. The hotel, for her, is removed from oppressive family histories and ancestral homes and is linked instead to a fantasy rabbit world, a rabbit hole of sorts; it becomes, thus, a subversive nowhere of unfathomable depth and strangeness. In this nowhere, Woolf unfolds Rosalind’s sexual agency and initiative in exploring passion and fulfilment. As David Jacob van Lennep has argued, the honeymoon hotel is a space that allows the freedom of mutual discovery (214). In the case of Rosalind and Ernest, it generates a “private world” that encourages them to explore unknown aspects of each other’s personality and body (“Lappin” 63).      

Providing an unparalleled level of privacy even in its public spaces, the hotel stimulates in Rosalind the deviant desire to write over the real world and create a virtual universe that exists outside the boundaries of conventional time and space. Ultimately, the two worlds blend into one as Queen Lapinova becomes the “real Rosalind” (63) and the private rabbit queendom that she authors supplants reality. The hotel, therefore, is a Foucauldian counter-site that challenges the real spaces of institutional order that Rosalind and Ernest have momentarily taken a break from. This counter-site encourages the development of extraordinary subjectivities and, in Rosalind’s case, a self that defies domestic duties and expectations while indulging in artistic creativity and authorship. The hotel’s spatial fluidity corresponds to her reluctance to be fixed by names or tied down to specific spaces of immobility.

Rosalind’s rabbit world is tested when on return from their honeymoon she must balance her fantasy with an all too repressive reality. While the hotel ignited spontaneous sexual intimacies, which are kept alive the first months at the couple’s home, the Thorburns’ family house, Porchester Terrace, with its luxury and pomp, threatens to thwart the fantasy, expressing conservative postwar values that aim to keep women in their place. The pastoral simplicity and disorder of the rabbit world are replaced by the gilded elegance and order of the dining room, which asserts its class through the golden glow exuding from the yellow chrysanthemums, the initials on gold-edged cards, the soup and pineapples, and the light (65). Rosalind’s difference and her resistance to this heat-producing, suffocating glow are manifested through her choice of a white dress that makes her feel and look like an “icicle” (65), cold and impenetrable, yet also transient and transmutable, like the unfixed identity she had fostered in the hotel. However, the inexorable heat threatens to completely extinguish Rosalind, to “dissol[ve her] into nothingness” (65). When she hears one of Ernest’s relatives discussing the way to get rid of bothersome rabbits—who “breed so,” “Little devils! Shoot ‘em! Jump on ‘em with big boots”—her hotel fantasy and her fertile, “breed[ing]” imagination are threatened by a brutal reality (65). Immediately retreating into her rabbit world, Rosalind applies a penetrative, critical gaze to the Thorburns; she manages to see beyond the setting’s lustrous façade, stripping it of its golden aura and unconcealing the violence that sustains gender and class relations.
Her father-in-law becomes a “poacher” collecting animals and her sister-in-law, Celia, a ferret “slung around men’s shoulders in a net, and thrust down a hole—it was a pitiable life” (66).

Yet Rosalind/Queen Lapinova resists objectification by the male characters of her story. In her eyes, Porchester Terrace starts disintegrating, with “the plaster peeling off the walls” (66). She thus challenges the Thorburns’ fixity by rewriting their house and its superficial discipline and gilt as a decaying institution with a catastrophic impact on women, sexuality, and relationships. By demolishing the house with her imagination, Rosalind achieves its ghosting. Nesbitt has argued that in Woolf’s Orlando, the eponymous heroine’s “freedom depends on the ghosting of the [country house] and the cultural systems enshrined there” (54). Similarly, for Rosalind’s sexual desire to survive, the lingering Victorian views on domesticity, gender, and class must crumble together with the walls of Ernest’s house. She becomes an artist of demolition to salvage the significance of the hotel space in her mind.

