Brian Moore’s hotels: Time to revisit this neglected author in his centenary year

This Irish writer excelled at portrayals of women dissatisfied with marriage and domestic life

Brian Moore was a writer of considerable style and ability who returned repeatedly to themes of exile and dislocation.

Brian Moore was a writer of considerable style and ability who returned repeatedly to themes of exile and dislocation.

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Given Irish literature’s preoccupation with themes of exile and dislocation, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a small but substantial literary sub-tradition that explores the hotel as a site evocative of a range of experiences.

Hotels can represent transience, anonymity, luxury (or penury, depending on the hotel), escape (from domestic life and duties), marital infidelity, in-betweenness in time and space, loneliness or sought-after solitude. At times, the hotel imbues the narrative with geographical specificity (the Ormond Hotel in James Joyce’s Ulysses [1922] or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Shelbourne [195]); at others, it signifies a non-place or an anyplace, as in Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel (2020).

From the New York hotels that are spaces of habitation and observation in Maeve Brennan’s work to the seedy London hotels in which Irish women seeking abortions stay in Joseph O’Connor’s early fiction; from the Majestic in JG Farrell’s Troubles (1970) to Maeve Binchy’s country hotels, fictional and non-fictional hotels have generated a range of imaginative possibilities for Irish writers.

The year 2021 marks the centenary of the birth of Brian Moore, a writer who returned again and again to themes of exile and dislocation and whose work, not coincidentally, is awash with hotels.

Born into a middle-class Catholic family in Belfast in 1921, Moore was the son of a doctor and nephew (through his aunt’s marriage) to Eoin MacNeill. After a stint in Belfast’s Air Raid Precautions, Moore was peripatetic during the war years before moving to Canada in 1948 – becoming a Canadian citizen in 1953 – and the US in 1959. After publishing more than 20 novels, a number of them recipients of or nominees for major literary prizes, he died in 1999.

Perhaps because of the heterogeneity of his work, perhaps because of the difficulty of “placing” him into any one national literary tradition, perhaps because the lauded Northern Irish writers of Moore’s generation are, almost without exception, poets and playwrights, Moore’s work has arguably not received the attention it deserves. The centenary provides an opportunity to revisit it, here through the lens of Moore’s hotels.

In Judith Hearne (1955), set in Belfast and Moore’s first “literary” novel (he had previously published four pulp novels), hotels mark the tragic decline of the eponymous lady, a “spinster” (in the parlance of the day) of limited means who finds herself moving into increasingly shabby lodgings after the death of her aunt and her descent into alcoholism.

At her latest boarding house, on Camden Street, Judith has (misplaced) romantic designs on a Returned Yank, James Madden, who tells her he was “in the hotel business right on Times Square”. Misconstruing this to mean he is a successful hotelier (he is really a doorman), Judith consults books about New York at the local library and is struck by the grandeur of that city’s hotels: “five times as big as the Grand Central, the Royal Avenue, or even the Gresham in Dublin”.

She even daydreams herself as the subject of a society announcement of the sort Moore himself wrote when he was shipping correspondent for the Montreal Gazette: “Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena.”

Humiliated by her error with Madden, and sinking deeper into alcoholism, Judith moves out of Camden Street, withdraws all her savings from the bank and checks into the (fictional) Plaza Hotel, armed with two bottles of Jameson and a bottle of gin. “A hotel is your home,” the hotel clerk muses but, for Judith, the Plaza represents the ultimate downward destination of a woman who never had a real home after the death of her parents led to her being taken in by her Aunt D’Arcy.

Indeed, the name of the hotel, more readily associated with New York than Belfast, speaks poignantly to Judith’s misguided hopes of romance with a New York hotelier: where she hoped to be versus where she ends up.

Belfast ‘the alien place’

Moore was famous for his portrayals of women dissatisfied with marriage, children and domestic life. Unsurprisingly, in these novels, hotels are often liberating spaces, alternatives to the drudgery of wife and motherhood. In The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Belfast woman Sheila Redden begins a passionate affair with a young American in a hotel in Villefranche, the very hotel in which she spent her honeymoon.

Part of the appeal of Villefranche for Sheila is that it represents an escape from both marital and sectarian conflicts. In the 16 years since her honeymoon, Belfast has been “bombed and barricaded”; Sheila herself witnessed the Abercorn restaurant bombing in 1972. Belfast, with its “ruined houses and rubble” is now, to Sheila, “the alien place” while the Hôtel Welcome “is just as she recalled it, its rust-colored facade exactly as it had been in the vue du port paintings of Villefranche one hundred years ago”.

