Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

73 thoughts on “Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

  1. whisperinggums

    I have read Hotel du lac, but none of the others you mention. However, I do rather like boarding house novels and have read a few in my time. Most that come immediately to mind seem to be English, but not all. A few I’ve reviewed on my blog include MJ Hyland’s This is how (English seaside setting), Elizabeth Harrower’s The long prospect (Newcastle, Australia), Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (Sydney). I guess they make good settings because you can put together a bunch of unconnected, unusual characters, and you can create a landlady (often it’s a woman) with a backstory that affects how she runs her boarding house. It can be a crime story, or a realist novel about workers, or and finding yourself story, or….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! There are so many directions an author can take with it. The Sweet Sickness is essentially a psychological thriller/crime story, and while the boarding house is somewhat in the background (the crime doesn’t occur there) it’s very in-keeping with the protagonist’s character. The House of Dolls, on the other hand, has a bit of a focus on the landlady (alongside the two main tenants). She’s quite a sympathetic character, so the reader feels for her predicament given the goings-on in the house!

      I’m woefully underread when it comes to Australian lit, so your recommendations are really useful – they’re all completely new to me, so I’ll definitely check them out.

      Reply
      1. whisperinggums

        Thanks Jacqui … Harrower is a highly regarded author who was in a sense rediscovered about a decade ago. Ashmere’s book is less well known but tells an excellent realist story about Sydney.

        Reply
  2. Simon T

    I was eagerly awaiting this and it didn’t disappoint! I’ve read all but 2, so will have to seek out the Trevor and Highsmith. Into the mix I’ll throw The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith – another theatrical boarding house – and the first half of Bassett by Stella Gibbons.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Trevor clearly had a thing for seedy establishments as quite a few of his early novels feature these faded, down-at-heel settings. The Old Boys is another interesting one, although possibly not the best read for animal lovers given an unfortunate incident with a cat…

      Many thanks for recommending the Dodie Smith and Stella Gibbons, they both sound great! I’ve been meaning to try another Gibbons for a while, so Bassett would be ideal…

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    Aha! as soon as I saw the heading on this post I was ready to go into battle for The Slaves of Solitude and was ready to come to the UK to punch you if it didn’t make your list. Thank God for both of us it did.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, the Hamilton was a done deal from the outset, so no worries on that front. Have you read his earlier novel Craven House? It’s a bit like a dress rehearsal for Slave – not as focused or polished as the latter but perfectly enjoyable nonetheless. He’s a little more sympathetic to his characters too, as if the real seam of bitterness is yet to set in…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, you’ve got such a treat in store with the Mannning. Miss Bohun is a truly monstrous creation, right up there with some of the most manipulative in literature, and a wonderful setting too. I hope you like it as much as I do!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s a great suggestion, Susan. I’d forgotten about that one, probably because I never got around to writing it up! Thanks for the reminder.

      Reply
  4. philipanderton00

    Thanks for a marvellous post Jacqui. The Slaves of Solitude is one of my favourite Patrick Hamilton novels; I recall the wartime shabbiness of the Tea Rooms clearly.
    But thank you for the other recommendations, especially the Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns, William Trevor and Patricia Highsmith. I’ve read many of Highsmith’s novels (which I love) but have yet to read This Sweet Sickness.
    My one addition would be E.F. Benson’s Paying Guests set in a residential boarding house in a spa town where people take the sulphuric waters. One resident, a dilettante, decides to hold a sale of art, encouraged by the polite comments of the other residents about her amateurish daubs. People buy them out of pity. The sisters who run the boarding house comment that they like her painting of a squirrel. She’s mortified as it’s her painting of their cat entitled Pussy Dearest!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Philip, and I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed my post. (I’ve been meaning to put it together for a while, just like the ‘hotels’ piece.) The E. F. Benson sounds absolutely marvellous, just the type of novel I love, so hopefully I’ll be able to track it down! His Mapp and Lucia novels are glorious, but I don’t think I’ve read any of the standalones…

      Reply
  5. Daphna Kedmi

    Thank you Jacqui. I have read several of these books, all wonderful, and have just read your complete review of Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the the Dark. What a great review! This is definitely going on my TBR list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I think it’s still my favourite of Rhys’ novels, with After Leaving Mr Mackenzie a close second. She captures the plight of these women so well as they drift from one tragic encounter to another. A wonderful writer, way ahead of her time in various respects…

      Reply
  6. hopewellslibraryoflife

    I’m so happy you included the dear old May of Teck! I love that book (love may not be the right word). And, Fortnight in September. Now you’ve got me thinking of others, but off the top of my head could only come up books where someone boards with a family. Good topic–good post!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love the way Spark establishes a whole social hierarchy within the May of Teck, it’s very cleverly done in a way that feels entirely realistic and believable. I’d really like to go back to it at some point, possibly with my book group as there’s quite a lot to discuss.