Unfortunately, since Rosalind’s rabbit world can only exist with her husband’s cooperation, it collapses once Ernest dismisses its importance for their relationship and reduces it to “rubbish” (68). As Kathryn Simpson notes, “Ernest’s refusal to continue the co-creation of their fantasy life causes Rosalind’s world to shrink to the prosaic and everyday (the simply domestic)” (154) and to the “Anybodiness” of his role as typical husband. After all, this alternative world was never completely free of threatening stereotypes and ideologies that sustain patriarchal structures: King Lappin was always the hunter (63), and the line between hunting and being hunted was thin, as Rosalind’s nightmares have revealed (68). Sustaining the disturbing hunting motif that has nuanced the depiction of both the rabbit and the Thorburns’ world, the story ends with the imagined “crack of a gun” (69), a hallucination, perhaps borne out of the trauma of war—as in the case of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, who think that they hear a pistol shot when a car tire explodes in the street next to them. In this story, Queen Lapinova’s final roam in the moors is terminated by the sound of the key in the door that to her resembles a gun shot: “She started as if she had been shot” (69). The key in Ernest’s hands thus becomes the weapon of discipline, the tool that confines Rosalind’s existence within the four walls of their marriage. Straightening his tie, and sitting down to read his newspaper, Ernest kills the fantasy and conforms to the national narrative of masculinity, which requires him to command order and respect in his own house. Employing the imagery of violence, Woolf alludes to women’s precarious emancipation in the war and interwar period. Years after the composition of this story, in Three Guineas, Woolf would write about women facing a deadly threat to their spirit, not by foreign Fascists or Nazis but by dictators in the British home: “he is here among us, raising his ugly head, spitting his poison, small still, curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf, but in the heart of England” (80). At the very end of “Lappin and Lapinova,” it is Ernest the dictator who wins with his patriarchal guns. The narrator concedes, “So that was the end of that marriage” (69), suggesting, perhaps, that with Lapinova violently killed, Rosalind becomes just an empty vessel, a hostess, not unlike Clarissa Dalloway, who fears that her wifely role of hostess will consume her body and mind. Ernest’s return to class discipline and propriety causes the shrinking of Rosalind’s body, creative imagination, and authorial role, while their house also shrinks, becoming a domestic trap obstructing her every move: “Large pieces of furniture jutted out at odd angles and she found herself knocking against them” (68). While the Lappin/Lapinova union falls apart, Rosalind and Ernest’s marriage will probably endure, torturously and superficially, like the fifty-year-old marriage of Ernest’s parents, and like their house, which, unlike the hotel, obstructs mobility, change, and creativity. Home and marriage are institutions, closed systems, which depend on each other for preservation. A home, as Antoinette Burton has argued, functions like an archive, an “enduring site of historical evidence” (5); but as an archive of captured, “ferret”-like women, it precludes forward and outward movement. Discourses of domesticity can only usher forth a “conservative modernity,” as Light has suggested (64). Hotels, however, are less socially determined; they are thresholds, generating transitional states, and as such they can foster restless subjectivities, subjectivities passing through.
“The Lost Battle”

In Katherine Mansfield’s “The Lost Battle” (January 1917), the hotel, while promising the heroine a room of her own, is a precarious space, easily penetrable by institutional forces representing patriarchy. Unfolding exclusively in a hotel, the story explores creativity and freedom, but also conflict and self-division, like “Lappin and Lapinova.” The unnamed protagonist describes her arrival at a hotel and the inner battle that she experiences between her aspirations for an independent writing career and her need for love. Mansfield had visited the battlefront in France in February 1915 to see her lover, Francis Carco, and the title of the story may have been influenced by the wartime context, as Alice Kelly suggests (4). The hotel exemplifies a double discourse of simultaneous emancipation and confinement, freedom from the restricting boundaries of home, on the one hand, and immurement within stereotypes about the respectability or fallibility of women, on the other. Mansfield represents her protagonist as free and happy to be travelling alone, but also made self-conscious by the insinuating behavior and tone of voice of the intrusive hotel-staff members, men who “wrecked her sense of security” with their gendered assumptions about her presence alone in the hotel:

It seemed to her that something malicious was being plotted against her, as though everybody and everything—yes, even to inanimate objects like chairs and tables—was secretly “in the know”—waiting for that ominous, infallible thing to happen to her which always did happen, and which was bound to happen to every woman on earth who travelled alone. (73)

