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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.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns  

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels, perhaps most notably in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). First published in 1989, The House of Dolls shares the same offbeat sensibility as Comyns’ earlier work, blending darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. As in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, there are several emotions on display here, ranging from optimism and hope to endurance and stoicism to despondency and poignancy. It’s a wonderfully funny book, one of my favourites by this supremely talented writer!

The novel is set in a Kensington boarding house during 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 gold and crimson drawing-room. As Amy explains to her friend Doris…

‘…I thought it would make a nice sitting-room for my ladies; but you should see what they have done with it. It looks real wicked somehow, and they’ve added to the mirrors and there’s a sort of bar, all done up with bamboo, where they serve drinks, at a profit, of course; only, there’s always one who drinks behind the others’ backs and that causes trouble. It’s all very worrying; but there it is. There’s little I can do to alter things: they’re too strong for me, especially that Berti.’ (p. 5)

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. The two women are forever arguing – mostly over petty jealousies, frequently fuelled by drink. Completing the quartet are Augustina (commonly known as the Señora), easily the most sensible of the group, and Ivy, a timid middle-aged woman who finds herself roped into her housemates’ enterprise, much to her discomfort.

Berti and Evelyn have a small number of clients and sometimes look for new ones in the local coffee bars and pubs. One of the things Comyns does so well here is to lace her descriptions of the ladies’ activities with a seam of mordant humour, giving the novel a slightly surreal or unhinged tone that really adds to its appeal.

Berti poured herself the first drink of the evening, an unusually small one. She was expecting a new client that evening, a middle-aged Greek she had met in the underground. He had just buried his wife, he said, and was feeling lonely. She felt nervous; he was so dark and his melancholy eyes were like dates. He told her his wife had died in the street. A street accident? Murdered? He did not say. (p. 66)

Meanwhile, Ivy – who hates her job in the haberdashery and wool shop – is longing for someone to take care of her. Preferably her boyfriend, Hugh – a respectable dentist from Putney – who knows nothing of the ladies’ prostitution racket. As soon as his divorce comes through, Hugh plans to marry Ivy and move to Canada to set up a new practice, much to his fiancée’s relief.

To be released from Mulberry Grove, Berti, Evelyn and the chiropodist and, above all, from the widower who came on Wednesdays. Never to see them again. No more women clamouring for knitting wool, no more listening to the manageress talking about her home knitting machine and her fallen arches. She would be thousands of miles away, married to her wonderful Hugh and her disagreeable past behind her. (p. 60)

While her tenants entertain their gentleman callers upstairs, Amy tries to shield her fourteen-year-old daughter, Hetty, from the debauchery of the lounge, turning up the radio to drown out any noise. It’s a difficult age for Hetty, who has little in common with the other girls at her school, preferring animals and comics to boyfriends and bands. In search of friendship and solace, Hetty skips school a couple of days a week, spending her time instead with a gentle, childlike man named Glover, making mosaics out of broken china and glass. Thankfully, there is nothing inappropriate or sexual about this relationship; rather, the pair work together peacefully in the garden of a derelict house, creating beautiful pictures from these shattered remnants – a lovely contrast to the unsavoury goings-on at Hetty’s home.

Comyns also adds a lovely storyline for Amy into the mix – a blossoming romance with a policeman named Harry, who enjoys gardening and DIY. When Harry first calls at the house, Amy is mistakenly convinced that he is spying on her, trying to gather evidence on the ‘brothel’ upstairs. In time though, Harry becomes a trusted friend and partner, helping Amy to stand firm against the ladies and their bawdy evening parties.

As the lounge collective begins to break up, with Ivy and the Señora leaving Kensington, Berti and Evelyn must find another place to live – especially as Amy intends to marry Harry. At first, the old ladies’ prospects look bleak. With their meagre allowances and little hope of continuing the usual services, Berti and Evelyn have barely any money to speak of – a situation not helped by their disastrous forays into the world of work. While Evelyn gets drunk during a babysitting assignment, Berti falls foul when she takes a job as a cook, lasting a couple of days in the face of a demanding employer. But then, just when the situation seems desperate, Berti’s luck turns, opening new opportunities for the two elderly dames.

The House of Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. Tonally and thematically, I’m reminded of some of Muriel Spark’s novels (Memento Mori, perhaps) and the early works of William Trevor. There’s something sad and unhinged about it, in the mould of Trevor’s The Boarding-House and The Love Department.

I’ll finish with a final quote that captures something of the novel’s tone and the nature of the two ladies, Berti and Evelyn. They have developed a new hobby – looking up funerals in the newspapers and gate-crashing the most promising ones, passing themselves off as distant relatives of the deceased. As their new landlady observes…

‘…They have an air of breeding; but there is something distinctly odd about them, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. […] They have charming voices. It’s just their oddness that makes me a little nervous. Oh, yes, and they’d been to a funeral at the cemetery and I heard the one with blue hair whisper to the other, “Handy for funerals, isn’t it?” Perhaps they’re body-snatchers.’ (p. 145)

The House of Dolls is published by Turnpike Books (another for #ReadIndies). My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy – and to Ali, who happened to gift me a copy at almost exactly the same time!