Christina Stead (1902-1983) is the greatest or second greatest Australian writer (depending how you rank Patrick White) of the inter-War and immediate post-War years. She was born in Sydney, went to London after school and one or two years of uni, and lived and wrote, often in poverty, in England, Europe and the USA, ignored and sometimes positively shunned in Australia , until the death of her husband, the Communist economist William Blake in 1968. She returned briefly to Australia then, on a fellowship to ANU, and permanently in 1974. (See my review of Chris Williams’ Christina Stead: A Life of Letters).
The Little Hotel (1973) is the stories of the proprietors and semi-permanent residents of a down-market hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the late 1940s. As many of the residents are English it is relevant that England’s post-War Attlee Labour government had instituted a Socialist programme, with very high taxes on the well-off, austerity following the enormous expenditure on the War, and many important industries being nationalised. (The English/Australian novelist Neville Shute was just one of many who chose not to live there).
By the end of the War, Stead and Blake had been living in the USA for 9 or ten years, which proved the peak years for Stead as a novelist. But the rise of McCarthyism made it increasingly difficult for them to obtain script-writing jobs and at the end of 1946 they returned to Europe. Briefly to Belgium where Blake had hoped to get work, then London, back to Belgium, then in Oct. 1947 to –
Montreux at the Hôtel de Londres, a Swiss haven that became their home for a couple of years … she loved its charm, its quiet and its scenery, but not the English tourists whom she characterized so well in the novel, The Little Hotel.Williams, 1989. (p. 172)
Knowing the way that Stead worked, with mss for a number of novels on the go at one time, it is probable that she began working on The Little Hotel in Montreux, while getting the last of her American books – A Little Tea, A Little Chat and The People with Dogs – ready for publication (I don’t think she began researching Cotters’ England until 1949). And then it finally surfaced when she needed a book, or felt the time was right. She had been making approaches to Australia for some time and maybe this book was gentle enough not to offend the delicate sensibilities of publishers Angus & Robertson, who had knocked her back repeatedly in the past.
I found The Little Hotel similar in its almost jaunty style and lack of theme to Stead’s first novel The Salzburg Tales, and nothing like my favourite Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, with its flood of words, which just preceded it by date of setting, nor the gritty Cotters’ England, which followed. The narrator, ostensibly is Mme Bonnard who with her husband Roger, runs the hotel, but in fact the POV which starts out first person, more and more slips over seamlessly to third person when Mme Bonnard is not in the room.
I am very firm. It is the only way to manage these disorderly people. They are just like spoiled children. It’s funny, isn’t it? Here I am, only twenty-six, and I am running men and women of forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, like schoolchildren. The secret is simple. You must have your own rules. We have another simple secret. Our hotel, the Swiss-Touring, which is near the station and near the esplanade, is the cheapest in town for visitors … No one ever mentions this fact, among our guests; but it is the thing that keeps them from boiling over.
The English, all of them retired or semi-retired, are living cheaply In Switzerland while they work out where to go next, and how to get their capital out of England (I think currency movements were severely restricted to prevent a run on the Pound). But there are also European and American guests. The big worry, for all of them, is the Russians who might overrun Switzerland at any time and steal all the gold hidden in the mountains on which the Swiss Franc depended to maintain its value.
Guests and staff are relatively constant, though of course with some turnover, and we get to know a great many of them. At the centre was –
Mrs Trollope and her cousin Mr Wilkins, English people from the East, who had been with us for over a year and who occupied two adjoining rooms. .. next to Mrs Trollope was Madame Blaise, who had been with us the whole winter. Next to her was the large corner room… which Dr Blaise occupied every second weekend when he came over from Basel.
Mrs Trollope’s mother was Javanese, which doesn’t seem to matter in the hotel, but does in wider society, particularly in England. Her marriage settlement with her previous husband has left her independently wealthy. As Mr Wilkins gets more and more control over Mrs Trollope’s fortune he pays her less and less attention. And it is the unveiling and resolution of their relationship which holds the book together.
Madame Blaise is also the wealthy one in that relationship, and it becomes apparent that Dr Blaise’s hold over her is drugs. One guest is starving herself to death, another, with plenty of money, declares himself to be the Mayor of Brussels and is eventually locked up after wandering around the town naked. It’s not a long book, and there is enough going on to maintain interest (isn’t that faint praise!).
In case you’re wondering, after I have forced a lot of theory on you in discussions on Gen 3, Christina Stead was one of the great Modernists, she clearly studied James Joyce and would have met him and many other writers at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co in Paris in the 1930s. She was a communist, though not formally a member of the Party; she could not possibly have stood the restrictions of Socialist Realism. Perhaps the closest she got to Social Realism was Cotter’s England in the 1950s, just as that period was coming to an end (It’s a long time since I read Seven Poor Men of Sydney).
Christina Stead, The Little Hotel, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973. 191pp