This double discourse, typical of the war and interwar period, is conveyed through the juxtaposition of the two rooms that she is offered by the hotel waiter. The first room is very small and triggers a claustrophobic effect, as if “the hotel walls would clap together” (73). The back of a building that forms her view from the window obstructs her gaze, imposing a further obstacle to her aspired freedom, and the “tattered washing” hanging from the windows of this other house generates even more anxiety, suggestive as it is of drudgery and domestic duties (73). The waiter’s repeated insistence on the suitability of the “nice little room” (73) for her sojourn and his inappropriate gestures of slapping and pinching the mattress reflect his suspicions about her potentially immoral motives for checking in alone at a hotel, while at the same time belittling her, conflating her with the smallness of the room itself. Mansfield’s heroine then boldly asks for a larger room, emphasizing her need for a big table first and foremost—to the surprise of the waiter, who fails to imagine why she should not prioritize the bed. The writing table that she finds in the big room she is eventually given is “steady as a rock,” reflecting her own resolve to be associated neither with sexual promiscuity nor with a passive single bed, but with an active, creative mind that can be developed through writing (75). Both the room and the writing desk imply autonomy and literariness, thus pointing to the material conditions that enable creativity. With the intrusive staff finally shut out, the room becomes a space of safety, imagination, and exhilaration: she “behaved quite wildly for a minute or two, and ran about, flinging up her arms and crying ‘Oh, oh!’ as though she had just been rescued from a shipwreck or a burning house” (75). Her thoughts of disaster betray her overwhelming relief to have escaped a shadowy past, one that, though undisclosed, must still carry threats of violence to her mind and her body, a violence that the hotel waiter reproduces here. Her wild bodily movement reflects a transgressive intellectual mobility that the room as a space of creativity harbors and cultivates.

Mansfield’s heroine transforms the second hotel room from a space of discipline and surveillance, subject to the policing of the staff, to a space of creativity and observation. The window, with its view of a square, a park, and a street full of cafés and shops, offers her a panoramic vantage point that enables observation and even a rehearsal of mobility. Like Rosalind, Mansfield’s writer-in-becoming, with her new, transgressive perspective that gives her a sense of power and superiority, transforms the crowd of pedestrians with her surreal imagination: “How tiny the people looked, as she peered down upon them—so squat and broad! They sauntered from side to side like little black crabs” (76). The room, therefore, becomes a space of literary or artistic experimentation, where a woman’s subjectivity can develop through imaginative leaps and digressions, as Rosalind’s does in “Lappin and Lapinova.” With the hotel waiter finally shut out, Mansfield’s heroine fantasizes about personalizing the room, a gesture that would establish its direct relation with her mind, her habits, and her body, consolidating her control of it: “With flowers, with her books arranged, and one or two odd pieces of bright silk that she always travelled with, and her lovely embroidered shawl flung over the settee, and her writing things out on the table—really …” (76). The created homeliness withstands the precariousness and temporariness of the hotel room and challenges the standardizing discipline that it tries to enforce with its commonplace furniture and its “Hotel Rules” and “Police Regulations pinned over the washstand” (73). Like Rosalind, the heroine of this story is treating the hotel room as a mutable habitable space, whose impersonality can, nevertheless, be transformed, through the medium of the imagination, into intimacy and possession. Decorating and arranging such a space, which is not a restrictive home, becomes the means of self-invention and renewal, the development of a writer. In this sense, the space of the hotel room dissolves polarities, combining many different, seemingly incompatible functions and mindsets: work and leisure, detachment and intimacy.

However, as in the previous story, the reverie is disrupted by a bang that kills her ambition, creativity, and independence. The “bang at the door” by the bell boy carrying her luggage and sucking in the air of her room (76) enacts the violence of the hotel machinery and the “patriarchal model of hospitality” that she cannot ultimately escape (Moore 8). Her confidence undermined, “She overpaid him and he went away. But with the generous coin she seemed to have given to him all her excitement and her delight. The door shut upon it; it was free. The sound of it died away” (76). Woolf’s and Mansfield’s stories both develop the image of the door as a symbolic site of opportunity but also of control. In “The Lost Battle,” the heroine’s freedom ends when the threshold is compromised from the outside by the hotel staff and the room becomes again part of the institutional order. The door, as connector, inevitably links her to the rest of the hotel and to mentalities that reproduce gender stereotypes, despite her initial fantasy about the room’s potential to foster privacy, (self)possession, and difference.8 Ironically, from the start, the story has foreshadowed the impossibility of the heroine’s complete possession of the room by emphasizing the hotel waiter’s control of the keys. The forceful way in which he opens the doors and waits for her to enter evokes the threat of sexual and mental abuse: “The waiter prodded a keyhole with a bunch of keys, wrenched one round, flung the grey-painted door open, and stood against it, waiting for her to pass in” (73). His “jingling keys” (74) are never in her hands. Despite her literary aspirations, she can never have a room of her own.

