My first experience of this novel was back in the mid-‘80s, shortly after it had won the Booker Prize. I was in my early twenties at the time – clearly much too young and lacking in life experience to fully appreciate the book’s many nuances and subtleties. At thirty-nine, Edith Hope (the central character) seemed middle-aged, old before her time – something I found difficult to connect with in the foolishness of my youth. Revisiting it now, I see it as a very different book – much more interesting and closely observed than it seemed on my first reading. The level of precision is remarkable, particularly in relation to detail and character.
As the novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere, traditional hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal.
Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name, remained standing at the window, as if an access of good will could pierce the mysterious opacity with which she had been presented, although she had been promised a tonic cheerfulness, a climate devoid of illusions, an utterly commonsensical, not to say pragmatic, set of circumstances – quiet hotel, excellent cuisine, long walks, lack of excitement, early nights – in which she could be counted upon to retrieve her serious and hard-working personality and to forget the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile, in this apparently unpopulated place, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home…(p. 8)
(The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book, so I shall endeavour to avoid any spoilers about this.)
It is late September, out of season, and the hotel is a sparse, soulless place, a bastion of respectability and privacy. The sort of place that doctors know about, where troubled or troublesome relatives can be sent for a period of rest and recuperation. New residents are occasionally accepted, but only on the recommendation of known parties.
At the end of her first evening, Edith is ‘adopted’ by Iris Pusey, a glamorous, well-dressed woman of commanding personality and indeterminate age. In return, Edith soon realises that she is to be an audience for Mrs Pusey’s views – a series of opinions, reminiscences and judgements on various aspects of life. This Edith is happy to do, partly because it allows her to observe an ‘alien species’, the study of human behaviour being a key component of her craft. Moreover, Mrs Pusey is accompanied by her grown-up daughter, Jennifer, a less-polished version of Mrs P, but equally striking in her own, rather girlish way.
The Puseys spend their days shopping for clothes, viewing their annual trip to the Hotel du Lac as a necessity in their social calendar. Luckily for Mrs Pusey, she is extremely wealthy, her late husband having left enough money for mother and daughter to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed.
Edith is rather fascinated by Jennifer whose age also proves difficult to define. (She is in fact thirty-nine, something that comes as quite a surprise given her childlike demeanour.) At times, Jennifer seems very young, like a little girl still devoted to her mother; at others, a more mature side of her personality emerges, revealing her to be something of an odalisque aware of her sexual attractiveness.
There are other guests at the hotel too, women whose lives have been defined by more dominant members of their families – primarily men. Consequently, these women have little influence or agency of their own. There is Monica, the tall, beautiful lady with a dog, whom Edith encounters shortly after she arrives at the hotel. Lady Monica, whose relationship with food is dictated by an eating disorder, has been sent to the hotel ‘to get herself in working order’ to produce a baby. Monica’s husband is desperate for an heir, and should one not be forthcoming soon, Monica will likely be dismissed, thereby enabling Sir John to make ‘alternative arrangements’.
Mme de Bonneuil is also of note here. Deposited at the hotel by her unfeeling son and his self-centred wife, this elderly lady will soon be dispatched to her winter quarters in Lausanne where a long, dark season surely beckons. With her sequined veil and walking stick, Mme B cuts a poignant figure, particularly as the move to Lausanne edges ever closer.
Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. As a writer of romantic novels, Edith is continually exploring the lives of women. ‘What behaviour most becomes a woman?’ What is deemed to be respectable or acceptable?
Edith’s position in relation to these points is brought sharply into focus with the arrival of Philip Neville, a perceptive, sophisticated man who is intrigued by Edith. He swiftly surmises her position, identifying her single status as a disadvantage. While her career as a writer has enabled Edith to live an independent life, she remains somewhat annexed from polite society – pitied by her friends, some of whom have tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to arrange suitable matches. (Little do they know that Edith has a married lover, David, a man she is deeply in love with, despite the fact that he will never leave his wife.) This separateness is something Edith is acutely aware of – even so, the extent to which Mr Neville intuits her situation cuts like a knife.
‘What you need, Edith, is not love. What you need is a social position. What you need is marriage.’
‘I know,’ she said.
‘And once you are married, you can behave as badly as everyone else. Worse, given your unused capacity.’
‘The relief,’ she agreed.
‘And you will be popular with one and all, and have so much more to talk about. And never have to wait by the telephone again.’
Edith stood up. ‘It’s getting cold,’ she said. ‘Shall we go.’
She strode on ahead of him. That last remark was regrettable, she thought. Vulgar. And he knows where to plant the knife. (p. 101)
As the novel reaches its denouement, Mr Neville proposes to Edith. It is not a proposal borne out of love – instead, he is offering her a partnership based on mutual self-esteem. Following the messy breakdown of his previous marriage, Mr Neville is looking a wife, someone he can trust, someone who will not let him down or embarrass him in the future. In return, marriage will give Edith a respectable social position, something that will confer on her an air of confidence and sophistication. Furthermore, she will retain the freedom to write, to continue with her career as desired. Both parties will be free to see other people should they wish, as long as they remain discreet.
In the end, Edith must choose the kind of life she is to lead. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures, its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for the benefit of social acceptability? (There is also the question of whether it will be possible for Edith to go back to her familiar life in England, should she wish to do so. This is not at all certain given her recent history.) Ultimately, an unexpected discovery forces Edith’s hand, revealing unpalatable truths about two of the hotel’s residents, while also signalling what may lay ahead for Edith should she opt for a particular path.
I could have written a very different piece to this, one that explores Edith’s dilemma in light of the events that prefaced her exile; but that would have revealed too many spoilers, I think. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. This time around, I absolutely loved it.
Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.