Writers love staying in hotels – and who can blame them? In researching my two recent books Rooms of One’s Own and Rooms with a View I found that Rudyard Kipling revised The Jungle Book at Brown’s Hotel in London, Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit at the Welsh hotel village of Portmeirion and J K Rowling finished her Harry Potter series in Room 552 of Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel.
These are all places we can stay today when tracking down our literary heroes, though I can advise you to book well advance if you want the J K Rowling Suite as it’s very popular indeed. There isn’t much to see however. The door knocker is in the shape of an owl, all the Harry Potter books are lined up on a low shelf and there is a bust of Hermes on which the author has written “Finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room on 11 January 2007”. Fortunately no one cleaned off that particular piece of graffiti. But there is nevertheless a bit of a frisson knowing it was at that desk – or on that bed under a Jack Vetriano poster – that Britain’s most popular contemporary novelist laid down her pen.
As far as literary hotels go, Brown’s in London is definitely the oldest. It was set up in 1837 by Lord Byron’s former butler. Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Agatha Christie all stayed at Brown’s. Winston Churchill, no mean author himself, once declared “When in London I do not stay at an hotel. I stay at Brown’s”. Mark Twain felt so at home there, he once came to the lobby in a blue bathrobe to answer journalists’ questions. But the author with whom Brown’s is most associated is Rudyard Kipling, who used it pretty much as his London office. Here he revised the proofs of The Jungle Book and tended to business. Hanging on the wall in the Rudyard Kipling Suite today is a letter that Kipling wrote on 19 March 1919. You can see he has typed the date and “Brown’s Hotel” but, alas what follows is hardly exciting. Kipling simply informs a Mr Shepherd that he is not inclined to rent out an allotment he owns in Rottingdean. No literary insights there. Kipling’s desk, the one at which he collapsed and died in 1936, is also at the hotel but it’s not in the suite and understandably so. You probably don’t want to be lying in bed thinking, “That’s where’s Kipling’s duodenal ulcer perforated”.
Of all the writers who sought their muse in lovely hotels, Noel Coward was most inspired. In May 1941 the Master took a train to the architectural fantasy village of Portmeirion with the intention of writing a comedy that would cheer people up. Amabel Williams-Ellis, the wife of the visionary who built Portmeirion, liked to invite authors and artists to stay, and Noel Coward made the most of his time in a village apartment called Anchor & Fountain. “In five days Blithe Spirit was born”, Coward recorded. Portmeirion is a lovely tranquil spot. I’ve done some writing there myself, gazing out at the silent estuary.
Lead image: Bristol Colonnade, Portmeirion: Built about 1760, the Colonnade first stood in front of a bathhouse in Bristol, England. It was falling into decay when the structure was moved to Portmeirion in 1959 and restored in 1987.
Less happy was Oscar Wilde’s time at London’s Savoy where in 1893 he stayed in what is now Suite 314 overlooking the Thames. A Woman of No Importance was in rehearsal at the Haymarket Theatre and Oscar took a modest room at the hotel so he could be available for rewrites, but when Lord Alfred Douglas joined him the young man required something grander. After a month of indulging his lover with champagne, Oscar wrote “I fear I must leave; no money, no credit , and a heart of lead”.
There is another London hotel with much happier memories for Oscar Wilde – and his contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle. Although we have no record of either man staying at The Langham we do know that in 1889 an American publisher invited both authors to dine with him at the hotel grill. Afterwards he commissioned each of them to write for his magazine. Doyle duly produced his second story featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four, and Oscar Wilde came up with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Arthur Conan Doyle subsequently wrote fondly of his “golden evening” at the Langham, using it as a location in both The Sign of the Four and his third Home’s story, Scandal in Bohemia.
I’ve eaten in that grill room. It’s now called Roux at The Landau and the sun, bouncing off Broadcasting House opposite in the evening can indeed shine gold through its great tall windows. How lovely to imagine the gentlemen toasting each other here after such a momentous dinner.
That’s the joy of following these writers into their hotels. Just occasionally you feel as if you were there with them.
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