The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for exampla that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polsih of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

  1. April 14, 2018 at 11:40 am

    Sounds fun! Definitely of a time long passed. I’ve not read any Bennett, I’ll have to give him a try.

    Like

    • April 14, 2018 at 10:17 pm

      It’s a fun read. Light and deliciously outmoded.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 14, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Fandango is a traditional dance in Portugal and Spain! I’m curious to know in which context the word is used in the book. 😂
    Great review!

    Like

    • April 14, 2018 at 10:19 pm

      Sorry, I can’t tell you. I read it on my kindle and it died in between. I can’t go back to the passage where it was mentioned.

      Like

    • April 14, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      “‘Now see here, Miss Spencer,’ Racksole said calmly, ‘I guess we’ve had
      enough of this fandango. You’d better get up and clear out, or we’ll
      just have to drag you off.’” (Ch. 17)

      And then two sentences later Miss Spencer stabs Racksole in the arm! Anyway, the context is not dancing. “Fandango” in this case means “foofaraw” or “ruckus.”

      Like

      • April 14, 2018 at 11:05 pm

        Thank you!

        Like

      • April 15, 2018 at 9:34 am

        Thanks Tom.
        Seeing Susana’s comment and the passage you found, I wonder what this dance looks like. Off to find this on the Internet.

        PS: Perfect example of the international side of blogging.

        Like

        • April 20, 2018 at 1:32 am

          Only saw your reply now. In Portugal it looks almost like a dispute between two dancers. So, it kind of makes sense in the context. I think the Spanish one is a bit different, but I’m not sure.

          Liked by 1 person

          • April 26, 2018 at 9:20 pm

            Very interesting. I wonder where Bennett took this comparison, if he had seen this dance in Spain or in Portugal or if it’s one of these incomprehensible fashions that appears out-of-nowhere sometimes.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. April 14, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    I have not actually read this – did I really recommend it, I ask myself – but I read and greatly enjoyed The Old Wives Tale (1908), a less frothy, more dramatic, work that also features a substantial, fascinating section about an English woman running a pension in Paris. There cannot be very many writers who have written two novels with this conceit.

    In the later novel, Britishness is mocked pretty thoroughly. I doubt you would find it condescending towards the French. Maybe Bennett changed his mind. Maybe he read more Zola. The Old Wives’ Tale owes a lot to Zola.

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    • April 14, 2018 at 10:21 pm

      I don’t think he was condescending on purpose. Maybe he adapted to what readers wanted to hear. (after all, it was published in a newspaper, he wasn’t free)
      It’s just the product of the time, that’s how I perceived it.

      I’ll keep The Old Wives Tale in mind.

      Like

  4. April 15, 2018 at 3:27 am

    I have this. I have a fondness for novels set in hotels or boarding houses. I’ve picked this up a few times but have to read it.

    Like

    • April 15, 2018 at 9:43 am

      I think you’ll have a lot of fun with it. The workings of the hotel are well described. I’m curious to read your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. April 15, 2018 at 3:27 am

    Reblogged this on Vauquer Boarding House and commented:
    Thanks, Emma. I’ve had this on my TBR – even already downloaded for ages but never seem to get around to me. This will definitely spur me on. Next month!

    Like

    • April 15, 2018 at 9:44 am

      Thanks for reblogging my billet. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. April 15, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    I’m putting this on my To Be Discovered list, I think I’d enjoy it! Like Guy Savage I have a fondness for hotel/boarding house novels, they always feature interesting characters living a bit at the margins.

    Like

    • April 15, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      I like books set in hotels too.
      At the beginning of this one. Jules and his contempt for American customs is hilarious. The Italian chef is such a caricature!

      Like

  7. April 15, 2018 at 3:03 pm

    I read Arnold Benett’s The old wives’ tale in high school, and have always wanted to read more of him, but have somehow never got around it it. This sounds like a fun one to read. He was one of those “lesser” classics when I was at school – but perhaps also seen as an accessible one. I’ve wanted to see what I wold think now.

    Like

    • April 16, 2018 at 1:05 pm

      I hope you’ll like it if you decide to read it. I’ll read your review.

      I wondered how well-known he still was. From the comment I received from well-read book bloggers, he appears to be, as you say, a “lesser classic”. Known by name but not really read.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 16, 2018 at 2:16 pm

        It’s possibly also one of those fashion things too? EM Forster, DH Lawrence don’t seem to be read as much now, either.

        Like

        • April 16, 2018 at 9:49 pm

          See Tom’s explanation. Apparently, Bennett made the mistake of not recognizing Virginia Woolf as a great writer.

          Like

      • April 16, 2018 at 2:57 pm

        In 1924, Virginia Woolf’s essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” did permanent damage to Bennett’s reputation. He has been in decline ever since. Bennett was used by Woolf as an example of old-fashioned fiction, especially old-fashioned characterization. Woolf argues for the new stuff, for what she does.

        Bennett had started the argument, with a negative and uncomprehending review of Jacob’s Room. He lost the argument.

        The Woolf essay is very good. I believe it is often assigned to undergraduates. At this point, Bennett is probably most famous as the subject of the Woolf essay.

        Like

        • April 16, 2018 at 10:02 pm

          Thanks Tom, I didn’t know that, obviously. It makes sense, like missing Van Gogh as a great painter.

          Woolf is right, by the way. Bennett is old school, it doesn’t mean he’s not pleasant to read. You get what you expect.

          Like

  8. April 15, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    I’ve never read any Bennett either but I confess this sounds like more fun than I’d expect from him! 🙂

    Like

    • April 16, 2018 at 1:07 pm

      Another reader tempted by Bennett! I’m looking forward to all the future reviews of The Grand Babylon Hôtel.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. April 17, 2018 at 10:09 am

    Great review, especially your comments on the different nationalities and cultures. Funnily enough, I also read this book fairly recently and had a lot of fun with it too. It’s a wonderful caper – as you say, fast-paced and full of action. Interesting to hear that it was first published as a feuilleton (presumably in instalments?). That makes a lot of sense in terms of the structure – all those cliffhangers leaving the reader eagerly awaiting the next episode.

    Like

    • April 17, 2018 at 9:31 pm

      Hello Jacqui,
      It’s good to hear from you again, I hope you feel better.

      How odd we’ve read it almost at the same time since he’s not such a fashionable writer. Great mind think alike, I suppose.

      I think we can spot books that were published in newspapers because of the short chapters and cliffhangers. It’s the same with For The Term of His Natural Life that I’m currently reading.

      Like

      • April 19, 2018 at 8:52 am

        I picked it up last year after seeing a copy of the new Vintage edition on display at Foyles. The premise sounded too good to miss. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. April 23, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    It sounds like quite a good commuting read with all those cliffhangers. I have to admit, I was a bit cautious given the level of condescension it seems to contain, but I googled the length and it’s under 200 pages. It’s also available for about 99p on Kindle (perhaps out of copyright? Out of fashion anyway).

    How long was your copy? I’ve seen it listed at 188 pages and 272 which is quite a range.

    Like

    • April 26, 2018 at 9:18 pm

      Well, it’s tagged as Beach & Public Transport, so yes, it’s a great commuting read.

      I read it with my friends from the Book Club and they also noticed the condescension. It’s more amusing than anything else, the way they are so sure of themselves, of their superior civilization.

      It’s in the public domain and I have it on the kindle in an omnibus edition. I can’t tell you exactly how long it is but it’s a quick read.

      Like

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