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An essay by Vernon Lee

A Hotel Sitting-Room

Title:     A Hotel Sitting-Room
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

I am calling this paper after a hotel sitting-room because some of one's most recurrent and definite trains of thought are most hopelessly obstinate about getting an intelligible name, so that I take advantage of this one having been brought to a head in a real room of the kind. The room was on a top floor in Florence; the Cupola and Campanile and other towers in front of it above the plum-coloured roofs; and beyond, the bluish mountains of Fiesole. Trams were puffing about in the square below, and the church bells ringing, and the crowd streaming to the promenade; but only the unchanging and significant life of the town seemed to matter up here. I was struck with the charm of such a hotel room--the very few ornaments, greatly cherished since they were carried about; the books for reading, not for furniture; the bought flowers in common glasses; and the consequent sense of selection, deliberateness, and personality. Good heavens, I reflected, are we mortals so cross-grained that we can thoroughly enjoy things only by contrast, and that a sort of mild starvation is needed to whet our aesthetic appetite?

By no means. Contrast for contrast's sake is a very coarse stimulant, and required only by very joyless natures. The real explanation of the charm of the hotel room and its sparse properties and flowers must be sought, I believe, in the fact that the charm of things depends upon our power of extracting it; and that our power in this matter, as in every other, nay, our leisure to exert it, is necessarily limited. Things, as I before remarked, do not give themselves without some wooing; and courtship is the secret of true possession. The world outside us, as philosophers tell us, is not what our eyes, ears, and touch and taste make it appear; nay, for aught we know, 'tis a mere chaos; and if, out of the endless impressions with which outer objects keep pelting us, we manage to pick up and appropriate a few, setting them in a pattern of meaning and beauty, it is thanks to the activity of our own special little self. That is the gist of Kant's philosophy; and, apart from Kant, it is the vague practical knowledge which experience teaches us. Hence the disappointment of all such persons as think that the beautiful and significant things of the world ought to give them delight without any trouble on their part: they think that it is the fault of a Swiss mountain, or a Titian Madonna, or a poem by Browning if it does not at once ravish their inert souls into a seventh heaven. Yet these are people who occasionally ride, or play at golf or whist, and who never expect the cards and the golf clubs to play the game by themselves, nor the very best horse to carry them to some destination without riding. Now, beautiful and interesting things also require a deal of riding, of playing with; let us put it more courteously--of wooing.

The hotel room I have spoken of reveals the fact that we usually have far too many pleasant things about us, to be able to extract much pleasure from any of them; while, of course, somebody else, at the other end of the world let us say, or merely in the mews to the back, has so very much too little as to have none at all, which is another way of diminishing possible enjoyment. There seems, moreover, to be a certain queer virtue in mere emptiness, in mere negation. We require a _margin_ of _nothing_ round everything that is to charm us; round our impressions as well as round the material objects which can supply them; for without it we lose all outline, and begin to feel vaguely choked.

Compare the pleasure of a picture tucked away in a chapel or sacristy with the plethoric weariness of a whole Louvre or National Gallery. Nay, remember the vivid delight of some fine bit of tracery round a single door or window, as in the cathedral of Dol or the house of Tristan l'Hermite at Tours; or of one of those Ionic capitals which you sometimes find built into quite an uninteresting house in Rome (there is one almost opposite St. Angelo, and another near Tor dei Specchi, Tower of the Mirrors, delightful name!).

That question of going to see the thing, instead of seeing it drearily among ten thousand other things equally lovely--O weariness unparalleled of South Kensington or Cluny!--that question of the agreeable little sense of deliberate pilgrimage (pilgrimage to a small shrine perhaps in one's memory), leads me to another explanation of what I must call the "hotel room phenomenon."

I maintain that there is a zest added to one's pleasure in beautiful things by the effort and ingenuity (unless too exhausting) expended in eliminating the impressions which might detract from them. One likes the hotel room just because some of the furniture has been sent away into the passage or wheeled into corners; one enjoys pleasant things additionally for having arranged them to advantage in one's mind. It is just the reverse with the rooms in a certain palace I sometimes have the privilege of entering, where every detail is worked--furniture, tapestries, embroideries, majolica, and flowers--into an overwhelming Wagner symphony of loveliness. There is a genuine Leonardo in one of those rooms, and truly I almost wish it were in a whitewashed lobby. And in coming out of all that perfection I sometimes feel a kind of relief on getting into the empty, uninteresting street. My thoughts, somehow, fetch a long breath....

These are not the sentiments of the superfine. But then I venture to think that the dose of fineness which is, so to speak, _super_ or _too much_, just turns these folks' refinement into something its reverse. People who cannot sleep because of the roseleaf in the sheets, or the pea (like the little precious princess) under the mattress, are bad sleepers, and had better do charing or climbing, or get pummelled by a masseur till they grow healthier. And if ever I had the advising of young folk with ambition to be aesthetic, I should conjure them to cultivate their sensitiveness only to good things, and atrophy it towards the inevitable bad; or rather I should teach them to push into corners (or altogether get rid of) the irrelevant and trivial impressions which so often are bound to accompany the most delightful ones; very much as those occupants of the hotel room had done with some of its furniture. What if an electric tram starts from the foot of Giotto's tower, or if four-and-twenty Cook's tourists invade the inn and streets of Verona? If you cannot extract some satisfaction from the thought that there may be intelligent people even in a Cook's party, and that the ugly tram takes hundreds of people up Fiesole hill without martyrizing cab-horses--if you cannot do this (which still is worth doing), overlook the Cook's tourists and the tram, blot them out of your thoughts and feelings.

This question of _superfineness_ versus _refinement_ (which ought to mean the power of refining things through our feeling) has carried me away from the original theme of my discourse, which, under the symbol of the hotel room, was merely that we should _perhaps appreciate more if we were offered less to appreciate_. Apropos of this, I have long been struck by the case of a dear Italian friend of mine, whose keenness of perception and grip of judgment and unexpectedness of fancy is almost in inverse proportion to her knowledge of books or opportunity of travel. An invalid, cut off from much reading, and limited to monotonous to-and-fro between a town which is not a great town and a hillside village which is not a--not a great village; she is quite marvellously delightful by her power of assimilating the little she can read and observe, not merely of transmuting _it_ into something personal and racy, but (what is much more surprising) of being modified harmoniously by its assimilation; her rich and unexpected mind putting forth even richer and more unexpected details. Whereas think of Tom, Dick, or Harry, their natural good parts watered down with other folks' notions, their imagination worn threadbare by the friction of experience; men who ought to be so amusing, and alas!...

And now, having fulfilled my programme, as was my duty, let me return to my pleasure, which, at this moment (and whenever the opportunity presents itself) consists in falling foul of the superfine. The superfine are those who deserve (and frequently attain) the condition of that Renaissance tyrant who lived exclusively on hard-boiled eggs (without salt) for fear of poison. The superfine are those who will not eat walnuts because of the shell, and are pained that Nature should have been so coarse as to propagate oranges through pips. The superfine are.... But no. Let us be true to our principle of not neglecting the delightful things of this world by fixing our too easily hypnotized gaze on the things which are not delightful--disagreeable things which should be examined only with a view to their removal; or if they prove obstinate fixtures in our reality, be all the more resolutely turned out of the sparsely-furnished, delectable chambers of our fancy.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: A Hotel Sitting-Room