      Reply
  7. Cindy

    I love several of these, the Spark and Fortnight in September particularly.
    I missed your hotel post which I have since gone back to read. Several past joys on there too! I have a passion for books about people on holiday, in a hotel or a group or family in a villa, such as The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
    I am on holiday myself at the moment, and just finished the most perfect poolside read – The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman. It has everything one wants when it is 36 Celsius. Snappy dialogue, wit, a hotel setting in the 60s and 70s, a nasty enemy who is softened and it goes into romcom territory deliciously half way through. I have gone online and bought copies for my 3 best reading mates. I know this should be a comment in the hotel post, but this will get more people reading the book, hopefully!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds delightful, and the 1960s/’70s setting definitely appeals! Many thanks for mentioning it here as it seems like a book that several of us would enjoy. Isn’t it wonderful when you find a good holiday read? Something light yet satisfying with enough sharpness to carry the reader through…

      A good rom-com is a much undervalued genre (in books and films). It’s hard to get the dialogue right without things sounding too forced or cheesy. Have you read any Laurie Colwin? I only discovered her relatively recently, but she might be in a similar vein.

      Reply
  8. Dorrie Tattoo

    The Passion of Judith O’Hearn by Brian Moore is a great novel set in a boarding house and was made into an excellent movie starring Maggie Smith.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Of course! How could I have forgotten poor Judith Hearne? I read it a couple of years ago and loved it, a devastating portrayal of a woman on the edge… Many thanks for the reminder.

      Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui – what a gorgeous pile of books! I have read the Spark and the Rhys and the Maclaren-Ross and particularly rate the latter (though all are good!) The Hamilton is on the TBR but I’m not sure about the Manning. And Fornight is too. I may have to go off down a wormhole!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fortnight is marvellous if you need something comforting and reassuring. Just a really lovely reminder of a time when life seemed simpler and less hectic than it is now, albeit with its own particular challenges for each member of the Stevens family. Kazuo Ishiguro named it as a favourite comfort read / go-to novel for lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic – a very fitting endorsement, I think!

      Reply
  10. Elizabeth Bass

    I love boarding-house/bed-sitting room books, and I hadn’t heard of many of these. A favorite of mine is The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. This is just the list I needed for summer–thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! The L-Shaped Room is a terrific suggestion! I remember seeing the film many years ago and really enjoying it, but I’ve yet to read the book. Something to remedy in the future…

      Reply
  11. heavenali

    Ooh I love this post. I so enjoy a good boarding house in fiction. I am delighted that there are several there I have yet to read, and I am definitely going to buy soon. Adding them to my to buy list. I thought the Patrick Hamilton was genius, such a memorable novel and brilliantly portrayed group of people. I also loved The House of Dolls,The Fortnight in September and School for Love. The Girls of Slender Means my favourite Muriel Spark novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! Glad to hear that you’ve found something to tempt you in this list. The Highsmith is particularly creepy – she does these fantasists/psychopaths so well. You never quite know who you might be rubbing shoulders with in one of these faded boarding houses…

      Reply
  12. BookerTalk

    The only one I’ve read here is the Muriel Spark but the other choices do look enticing. I’ll add to your list The Holiday by Stanley Middleton and I’m wondering whether Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would qualify?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – that won the Booker in the 1970s, didn’t it? Thanks for that suggestion, Karen, I’ve made a note. Mrs Palfrey was in my ‘hotel novels’ post (mentioned in the intro).

      Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        It did indeed win the prize Jacqui but is one of the lesser known novels. Sorry I missed the Mrs Palfrey mention – comes from reading too late into the evening

        Reply
  13. Karen K.

    I love a boarding house book! So happy that you included The Slaves of Solitude, one of my favorites, and The Girls of Slender Means. I’d also add London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins (long but SO GOOD) and The Feast by Margaret Kennedy — it’s a resort that was once a home, so I think it’s more a boarding house than a hotel. Either way it’s wonderful and I just finished it today, a perfect summer read!

    I need to read more Jean Rhys so I’m adding all the books mentioned to my TBR list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’ve got the Norman Collins in my TBR, so it’s great to hear you are a fan. (Quite a few other people have also mentioned it on Twitter as it’s clearly a favourite!) Loved Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast! Funnily enough, I included it in an earlier post on hotel novels; but you’re right, it does have a boarding-house feel to it. Such a clever novel – the way Kennedy weaves the seven deadly sins into the book’s subtext is so impressive, and it never feels overdone!

      I hope you like the Rhys. It’s a tough book to read, especially for women, but well worth the investment nonetheless.