Temporary occupancy of a hotel room offers Mansfield’s and Woolf’s heroines a break from dwelling in a restrictive home. By being outside definable patterns of social existence, hotels challenge the conservative values that marital homes very often imposed. However, in both cases these interstitial spaces cannot ultimately supersede the home, with its domineering permanence and the emotional and physical associations it holds for women. Mansfield’s unnamed protagonist, who ventured forth into an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous space of emancipation, as many women of the war period did, is undone—shot, one may say—by her own alter ego: the self that does not dare to live alone and independent, the self that is afraid to fully embrace the fluid identity that burgeoned in the hotel room: “The battle [is] lost” (77). The war diction nuances the thwarted struggle for emancipation via writing. Had she been given the chance to write, she might have obtained a name for herself. Like Rosalind in Woolf’s story, she envisages the creative, transient, liberated self as a “block of ice” which cannot withstand the debilitating blaze of conventional roles and relations (77). In this case, the ice is dissolved by “warm tears” flowing down the face of the “desperat[e]” and “frightened” self she had managed to suppress momentarily, a self that desperately needs love: “I must have love … I can’t live without love,” she utters (77). The fact that the story does not clarify what this love is (a lover she has fled from? a marriage?) makes its victory over her desire to write even more poignant, as it may just be an abstract idea of love—inculcated, like a restrictive ideology, in women—that conquers any other pleasurable and liberating activity.9 The recurrent motif of ice and heat constructs a binary between creative independence and the ideological pressures implanted in the social construct of “love” that seems irreconcilable. In both stories, the hotel triggers creative ambition and sensual pleasure, but these prove to be transient impulses, like the hotel sojourn itself, instances of slippage, of deviation, that cannot withstand the systemic force that any social space exerts with its rules and regulations. Woolf’s and Mansfield’s heroines are encouraged to mentally wander while in the hotel, to write, figuratively and literally, their own stories, but ultimately they experience a disorientation that may also be viewed as a result of lingering gender stereotypes after the war. They are written back into their conventional lives and forced to become “Mrs. […] Anybody” once again (Woolf, “Lappin” 61). Their fantasy worlds collapse, and in the end, both heroines must compromise, accepting with disappointment the death of that part of them that dared to imagine a fleeting identity and an extraordinary life.

“Salon des Dames”

While “Lappin and Lapinova” and “The Lost Battle” allude to the war through imagery and motifs of violence that enhance the representation of women’s precarious appropriation of the hotel, Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Salon des Dames” (1923) intertwines the war climate with women’s space of creativity in more explicit terms. Furthermore, it uses the symbolic action of a man’s intrusion on women’s space to reflect on the anxieties generated by the shifting gender roles and the separation between home and battlefront in the war period. This interwar story was penned well before Bowen’s work as an air-raid warden and a spy for the British Ministry of Information during World War II (Laurence 4). Yet “Salon des Dames” offers a view of the hotel space in the aftermath of World War I, evoking an atmosphere that combines abandonment, passivity, and morbidity. In terms of setting and characters, the story conceals more than it reveals. The plot revolves around the brief interaction of a Romanian man, M. Grigoroff, and three women in the women’s lounge of a hotel described at the start as mostly empty. The initially reluctant flirtation between them acquires a more physical expression when one of the ladies tries the muffler she is knitting on his neck. Placing her characters in a neutral national territory, Switzerland, Bowen registers the concerns that World War I bequeathed to the literary characters, while the hotel, an equally neutral space, engenders and reflects gender and national conflict, becoming a battleground that embodies and refashions the violence of the Great War.

