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The Use of London Lodgings in Middlebrow Fiction, 1900-1930s

Kate Macdonald


<1> This article discusses how a particular kind of rented London accommodation was used in British fiction, before and after the First World War. It examines the perspectives of two middlebrow novelists, Una L Silberrad and Dornford Yates, which are discussed in the context of other fiction set in or commenting upon London lodgings from the period c.1870-1930s, and compared with evidence from contemporary social commentary. The lodgings that these writers used as fictional settings were socially ‘low’, though not of the lowest kind, and thus offered an emotive contrast to the characters who lodged there, who were from considerably higher social strata. This lowness on the social scale acted as an indication of how the middle- and upper-class characters who were lodged in such rooms responded to the changes in their fortune that had brought them there, which in turn illustrated their personalities. We can thus see lodgings as having the capacity to test character. These lodgings were also temporary homes, reinforcing the idea of living through a test, since the characters would endure the lodgings and their changed lives with the prospect of release or escape forever present. How the authors expected the reader to respond to these tests reflects contemporary attitudes to lodgings, and, inevitably, to class mobility, before and after the First World War. 

<2> I will be using the work of a number of authors, but draw most often on the prolific writings of Una L. Silberrad (1872-1955) and Dornford Yates (1885-1960). Silberrad was a successful and popular novelist and an early experimenter in feminist fiction. After she died her 39 novels were not reprinted, and she is now largely unknown. She was a spinster from a middle-class Essex family, and set much of her fiction in London, Essex or the north of England, in both contemporary and historical contexts. Many of her novels were set in the London slums, in London lodgings and in the London suburbs: she had a strong interest in the description of daily life and unfashionably ordinary lives. Dornford Yates (Cecil William Mercer) was a best-selling novelist between the two world wars. He began publishing in 1910, and by his death had consolidated his success in 35 novels and collections of short stories. The defining characteristics of his fiction were mannered plots of social comedy, or action-dominated thrillers, using highly stylised language and increasingly ossified social attitudes. Yates attracted middlebrow readers who read him for his fantasy plots and his admiration for prewar social conditions. Both can be categorized as middlebrow writers because of their constant presence in publishers’ lists (Yates was also a best-seller for most of his career), and because their novels were routinely referred to as the ‘new Yates’, or the ‘new Silberrad’. The literary qualities of their fiction were not exploratory or challenging, though Yates was certainly linguistically innovative. Neither was their fiction aimed at the mass market: both writers were well-read in the classics and the Bible, and used literary quotation creatively in their fiction, expecting their readers to appreciate this without effort. Their focus on class mobility, the home and the domestic space is also indicative, since middlebrow writers had a strong interest in exploring the boundaries and restrictions surrounding these.[1] 

<3> The novels of these writers, and others, are evidence of the social geography and the domestic spaces of their times. They were not unusual in dealing with slippages on the social scale: almost any novel of the Edwardian period dealt with this theme, and with class mobility, and since a large number of these novels were set in London, London’s domestic geography has been mapped for us through this fiction.[2] Attitudes towards the ‘new poor’ may also be found in the literature of the 1920s and the 1930s. Yates’s work in particular is a repository of resistant attitudes, presented to his middle-class readers as the right approach for the continuation of civilized society. He had a high opinion of his own moral and political position, and did not brook dissent. Silberrad’s fiction was based on human relationships interacting with societal attitudes, and her plots rewarded moral value and practical action rather than socially correct behaviour. The particular styles of these writers contributed to how they used character and settings. Yates wrote melodramatic thrillers and witty romances, which ignored the distasteful mundanities of everyday life in favour of baroque fantasies. ‘Low’ lodgings were simply inimical to his oeuvre. By demoting his upper-class and gentry characters to living in single rented ‘rooms’ (as opposed to upper-class serviced flats) he showed their social degradation, and also their inherent social superiority, since their nobility was expressed in their courageous behaviour in the face of such adversity. Silberrad also wrote romances, but of gently pragmatic everyday life, where her characters were educated with modest expectations. They ranged from the middle classes and well-to-do to the gentry and those connected with the aristocracy. 

