Sunday 27 August 2017

Any Hour You Like: The Shelbourne by Elizabeth Bowen

A curiosity among Elizabeth Bowen's works, The Shelbourne (1951) is the history of a famous Dublin landmark. It is also a celebration of hotel life - 'a world revolving upon itself'. For Bowen the Shelbourne was a place of safety and stability in a time of uncertainty.

We begin in the early nineteenth century with the original building, where Thackeray stayed. He found the Shelbourne quirky, was famously disconcerted to find his bedroom window held open with a broom: 'Thackeray-lovers ... still prowl around the Shelbourne asking which of these windows the Broom propped up. Knowing so much, they should know enough to know that the hotel has been rebuilt since the author stayed there.' Though Bowen is sniffy about such literary pilgrims, it is clear that she herself has a more than sentimental attachment to the Shelbourne.

The hotel was reconstructed and modernised in the 1860s: the dimensions of its interiors, not least, were expanded to accommodate the huge clothes of the time - a 'more roomy age'. A typical Bowen reflection, on the topic of the Shelbourne's wardrobes:
Of these many still survive: in their cedar-scented, cavernous insides to-day's wispy clothes hang like ghosts.
The hotel reached its peak in the late Victorian period - 'gay days at once ephemeral and immortal' - and featured directly in a novel of the time, George Moore's A Drama in Muslin, which Bowen discusses at length.

Into the twentieth century, and politics intrude. We see guests, fearful of insurgents, sleeping in corridors, a scene not unlike the London Underground during the Blitz. But the Shelbourne comes through, and Bowen ends with a hymn of praise delivered from the top of the hotel, looking out over Ireland, 'under a world of sky':
Sea gleams in the distance; cloud shadows bowl softly over the mountains; below, Dublin spreads out its humming plan, shading off into the empty horizons [...] In the heart of this stands the Shelbourne, four-square, stout and surviving, scene of so many destinies which might seem to be transitory yet become immortal when one considers how they have left their mark. Nothing goes for nothing. Here, in these floors of rooms, under my feet, hopes in the main have triumphed, behaviour and order have stood firm. Now in the haze over the city clocks begin to strike. Beads of traffic run round the Green. A car detaches itself, slows down, pulls up in front of the glass porch. The porter comes out - someone is arriving. It is any hour you like of a Shelbourne day...
This, then, is no regular history. It's an Elizabeth Bowen jeu d'esprit - original, eccentric, unconfined. It's peculiarly rather akin to Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Like Woolf, Bowen traces her subject thrillingly through time - and through literature.

The Shelbourne survives into the present day.
It is possible to sleep in the
Elizabeth Bowen Suite.

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