The Victorian love affair with the grand hotel seems to have begun at Brown’s in Mayfair. This sprawling landmark, once home to the Earl of Clarendon, opened as a modest set of rooms in 1837. Over the following decades, Brown's grew to an impressive size, encompassing several adjacent buildings; its reputation expanded as well, as it became a favorite place for the Queen to enjoy afternoon tea. In Hotel London, Barbara Black tracks the trajectory of Brown’s and other grand hotels of London — "palace hotels" or "monster hotels," as Henry James styled them — that came to dot the cityscape over the course of the nineteenth century. According to Black, Victorian travelers staying at these "chapels of ease" were encouraged toward a distinctive form of sociability and learned to project a recognizably modern Britishness. As Black puts it: "One cannot fully understand social existence for the Victorians without considering the grand hotel as a new building type and the institutional culture that demarcated, and helped to shape, their epoch" (10).

In its design and function, the grand hotel diverged sharply from older and more familiar lodging options: the staid gentlemen’s clubs that provided homes-away-from-home for the wealthy and connected on the one hand, and the modest inns frequented by ordinary travelers on the other. London’s grand hotels were additionally distinguished by special features like large airy rooms, including public rooms where women were welcome; extensive and diverse menus; and "a moratorium on tipping” which, Black points out, entailed, by design, “the disappearance of an obtrusive labor force" (26-27). These elements ensured that grand hotels provided their clientele with a highly desirable "encounter with the new and alluring." Above all, the grand hotel provided a flattering mirror in which “the British could see themselves as modern" (36).

Black considers the rise of the grand hotel as a place where well-heeled Victorian Londoners could slake their thirst for novelty as well as a particular kind of sociable leisure, allowing them to open a window onto the wider world by hobnobbing with visitors from all over. To illustrate the spectrum of novelty on offer in London's grand hotels, Black offers capsule “biographies” of five of the best known and most impressive: Brown’s, Claridge’s, the Midland Grand, the Savoy, and the Langham. Another chapter explores the varieties of literature inspired by these hotels, from novels and travelogues to striking homegrown documents, such as Home Letters of a Contented Exile, published in 1909 by the Savoy Hotel, that hoteliers produced in order to drum up business. By confecting attractive and exciting stories of hotel life, they encouraged prospective guests to imagine themselves feeling comfortable and at home in this novel context.

Despite the rosy pictures painted by hoteliers, not every aspect of hotel life was safe or salubrious. Luxurious experiences were on offer, to be sure, but guests of the grand hotels were also vulnerable to pickpockets, swindlers, con artists, prostitutes, and other disquieting characters who were also attracted to the semi-public spaces of London's grand hotels, albeit for different reasons. The proximity of hotel guests to underworld denizens added risk to the grand hotel adventure while stoking anxieties about the sorts of things that could and did happen there. In her final two chapters, Black delves deeply into different forms of Victorian hotel living, contrasting the embodied daytime experiences of the men and women who stayed in the grand hotels with those who worked, virtually invisibly, in the hotel’s secret places, the laundry rooms, bakeries, and kitchens; and the disturbing nighttime disruptions to which this silent and divided social organization (perhaps inevitably) gave rise in the form of ghosts, nightmares, and eventually, a body of writing that Black dubs "hotel noir."

Sir George Gilbert Scott's former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras. Left: The Grand Staircase. Right: The painted panels on the walls.

Black’s central claim, that the grand hotel provided distinctive opportunities for Victorians to develop an equally distinctive and confident national identity, is clearly articulated and supported throughout. But perhaps nowhere is her argument stronger than in her discussion of the terminal hotel, which married luxurious hotel experiences to the distinctly Victorian religion of the railway. "The marvel of engineering is part of any grand hotel’s narrative," Black writes. "However, a terminus hotel requires even more dramatic engineering since it connects directly an equally revolutionary transport system." Black carefully analyzes the construction of the Midland Grand, a vast 500-room hotel designed by George Gilbert Scott that opened in 1873 and immediately became the jewel in the crown of the extraordinary railway station at St. Pancras. "Rising three stories, flanked by gilded fleur-de-lys on its walls, the sweep of the stairs follows the iron beams that meet at a ribbed vault, decorated by painted panels representing the seven virtues: charity, temperance, industry, chastity, humility, truth, and patience"(85). The Midland Grand abounded in conveniences, including lifts, electric lighting, separate stairways to enforce distance between staff and guests, and innovative public spaces like the Ladies Music Room and the Coffee Room, with its famous curved floor plan and massive neo-Gothic arched windows.

One great strength of this book is Black's willingness to draw on a broad cross-section of writers working in various genres for different audiences. I have already mentioned the hotel literature produced by hoteliers; Black takes additional cues from novelists as different as Mark Twain, Wilkie Collins, Oscar Wilde, and Marie Louise Ramé, better known as Ouida. There is, additionally, the vast body of material generated by ordinary travelers and journalists who ventured behind the scenes to record the attitudes and conditions of the workers whose labor was essential to the production of luxury. In the last group was the remarkable Kitchen Prelude, translated and published in 1933, by the pseudonymous French writer Pierre Hamp, which included this unforgettable headlong account of life in a grand hotel's kitchen:

The attitude of the diners towards the food was at once greedy and contemptuous. Taken in excess it was a vice, and superior cooking leads to excess, to the red faces of gluttons and to their big bellies, to belchings and to wind. We all knew what a drunken diner looked like. The housewife making soup on her little fire was not a source of mirth, but the chef among his saucepans had always seemed to be a comic personage. Cookery and prostitution went together. We of the kitchen resembled in some sort the inmates of a brothel for we charged a high price for a thing which the virtuous would do without. A simple homely meal was enough for them. In public opinion we were classed almost with the prostitutes. [qtd., p. 154]

While Black’s presentation of this varied material is clear and engaging, she occasionally draws the reader into an irrelevancy. Her five-page meditation on the mid-century American artist Joseph Cornell, for instance, seems like a section from a different book entirely. Fortunately these incongruities are infrequent and circumscribed, and they are often simply relegated to footnotes where the reader lucky enough to have the leisure to explore them may do so — perhaps while staying at a grand hotel.

Links to related material


Black, Barbara. Hotel London: How Victorian Commercial Hospitality Shaped a Nation and Its Stories. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2019. £26.26. ISBN 978-0-8142-1417-6

Created 4 July 2022