<4> Interestingly, it is likely that these writers had readerships from similar social levels, but with quite different socio-political attitudes. Silberrad, though politically conservative herself, wrote for Edwardian liberal reformists and her fiction is quietly and consistently passionate about the importance of women working in business, in science, and in maintaining their financial independence. Her fiction helps us gain a more nuanced understanding of what it meant to be a conservative writer in the Edwardian period. Her readers were likely to have come from the same background as her characters in ‘rooms’, and would have been familiar with these settings, but would not have expected to live in such in rooms themselves, unless penury enforced it. Her readers and characters would have aspired to private homes rather than shared living spaces. Yates came to the fore in the brasher 1920s, and invited reactionary readings responding angrily to the changes in society caused by the First World War. His readers would have fulminated with him over the tragedy of the gentry dispossessed from their ancestral homes, because Yates’ characters were destined for his, and their, ideal: not just a home but a country estate.

Degrees of difference

<5> As well as representing class slippage and degradation, lodgings could also be sites of independence, and of freedom from family surveillance and social responsibility. Lodgings, and their overlapping corollary, boarding-houses, were often sites of genteel poverty, the homes of the impoverished lower and middle classes eking out a reduced income while waiting for a means of escape. For almost everyone, lodgings were a place to leave, a location for transients, in physical or class terms. It has been hard to find contemporary historical sources that describe lodgings and residential boarding-houses which were placid, comfortable, long-lasting, and respectable. Although in fiction there are many examples of pleasant and respectable boarding-houses, the ones that remain in the memory, the ones that make a dramatic impact, are those that are not right, not suitable, and which are used by their creators as metaphors for a wider social issue, of society itself being out of joint. What we need to get clear is the very wide range of lodgings available, and it may be helpful to consider them on a continuum of social class and cost. 

<6> For the lowest level of society in search of shelter for the night there were ‘common lodging houses’. ‘Common lodging houses were hostels for the poor and homeless, and were known as “low lodging houses”, later “dosshouses”. They were private, commercial operations, distinct from the casual wards run by poor-law authorities (‘spikes’) and the refuge shelters run by philanthropic organizations.’[3] Common lodgings ‘provided nightly accommodation for … those marginal members of urban society [and] were popular institutions … an investigation published in 1906 estimated that there were “about 1,000”’ in Britain.[4] ‘There were around 27,000 common lodging house beds in London in 1914 rented at 4d to 1s a night, and catering to two main types of clientele: one settled, who may have had their bed in a shared dormitory or a matchboard cubicle for years, and the other “the flotsam and jetsam of the road” ‘.[5] The Victorian and Edwardian ‘common lodging-house’ is well documented, particularly in R A Valpy’s essay in Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (1892), Orwell (1932), Trinder (2001) and Crook (2008).[6]

<7> Next up on the scale was the rental of a room rather than a bed. At its worst this room would be in a crowded slum building, with a bare minimum of furniture and heating, and no means of cooking other than at the fireplace. These rooms were illustrated in the ‘slum fiction’ of the fin de siècle, most notably in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896), W Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897), and Richard Whiteing’s 5 John Street (1899), but also in Silberrad’s The Lady of Dreams (1900). However, a private room meant some privacy, and thus, at a very basic level, represented respectability. Respectability was greatly desirable, as we shall see, and ‘rooms’ covered a very wide range of prices and services. Valpy noted this in 1892: 

Some houses, though registered, are not labeled as ‘lodging-houses’, but go by the more euphonious name of ‘chambers’, and in those of a better class, are to be found many young clerks and shop assistants … Some of the houses even aspire to the appellation of ‘hotel’ and only differ from an ordinary hotel in the fact that several young men will occupy the same bedroom. The rooms are often fairly good and the furniture comfortable, while meals of a superior quality are provided for the ‘young gentlemen’.[7] 