      Reply
  14. Caroline

    I can understand the appeal of this post. So many treasures. If read only a few but am glad to say I have most of them on my piles. I think The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne would also qualify for the list. I seem to remember you liked it as much as I did.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I did. In fact, I’m kicking myself for forgetting to put it in! Moore writes these troubled women so well – a little like Colm Toibin in that respect, perhaps?

      Reply
  15. Jane

    what a great post, I’ve been looking forward to this since your hotel post! The only one I’ve read is The Fortnight in September which is one of my favourite books. I gave The William Trevor to a few people based on your recommendation so may be I should read it now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant. I really hope they like it. Trevor’s early novels are pretty dark in places, so it’ll be interesting to see what people think…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Liz, I could have chosen others by Hamilton (Craven House, for instance, which feels like a dry run for his later books), but The Slaves of Solitude lives and breathes the boarding house milieu. An essential pick!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Just looked this up on a certain online trading site, and the first review in the list is one of those hilarious one-star demolition jobs (see quotes below) – this makes me want to read it all the more!

        “Quite an annoying book. The heroine is a vapid stereotype. She lives in shabby genteel circumstances in a large boarding house. Her fellow residents are portrayed sneeringly by the author. The plot, such as it is, involves the heroine meeting a lord, who then pursues her romantically until she accepts his marriage proposal. Most of the book involves dwelling on the nosiness of her fellow paying guests, all also living in straitened circumstances but not “rescued” by fate. At least they went to the wedding. How nice for them.
        I know the author was a successful publisher. He must have made a fortune selling this sort of stuff, so it is understandably formulaic. However, I feel this is one to avoid.”

        Reply
  16. CLM (@ConMartin)

    I’ve only read The Fortnight in September but liked that very much. I am also a big fan of The Inn at Lake Devine and nearly all her books (she is also very funny in person if you ever get a chance to go to a reading). I like this category so much I have a boarding house/hotel tag in Goodreads.

    I would add the Elizabeth Cadells that feature May Martineau, a former actress or maybe just theatrical backstager, whose boardinghouse appears in The Blue Sapphire and The House on the Cliff. And, of course, in Ballet Shoes, taking in boarders changes the Fossils’ lives, as one boarder gets them into Madame Fidolia’s and the others teach them and give them the idea of putting their names in the history books.

    Does anyone know the Great Brain books? Fitzgerald also wrote an adult novel called Mamma’s Boarding House, set in Utah, which I have never come across but it is based on his own family and supposed to be very funny.

    Madye Lee Chastain’s books are unknown in the UK but Emmy Keeps a Promise is one of my top ten and I am always amused by the landlady who feeds her boarders nothing but clams! In another of her books, Plippen’s Place, four children find refuge in Mrs. Plippen’s boarding house for theatrical folks, and their new friends help them thrive.

    Constance

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What fabulous suggestions, all of which are new to me (with the exception of Ballet Shoes, which I adored as a child)! I especially like the sound of the books featuring May Martineau, the former actress/theatrical backstager who now runs a boarding house. Anything with a theatrical flavour is right up my street.

      Many thanks for all these recommendations, Constance – I can see myself exploring several of them in the future!

      Reply
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  18. 1streading

    Great choices – and a few I’ve read! Whenever teaching anything that involves a boarding house these days some explanation is needed. (A sequel focusing on European novels would be good).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good thought about a European version! Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel was in the ‘hotels’ post, but I’m acutely aware that there are no novels in translation here. Do you have any suggestions, Grant? There’s Zweig’s Burning Secret, which I Iove, but that’s another hotel one. To tell you the truth, I’m struggling to think of any books in translation featuring shabby boarding houses/hotels…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Please do! I’d love to hear your suggestions, especially as your knowledge of translated lit is much broader and deeper than my own.

          Reply
  19. mementominnie

    I adore boarding house/hotel novels.Thank you for these but also got a pleasant surprise when I entered “boarding houses”into public library search.Pages and pages..look forward to the reading….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Love Mrs Eckdorf (and William Trevor in general)! In fact, I mentioned it my earlier post on hotel novels, but it could just as easily fit here, especially as the establishment in question has a very decrepit feel. The Paul Bowles is new to me, so I’ll take a look. Many thanks. :)

      Reply
  20. mementominnie

    One final comment..many of these are available on Open Library if you just want to preview them or if hard to find.Enjoy!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, that’s a good thought. (I often use my kindle to download a sample of the text, just to get a feel for the tone and prose style.)

      Reply
  21. EllenD

    My Turn to Make Tea by Monica Dickens features the people that the protagonist meets in while living in a boarding house, and their life, as well as her experiences a reporter.

    Reply
  22. gina in alabama

    Also, books that take place in sanatoria, Magic Mountain/Mann, Choukas/Nalakowska. Could be an undiscovered subgenre!

    Reply
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