Switzerland had invested heavily in hotels before the war to cater to the demands of a thriving tourist industry. However, the war rendered these establishments redundant, causing serious debt and temporary or even permanent closure for many of them (Barton 2).10 The text begins with a sentence that reports this disruption of hotel life due to the war, and the subsequent return to (supposed) normalcy: “It was a wet summer season, the second for which the hotel had opened since the war” (“Salon” 29). This second year after the war and the mention of “Seestein” (30) are the only temporal and geographical markers of a story that is otherwise exclusively confined to the hotel premises. The absence of guests in the unnamed Swiss hotel also alludes to lost soldiers—those who died in the war, but also potentially the thousands of wounded POWs who had been interned in Swiss hotels until after the Armistice. After the repatriation of internees, Swiss hotels that had managed to survive as repurposed internment facilities returned to business. However, they did not easily fill the “spectral void” left by both pre-war tourists and POWs, as this story shows: “For the last week there had been no arrivals. In the enormous salle-à-manger many tables made a brave and glittering show of expectancy, but their number diminished; the visitors dined together in a group by one window, inevitably huddled, starting at the echoes of their voices in the spectral void” (29-30). The contrast between the enormous size of the dining room and the small number of guests contributes to the feelings of desolation and abandonment evoked by the hotel. The echoes produced by the few guests’ voices trigger uncanniness and defamiliarization in the utterers, who are surprised by the sound of their own voices, while at the same time they highlight the emptiness of a space that would otherwise be teeming with life.

In a similar vein, two floors of the building are completely closed, and the hundred vacant rooms are depicted as potentially accommodating corpses rather than visitors: “The third and second floors were closed, not a slit from any doorway lightened the long perspective of the corridors. Each of the hundred bedrooms with their shuttered windows might have held a corpse, rotting in humidity beneath the glacial swathings of the bed” (30). Bowen once again alludes to the consequences of war, likening the hotel to a morgue, imagery that conflates life and death. This deathly imagery anticipates Walter Benjamin’s association between hotels and crematoriums in his discussion of the decline of dwelling, in The Arcades Project (1927-1940). Benjamin constructs a concatenation of types of dwelling that commences with the shell, explores the idea of casing, and ends by considering hotels and crematoriums: “The original form of dwelling is existence not in the house but in the shell. […] Today this world has disappeared entirely, and dwelling has diminished: for the living, through hotel rooms; for the dead, through crematoriums” (220-21). The shell as original dwelling gives way to the twentieth-century hotel room and the crematorium, both being transitory vessels for the human body, which in modern times undergoes constant motion due to the accelerated conditions of living.11 In the context of war, which generates enforced mobility, contingency, and precariousness, Bowen conflates the two spaces by imagining corpses rotting in the hotel rooms. The Swiss hotel therefore becomes a space of death, with the passivity of its few guests unable to enliven it. The invading mist, covering the mirrors, makes them ghostly, without self-confirming reflections.

Nearly vacant, the hotel appears to be inhabited more by its objects than its guests. Apart from the “expectant” and constantly disappointed tables of the salle-à-manger, the armchairs form a sociable gathering and creak “at one another in the silence, so that now and then an apprehensive human head would bob up from over a writing table or the back of a settee” (30). As the passage suggests, in the absence of humanity, furniture acquires a life of its own through personification. When a “human head” reluctantly appears in this realm of inanimate objects, it is perceived as a fragmented body part, incongruous, disjointed, and out of place. This dwindling of humanity may be read as pointing to the deeper ontological crisis that the war has bequeathed, while also suggesting the alienation of the human subject from the built environment. As Thomas Davis argues, “Bowen construes the war as a process of dispossession, both of property and subjectivity” (32). In temporary spaces such as hotels, human beings experience depersonalization and anonymity that result from fleeting relations to other people and from a lack of intimate connections with the space itself. The guests in Bowen’s story become “forty useless mouths” (34), waiting to be fed by the otherwise invisible—ghostly—hotel staff. Their uselessness may be compared to the disuse of the empty chairs and tables; the irony suggests the loss of individuality in hotels, where one is often known by one’s room number, but it may also be a scathing comment on the part of Bowen about the inertia and apathy that characterizes these tourists seeking entertainment in neutral Switzerland so soon after a devastating war.