Far away from the business districts where such ‘chambers’ and ‘hotels’ were located,, ‘lodgings’ could also mean a set of rooms, rather than just one, in a pleasant neighbourhood, and one’s own furniture installed, with meals and cleaning provided, where one might live for months or years under the care of an agreeable landlady. Classic Victorian fiction shows us how bachelors routinely lived on their own in such lodgings, only to leave them on marriage for a larger set of rooms in a better or more married area, or for a rented house of their own. Trollope’s Johnny Eames (The Small House at Allington, 1862-64), George Vavasor (Can You Forgive Her?, 1864-65) and Phineas Finn (Phineas Finn, 1867-69) are useful examples. In the 1870s and 1880s Jerome K Jerome ‘lived in a succession of London boarding-houses (like his exact contemporary Gissing)’.[8] Both these writers used lodgings and ‘rooms’ in their fiction as a matter of course, Gissing more famously than Jerome, but Jonathan Wild has shown how both also embroidered their own experiences of ‘rooms’ and their literary representations. Gissing’s descriptions of clerks in his fiction were objected to in letters to newspapers by real clerks: ‘Mr Gissing’s picture of our home life is as strikingly inaccurate as the rest of his descriptions’.[9] Moving up socially from rooms in a tenement building, lodgings in a house in a more prosperous district could also be had by the week, month or quarter. In Silberrad’s Desire (1908) Peter Grimstone has ‘been nearly three years in town, but he had done little to soften the appearance of the cheap furnished apartments which were still all the home he boasted’.[10] This indicates Grimstone’s indifference to his surroundings, and also that the home he knows may not have been much better. 

<8> A characteristic feature that appears to have distinguished ‘rooms’ from one’s own house or flat was that one did not or could not cook in ‘rooms’, and if you did make your own tea or toast you would have to pay extra for the fire. In these establishments the landlady could provide meals for extra payment, as well as doing the cleaning, usually with a kitchen-maid, char or skivvy to help her. Food was a preoccupation of the fictional characters who lived in this manner. Walter Besant’s The Story of a London Clerk (1890) advises buying a spirit stove and kettle to be able to do one’s own cooking ‘without the expense of a bedroom fire’.[11] Jerome K Jerome’s Paul Kelver (1902) followed the same practice:

My first lodging was an attic in a square the other side of Blackfriars Bridge. The rent of the room, if I remember rightly, was three shillings a week with cooking, half-a-crown without. I purchased a methylated spirit stove with kettle and frying-pan, and took it without.[12]

This novel also gives copious details of the economics and furnishings of a rented room, and the shifts employed by the poorer tenants to get cooked meals. Whether these were true, or embellished, as has been suggested above, Gissing’s details were broad enough to suggest a basis of truth, and they correspond to other descriptions.[13] In The Good Comrade (1907) Silberrad uses the example of the nearly destitute Johnny Gillatt, elderly, pathetic and incompetent, who sinks lower and lower in the lodgings scale, until he finally moves to a single room where there is only one electric bar for heating and none of the furniture has a complete set of legs. He buys his meals ready-cooked from cookshops, and eats them there, or brings them up to his room. He possibly only has one meal a day, even though he pays his landlady for supper: the struggle to receive what one has paid for from the landlady, particularly food of a decent quality, is a common trope. The eponymous heroine of Silberrad’s novel Rachel and her Relations (1921), who has to move from one poor-quality room to another as her money dwindles, is described as ‘a girl alone, getting her meals at tea-shops and such places, what can you expect? Especially now when everything is so dear, and she, I daresay, pinching herself to save … It isn’t reasonable to expect her to have decent meals’.[14]