Brian Moore

The Doctor’s Wife raises profound questions about what “home” means in the context of marital and sectarian troubles: “I don’t feel at home at home,” Sheila tells her brother.

Two Moore novels are set predominantly in motels in or near Carmel-by-the-Sea in California. (Moore lived in Malibu, some 300 miles south of Carmel, from 1966 until his death). In the first, The Great Victorian Collection (1975), Moore capitalises on the postmodern blankness of the Sea Winds Motel, in which “all these rooms look much the same”, to highlight the incongruity of an enormous collection of Victoriana appearing overnight in the motel’s car park.

Built around an “original frame house”, the motel’s “lifeless parlor . . . artificial as a furnished room in a folk museum” is “a relic of that private life the [owners] had permanently forsaken the day they nailed the shields of credit cards on what had been the front door of their home”. As a space converted from one of emotional attachments (“home”) into one for commercial gain, the motel foreshadows what becomes of the collection itself. Investors capitalise on the collection’s extraordinary appearance to build a nearby Great Victorian Village, comprising “three hundred motel units and two shopping plazas” boasting shops called Olde Curiosity Shoppe and Oscar Wilde Way Out.

As many scholars have noted, The Great Victorian Collection is Moore’s postmodern novel. Indeed, its motel setting anticipates subsequent discussions of the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles, a favoured object of analysis for postmodern theorists such as Edward Soja and Fredric Jameson.

In the second Carmel novel, Cold Heaven (1983), Marie Davenport finds herself back in Carmel a year after witnessing a Marian apparition during a trip to the area with her lover, Daniel. Initially reluctant to disclose the Virgin Mary’s injunction that a shrine be built to her in this location, Marie returns to Carmel after becoming convinced that testifying to the apparition is the only way to save the life of her husband, Alex: after a boating accident, Alex suffers from a series of inexplicable symptoms that leave him suspended between life and death.

The motel, by definition

For Marie, the Point Lobos Motor Inn in the Carmel Highlands is comforting in its banality: “There were no secrets in these neat new rooms.” It is “a perfectly ordinary motel, unsinister, Californian”, a scene “utterly prosaic, utterly familiar”. In this, it contrasts with the miraculous, supernatural events that Marie witnessed so close by and that she is so reluctant to acknowledge and divulge. Moreover, the motel itself – by definition, a dwelling place between here and there – echoes her husband’s predicament: “He had been granted life, but it was a simulated life, a life in limbo.”

In the context of the Troubles, hotels take on a particularly charged significance. Famously, the Europa Hotel in Belfast was damaged by bomb explosions 33 times between 1970 and 1994. Glenn Patterson mined the potential of the Troubles-era hotel setting for his novel The International (1997), set 30 years earlier on the eve of the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association at the eponymous hotel.

Lies of Silence (1990), Moore’s Troubles thriller, capitalises on the hotel as a site vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In that novel, Michael Dillon, manager of Belfast’s Clarence Hotel (which bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Wellington Park Hotel), is coerced into becoming proxy bomber of his own hotel when his wife is taken hostage by IRA terrorists. The hotel is a target for the IRA because the Rev Alun Pottinger (insert your own real-life equivalent here) is due to address a group of Canadian Orangemen at the hotel later that day.

Interestingly, Michael views his career in hotel management as a disappointment, one that sees him facilitating the travels of others rather than fulfilling his own dreams of journeying to “some faraway exotic place”. A one-time aspiring poet, his books are a “passport to that other world he had once dreamed of joining”.

Arguably, Moore’s work itself is less invested in a strict distinction between the “commercial” and the “literary” and this is particularly apparent in the fact that, as well as fiction, Moore wrote copious non-fiction dedicated to travel and hotels. Throughout his career, he wrote for magazines such as Holiday and Travel & Leisure. In a 1985 article on Co Cork for the latter magazine, Moore wrote approvingly of an hotel still in existence today: the Seaview House Hotel in Ballylickey. “We sat cosily after dinner,” Moore wrote, “toasting our toes at a wood fire in the sitting room and praising the cooking of Kathleen O’Sullivan.”

While 2020 was not a vintage year for enjoying hospitality and outstanding cuisine at Ireland’s finest hotels, the centenary in 2021 offers readers a renewed opportunity to take as many imaginative journeys as we like by (re)visiting Brian Moore’s hotels.

  • Sinéad Moynihan is a literary scholar based at the University of Exeter. With the support of a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, she and Alison Garden (Queen’s University Belfast) are co-organising a series of events to mark the centenary of Brian Moore’s birth in 2021. For further information, visit the website.
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