When the hero of the story, the Romanian M. Grigoroff, appears for the first time, he is elliptically introduced to the readers. We learn only that the war had caused him “considerable inconvenience,” obliging him to spend “the greater part of it in Switzerland, […] not at all sure that he really liked the country” and thinking “of no specific reason for going anywhere else” (30). Bowen refrains from offering the specific cause for his indefinite stay in Switzerland, where he had spent the summer before the war, but his uneasiness about his whereabouts attests to the disorienting effect of the transition from war to peace. He has spent both war and peace in this limbo of neutrality, possibly having lost any sense of national belonging and allegiance. Feeling threatened by the presence of the hotel manager, Herr Müller with the sinister eyebrows, and the “English husbands” who roar at him, Grigoroff is eager to enter the hotel’s salon des dames, repeatedly but also hesitantly attempting to do so: “The panels were all wooden and impenetrable” (31). Before entering the seemingly impregnable salon, Grigoroff fantasizes about the scene, populating it with his imagination: “there would be ladies; too many ladies perhaps, or there might, infinitely more desirably, be a few” (31). The imagined women are coupled in his head with an atmosphere of warmth and comfort: “There would be the warmth of radiators and draped curtains” (31). Whereas the hotel has so far been described as a vacant, deserted, and icy place, Grigoroff imagines the salon as a protective, feminine cocoon that will shield him from the chilling and hostile atmosphere of the rest of the establishment. However, his penetration of a space definitively “announced” as feminine opens a channel between the two areas of the hotel, preparing the reader for a melding of heat and coldness, comfort and threat.

Finding “great comfort in the society of women” (31), Grigoroff enters the salon to find three women engaged in their ordinary yet creative activities: Mrs. Hobson is knitting, Miss Pym is mending, and Miss Villars is “re-translating into her mother tongue a German translation of King Lear” (31). The knitting and the mending may be read as productive activities that carry the realm of the domestic into the publicness of the hotel. Moreover, Miss Villars’s act of re-translation entails a rewriting of the original work and conveys her attempt at authorship. The space of the salon des dames, thoroughly ruled by its occupants, becomes a space that harbors and engenders women’s creativity and desire. Like Woolf’s and Mansfield’s heroines, these women are writing their own hotel stories, while Grigoroff attempts to write them into his, to make them fit into his narrative of need and loneliness.

Moreover, the three female figures subtly evoke the three Fates, the Moirai of Greek mythology: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho winds the thread of people’s lives (Mrs. Hobson, the knitter), Lachesis unfolds the thread deciding on their life course (the bookish Miss Villars), and Atropos cuts it, terminating earthly existence (Miss Pym, the mender who will be later shown to hold a pair of scissors). Miss Villars’s act of translation generates yet another intertextual reference, this time to King Lear, which offers another trio of women, the three daughters of Lear who mirror Bowen’s Fates, producing the effect of a mise en abyme, a copy of the image of the three hotel women, that may point to an eternal return of sorts, an incessantly recurring sequence. While placing emphasis on women’s creativity in the secluded spaces of the hotel—a theme also developed in Woolf’s and Mansfield’s stories—these intertextual references additionally endow the text with anxiety about mortality and human fate and stand as a reminder of perishability, underlining the subtext of violence. Intriguingly, at the closing of the story, Grigoroff fantasizes about a private meeting with Miss Pym/Atropos, a meeting that points towards the conclusion of the narrative while simultaneously alluding to the precariousness and uncertainty of life. The salon, a space of female homosociality, is a world in which male privilege cannot be taken for granted.

The salon promises all-female companionship and a homely, peaceful atmosphere, the antipodes of the exclusively male warfare in the hostile trenches of World War I—what Virginia Woolf once termed a “preposterous masculine fiction” (Diary 2: 76)—but also of the seemingly aggressive masculine spaces of the hotel. Nevertheless, despite the domesticity evoked by the pastimes of these women, and despite his act of penetration, it is Grigoroff who submits to the aggressive agency of these women, rather than the other way round. Miss Villars is quick to invite him in and Mrs. Hobson offers him a seat, while Miss Pym inspects her fingernails and flutters her eyelids. Vying for his attention and awkwardly engaging in flirtation, the three women try to engage him in conversation about their tourist ventures or the garments they are making, yet it is always to the subject of coldness that the text returns. Miss Pym assumes that Grigoroff is “feeling the cold,” blushing as she speaks, since “[s]he never made advances to men,” to which Mrs. Hobson replies, referencing an earlier discussion with Grigoroff: “He was telling me about the shawls his mother used to make in Romania” (32). The coldness is both literal and figurative, rising from the hostility between the women who try to monopolize him: “It became evident that Miss Pym did not like Miss Villars” (33). Attempting to draw the man’s attention, the American Miss Villars mentions old Romanian acquaintances and switches to French, excluding the British women from the conversation. The use of more than one language reinforces the idea of the hotel as a cosmopolitan space that shelters international guests, a space that remains open to difference, to the unfamiliar. Yet the behavior of these women reveals a reluctance to communicate and even the intolerance they harbor for one another.