<9> If the proprietor of rented rooms lived off-site, the rooms appear to have been less respectable than a private house where the landlady lived in and worked directly for the tenants. Such a slippage in respectability, and responsibility, was measured in class terms as well as in the weekly rent. A similar difference between a boarding-house and lodgings, two kinds of room-renting establishments which were commonly synonymised,[15] appears to have been that boarders paid for their meals and ate in, communally, whereas lodgers ate out at their own expense, although this distinction appears to be very fluid. Since neither lodgings nor boarding-houses were registered, unlike the very low-grade ‘common lodging-house’, the distinctions between them were uncategorisable. Essentially, to have a live-in landlady was to be higher up the social scale, and consequently more expensive, but also to have more supervision, or interference, depending on which way one looked at it. 

<10> In Silberrad’s 1909 novel Ordinary People, a repellent and relentlessly genteel professional chaperone, Mrs Cavendish Wallop, ‘was at present living in a boarding-house at no great distance from Earl’s Court’.[16] The location and style of her lodgings is relevant to her professed gentility, and real lack of a genteel income. Charles Booth’s coloured maps of London from seventeen years earlier, showing social class and relative income, indicate that the Earl’s Court area was ‘middle-class/well to do’ or ‘upper and middle classes /wealthy’.[17] The temporary nature of Mrs Cavendish Wallop’s lodgings, so near, but also, through litotes, quite far, from such a desirable area, emphasizes her unsatisfactory, ‘not quite’ character.

<11> Once we have reached the same social scale as ‘board residence’, we are in the territory of accommodation for hire that would be advertised commercially, rather than being let via a card in a local shop window. Competition for rooms, especially after the war, could be fierce. 

Another girl had the room now. Or, rather, she had engaged it but not yet come into residence –- one had to engage a room when one heard of it in these days and not wait till one was ready for it, if one required it in any special district. Miss Anderson had engaged this room, and, no doubt, paid for the privilege of reserving it till she came into occupancy.[18] 

The pages of advertisements in the Times show the very wide range of rooms on offer to the middle-classes and upwards. They could range from ‘London hotels’, ‘British resorts, spas and hotels’, ‘private hotels’, ‘foreign resorts and hotels’, ‘nursing homes and hospitals’, to ‘apartments and board residence’. The latter category was further subdivided into ‘London and suburbs’, ‘paying guests’, ‘wanted’, and then ‘seaside and country’, ‘paying guests’, ‘wanted’ and ‘continental’.[19] These show the upper section of the accommodation market, and indicate that the market to be reached was national rather than local, but also from certain social classes, who would be expected to be able to afford The Times. The upper-class version of rented rooms was serviced rooms, or, in the interwar years, a serviced flat, where meals were sent up from a restaurant or the in-house kitchen, and residents were waited on by their own staff.[20] The names of the different types of ‘rooms’ for rent indicate the class connotations, and the quality available, whereas the service provided for all ‘rooms’ is essentially the same. But at this point we have moved beyond ‘rooms’ that were lodgings, and have arrived at the hotel. We need to return to rooms as a site of transience and aspiration, not well-heeled convenience.

