Was this the original baggy monster of a novel? It’s huge, and quite baggy, and has no place on my shelves now that I’ve read it, because its vastness is not matched by re-readability. However, some parts are very good indeed, so it’s a patchy reading experience. I found myself skipping the rather tedious romance because I wanted to get back to the business thriller of whether Sir Henry Savott will poach Evelyn Orcham, Director of the Imperial Palace, and create the biggest and best European hotel merger.
Bennett has form on inventing fancy London hotels so as to be able to tell the stories of the lives therein: The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902), and The Regent (1913) are pretty good novels (thankfully also not baggy). But I think Imperial Palace (1930) tops them for exuberance of invention, and for the detail of the great hotel’s operations. Bennett’s enthusiasm is for the complexity of the institution, and its marvellous arrangements to ensure that a stained carpet can be fixed in an hour, or how its very successful publicity manager never needs to pay for an advert. Economically, I don’t think the hotel could have ever have made any money, so lavish are its staff numbers and services for the guests: it has the Bertram’s Hotel (pace Agatha Christie) glamour of a perfectly-appointed institution that can only exist on paper.
Evelyn Orcham, the Director and a true eminence gris, is the weak link. He is magnificent as a hospitality services genius, and is only alive as a character when he is riding the constant rumbling storm of operational management. But for the other half of the very long novel he is passive, responding like an automaton, or a dead fish, to the seduction techniques of Gracie Savott, the daughter of his putative business partner. She is a cardboard fantasy, an capricious and independent beauty with all the money she wants who is writing a novel about her new-found moral understanding of the world, and has the attention span of a mayfly. Evelyn jumps when she tells him to jump, but doesn’t seem to feel a thing about her. We are instructed to feel that while Gracie was a wild and exotic fling, it would be more suitable and natural (class-wise) for Evelyn to be attracted to the hotel’s new head housekeeper. I found it hard to be interested in either of them.
Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, which came out at the same time, won the public’s attention for its succinct and socially nuanced depiction of a great city hotel, and deservedly so, as it is a far better novel. If only Bennett had dropped the romance, which he really must have been writing by rote, and stayed in the hotel. I would so much rather have read more about the housekeepers’ rivalries, the unsung story of the secretaries, how Messrs Ceria and Perosi, Rocco, Cappone and Cousin came to dominate the running of the hotel, and how it managed to sustain such lavishness in the rather rocky economy of the late 1920s. Apparently the Imperial Palace was modelled on the Savoy Hotel, and relocated to somewhere between St James’ Park and Parliament Square. Reorganising London’s geography is something else Bennett did remarkably well, but by this very late stage in his career (Imperial Palace was the last novel he published before his unexpected death from typhoid) he had lost interest in creating the characters that had defined his career.