Having suffered the absence of men during the war, the women of the story are eager to reestablish sociable connections with them, but on their terms. In doing so they reduce Grigoroff to a passive and perhaps effeminate effigy, able only to stammer a few words: “Oh, ye-es” and “Oh no-o” (32). In this sense, the coldness motif reflects their ultimate hostility towards him. More importantly, the cold is a harbinger of the fact that these three women-without-men will stand their ground asserting their subjectivity; their iciness never thaws, unlike that of the women in Woolf and Mansfield. It could be argued that having been relegated to the hotel’s gendered private sphere, the salon des dames, these women respond with figurative warfare, undermining the peaceful and domestic function of the space itself and inscribing it instead with hostility and coldness.

The antagonism for the attention of Grigoroff escalates when Mrs. Hobson makes a rather dramatic comeback, suggesting she could try her muffler on his neck:

“Would you mind, would you mind very much if I were to try this muffler on you, just to try? […] I want to see if it will go round twice and tie in a knot.” While he was still looking wonderingly at her, she had lassoed him; the folds of the muffler, warm and scratchy, pleasantly titivated the soft flesh under his chin. […] Mrs. Hobson adjusted and tweaked the muffler, her sleeve brushed against his cheek. (33)

Grigoroff never gets the chance to respond, since Mrs. Hobson has moved swiftly and decisively. The tying of the knot resonates both with the idea of marriage and with the threat of hanging, which is reinforced by the “lassoing” of Grigoroff, as if he were a horse to be tethered. The text registers the surprise he feels and a certain pleasure derived from the physical contact, yet from this point to the end of the story he remains mute, as the women clearly have the upper hand. Bowen’s observation that in times of war “details leaped out with significance” certainly finds expression in this story (Bowen’s Court 454). The use of the word “muffler,” which also alludes to a silencer that deadens sound, is an elaborate example of a material detail and a fashion accessory that is both feminine and ultimately weaponized by Mrs. Hobson.12

The use of the muffler, imposed on Grigoroff’s neck, could therefore be read as his virtual strangulation; the man in the room has been successfully immobilized and silenced. The very form of the story embodies this silencing; from this moment on, all dialogue ceases, and readers must rely on the detached and somewhat ironic third-person narrator that reports Grigoroff’s thoughts. Passivity and the lack of male agency, a metaphorical castration of sorts, now shroud Grigoroff, whose reticence and stillness are contrasted to the vocal confidence of the women. As Marcella O’Connor observes, Grigoroff is “oblivious to any sense of threat” (24); he finds “great comfort in the society of women” (“Salon” 34), a line repeated before and after his submission to the ladies. While still wearing the muffler, he even fantasizes about being invited (probably by a woman, although the text does not specify) to tea in a bedroom, still projecting his need for privacy and homeliness. Similarly, he hopes for even more tête-à-tête interaction with Miss Pym in the lounge, where he can “show her his album with the views of other parts of Switzerland” (33-34). Again, Grigoroff is rehearsing a homely and purportedly feminine form of sociability, believing in the comforting effect of shared tourist experiences in spaces (the hotel and Switzerland) that are distinctly not a home and not his home. Instead, the hotel spaces, and Switzerland by extension, stand for the porosity between home and battlefront. The text suggests that in wartime there can be no neutrality, and, similarly, in the war’s aftermath, there can be no forgetting of its traumas. To avoid the war, Grigoroff has chosen to stay in Switzerland, a “quiet island in the centre of Europe” (34); within Switzerland he has chosen an almost empty hotel; and within this hotel, the salon des dames. Yet, as it becomes clear, none of these three spaces is free of conflict. During the war, Switzerland became the unlikely home for thousands of interned POWs; in peacetime, the hotel accommodates hostile men; and the salon is occupied by restless women craving transient pleasures.