Women in lodgings

<12> An interesting change in the market for rooms at the end of the Victorian period was that middle-class women began to live on their own in lodgings. The population was increasing, and the changes in office technology and in business practice meant that more single people worked in offices, shops and other urban centres. Social changes allowed more young women to take employment and live away from the parental home. Jane Hamlett’s study of Victorian and Edwardian living spaces has a useful section on the boarding-house business for middle-class girls,[21] which is helpful to delineate the habitation of the middle-class student, not covered here. The respectable lodging-house inhabited by single working women became a symbol of first the New Woman, and then of the Edwardian Bachelor Girl. Such women, who were earning a living or attending training classes, became a marker for the upwardly emergent lower middle classes. Silberrad’s character Desire, deciding to train as a typist after she has had to leave her step-mother’s house, attends such classes while living in rooms, and is slow to realize that her upper-class status, her looks, and her privileged attitudes, egalitarian though they are, will bar her from getting a typist’s job.[22] The National Association of Women’s Lodging-Houses provided ‘decent’ lodging-houses for women working in offices and shops, as described by Mary Higgs and Edward E Hayward in 1910.[23] These young women in ‘rooms’ had moved from what Charles Booth called ‘poor’ or ‘comfortable’ surroundings, or into the city from the suburbs, with the financial support of parental allowances, a job or a scholarship. Substantial sections of Silberrad’s third novel, The Success of Mark Wyngate (1902), are set in a women-only apartment block called Bachelor’s Buildings in an invented location somewhere near London Bridge, on the same social scale as suburbia, but housing women living independently. Silberrad intended these bachelor girls to represent lower-class values and standards, as a contrast to her heroine Judith, who is of a higher class and of much higher intelligence, but they are more lively and interesting than she is. Judith’s brooding Gothic presence is a risible contrast to the more realistic and sympathetic voices of the bachelor girls: they and their lives are practical, with a brisk openness to economic and social realities. They represent an unquenchable energy, and a celebration of the novelty of life in lodgings in modern London.

<13> The proprietors of rooms and boarding-houses, at the seaside as well as in town, were usually women. Although their reputation was frequently reproduced in contemporary culture, such as seaside postcards, as ‘ogreish’,[24] in real life landladies were neighbours and could be friends. In the late Victorian period whole streets of south London were dominated by establishments called synonymously ‘lodging-houses’ and ‘boarding-houses’, catering for the genteel and the clerking classes. A recorded encounter between a former tenant and her Bethnal Green landlady describes the latter as ‘an elderly, very jolly woman … Mrs France had been her landlady in the first rooms her Mum had got for her’.[25] This warming and positive portrait of a real-life landlady of the working-classes also informs us about the personal nature of referrals into ‘rooms’, especially for women.

<14> The landlady is important in the study of lodgings, and domestic housing generally, because she was dominant in the family economy. She was also a contradiction in status: an active businesswoman and yet also a servant. She was a householder catering for the respectable itinerant, wielding economic autonomy and domestic power. Landlady types included ‘spinsters struggling to keep up appearances on limited income from inherited investments, or widows trying to make ends meet in the manner to which they had become accustomed’.[26] The voices of historical landladies have been rarely recorded, which make Silberrad’s imaginative retellings so informative. In her fourth novel, Princess Puck (1902), the energetic but penny-pinching Polly Haines rents a house in Bayswater and plans to take lodgers. 

I have thought about boarders, but that won’t do; you want more capital for a boarding house; besides, boarders are a nuisance, nor do they really pay so well as lodgers, though of course they sound much better. We need not tell people here that we are letting lodgings; we can say we are taking a few paying guests, because we could not get a house small enough for just our two selves. … Our lodgers will probably be men, very likely young city men’.[27] 

Polly is completely au fait with the social tightrope she is walking here, but it is interesting to see that she uses three synonyms for tenants in one short piece of dialogue (boarders, paying-guests, lodgers), and confuses her own definitions between them. Silberrad may have been unsure of the difference, or there may have been no difference in practical terms. A further social gradation is introduced here by ‘paying guests’, who were conventionally friends or relatives, or recommended persons, received into a private home as a long-term visitor, but paying for their meals and lodging. There were unlikely to be more than one or two in such a home, whereas a boarding-house might have five or six boarders, as might lodgings. 

<15> Six years later, in Silberrad’s novel Desire (1908), the landlady is depicted as depressed and apathetic. 