Bowen’s text shows that even in times of peace the boundary between war and safety is compromised, especially in spaces that combine community with intimacy. The hotel becomes the setting of aggressive action that, like the action in the trenches, shatters the domestic order. The battle in the salon is first and foremost a gender war, the outcome of which reverses the binary of power and impotence. The women exert power derived perhaps from the frustrations of their imposed seclusion and domesticity, while Grigoroff remains passive and eventually becomes emasculated. As Alison Light has shown, in the interwar years, home and private life took on an ambiguous meaning, and their conflation with accepted forms of femininity was highly problematic and contradictory (217-18). The women’s salon defies such stereotypical forms of femininity that are equated with warmth, comfort, and safety. Drawing on the military violence of World War I, the story has embedded aggression within the hotel space, aestheticizing it and rendering it feminine. The insular hotel has perfectly reproduced in miniature the violence of the war that has preceded.

From a space engendering a sexually liberated subjectivity to one exciting yet also limiting a woman writer’s imagination, and to a site of aggressive female agency, the hotel in Woolf, Mansfield, and Bowen emerges as a porous, indeterminate space. The three stories examined demonstrate the ways in which the hotel in the interwar period may replace the home, becoming a new center of intimate, private, and creative life, yet also becoming the other of the Victorian household utopia, a space harboring transgressive impulses and even violence. Crucial to British national identity and stability, the Victorian home, whose importance was reinforced in the interwar period, had tried to maintain a clear separation between private and public—the calm of interiors versus the violence of exteriors—and performed a sanitized form of intimacy through concealment, economy, and modesty. Hotels, on the other hand—homes away from home—blurred the line between private and public, allowing for the emergence of new and even extravagant (hotel) subjectivities. Woolf’s story-telling Rosalind, Mansfield’s heroine on the obstructed path towards authorship, and Bowen’s confident women-without-men all demonstrate that women’s subjectivity may thrive in spaces of temporary occupancy and not of dwelling. Yet the liminality of the hotel—its penetrability by patriarchal values—may render this personal development and freedom fragile, leading to women’s fragmentation and self-division or gender conflict and violence. In this sense, the hotel becomes this in-between space, between the home and the battlefront, a porous space of instability, which, though not inscribed specifically with war, does become one of its literary geographies.


The authors would like to thank the Editor, Jennifer Nesbitt, the Associate Editor, Joshua Lam, and the anonymous reviewers, whose insightful comments contributed greatly to the strengthening of the argument and the finessing of the final version of this essay. The research for this article was supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (H.F.R.I.) under the “First Call for H.F.R.I. Research Projects to Support Faculty Members and Researchers and Procure High-Value Research Equipment” grant (Project Number: 1653. Project Title: “Hotels and the Modern Subject: 1890-1940”).

1. Bingham’s examination of the interwar press is more optimistic as it finds that even though the discourse of domesticity is indisputable, not all voices found in popular newspapers were patriarchal (10).
2. “The power of the Press to burke discussion of any undesirable subject was, and still is, very formidable” (Woolf, Three Guineas 289n16).
3. Nesbitt adds to the list of regressive policies: “Legislation also took with one hand what it gave with the other. For example, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 granted women entry into the professions, but many professions barred married women from working” (19).
4. See Despotopoulou, Kolocotroni, and Mitsi for analyses of the hotel in the work of many modernist authors.
5. See Chase and Levenson, Davidoff, and Surridge, among many others, who have examined the thin line between private and public spheres in the nineteenth century and who have exposed the destabilization of the domestic ideal by forces of publicity and/or violence.
6. The story mentions a Swiss waiter, and the hotel, adjacent to a lake, has a mountain view.
7. Beasley has written extensively on Woolf’s interest in and engagement with Russian literature through reviews and translations (434).
8. In Georg Simmel’s words, the door represents “how separating and connecting are only two sides of precisely the same coin” (7).
9. We are reminded again of Mrs. Dalloway, who felt that passion threatened the privacy of the soul.
10. Using data from Church and Head’s Concise History of Switzerland (189), Seán Williams writes that “By 1914, there were 22 million overnight stays in Swiss hotels, with guests arriving in increasing numbers for pleasure and outdoor pursuits rather than for health tourism. Visitor statistics would not return to this high peak until after the Second World War” (445). 
11. See also Despotopoulou, Kolocotroni, and Mitsi (1).
12. See Plock’s pertinent discussion of the powerful function of clothes in Bowen’s To the North: “clothes, like no other objects in Bowen’s novel, carefully orchestrate her representation of the connections that exist among characters’ interior composition, their intersubjective relations, and the exterior landscape” (288).

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---. Three Guineas. 1938. Hogarth Press, 1943.

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