Miss Barton was a somewhat dreary person; interested in nothing, not even her lodgers’ business, and enthusiastic about nothing, not even her own. … she let lodgings to superior people, generally the poor superior who knew something about the other side of the self-same struggle that was hers, but in whom, as in herself, it had begotten drabness and dreariness rather than sympathy. This, possibly, was small deprivation to Miss Barton, for she wanted to hear nothing from them but what they required to eat, to tell nothing to them but whether they could or could not have it, to receive nothing from them but the money which was her due, and to give nothing to them except the service she was paid for.[28]

Later, in Rachel and her Relations (1921), Silberrad draws a portrait of a landlady who is sympathetic, flexible, but not entirely honest, and who has to be treated with consideration. She protects Rachel when Rachel needs a respite, but she will not go so far as to adopt her, or keep her for nothing. The primary message in these three portraits by Silberrad is that being a landlady was a business, from which a living could be earned, but that it could also be a wearing business.

Prestige and respectability

<16> Running a boarding-house was an aspiration to some, and a come-down in the world to others. Silberrad’s Polly Haines enjoys negotiating the social nuances of being an independent businesswoman, and takes care that her cousin and business partner Bill Alardy (a girl), does most of the cooking and housework. Bill acquiesces, because she is unconcerned with social rules, and she and Polly need to make the house a success. She works hard uncomplainingly, though she does not particularly enjoy being a servant because of the boredom. Her social emancipation makes her unconcerned with the conventions that trouble her slightly lower-class associates. Silberrad tests Bill’s relationship with her status-conscious fiancé Gilchrist through her domestic drudgery. He cannot tolerate Bill stepping out of the social level he wants to be in, so, when he forbids her from working as a housemaid and cook, to preserve his pride, she breaks off the engagement with relief.

<17> Ross McKibbin notes that the social prestige of living in lodgings, particularly boarding-houses, was precious, giving as an example a ‘strong feeling against having beds in the parlour … As one of the tenants put it –- “It’s like the lodging houses you used to see in St Jude’s, with the bedstead in the front room”’.[29] Silberrad describes one of the rooms that Rachel and her step-uncle by marriage, Hector Bute, rent in Weldon Street, in Chelsea, as a ‘sitting-room by day and Bute’s bedroom by night’.[30] Weldon Street is thus undeniably shabby, but because it can offer extras to those who can pay, its shabbiness does not diminish its tenants’ class status. Rachel’s neighbour and friend Bellamy Fyfe, a university lecturer, earned enough to rent ‘two rooms to himself and a fire, more or less when he wanted it’.[31] There are thus shades of respectability, based on income, within a lodging-house.

<18> For the lodgers, the prestige of their rented rooms was crucial for their own contentment with their social situation. The right type of housing was supremely important for the middle-classes, upper and lower. After the war ‘there was a widespread agreement amongst the middle-classes about the proper standards of middle-class life. … “there exists a sort of minimum middle-class rent below which non-manual workers cannot find the accommodation they feel to be appropriate” … In order to preserve this standard the lower middle classes were prepared to consume a high proportion of their incomes’.[32] In this respect, London prices made London lodgings much more expensive than anywhere else in the country, and thus much more desirable. In 1911 the Liberal politician C F G Masterman noted that ‘London sets at defiance the generalizations drawn from the normal town areas. House rent is immensely higher. The mean weekly price for two rooms in London is six shillings, in the provinces a little more than one half’.[33] It is instructive that Masterman chose to begin his national house price comparisons with one that everyone could relate to, of renting rooms by the week in London.

<19> Ross McKibbin observes that ‘even though a large minority of middle-class families still rented, home-ownership, in the eyes of contemporaries, more than anything else defined the character of the English middle classes’.[34] Wild notes that one of the characters in Frank Tilsley’s novel I’d Do It Again (1936) is a clerk who would rather live dishonestly and have a better place to live, than live honestly in the condition in which ‘we were living in Camberwell’.[35] A life lived permanently in lodgings, no matter how well-appointed and spacious, rather than living in one’s own home alone with one’s family, was to have failed in some way. J B Priestley’s Angel Pavement (1930) is an example of how we can extend this use of rented accommodation in London, with its minutely definable gradations in moral values discernible in the kinds of rooms rented by each character. Turgis, the character most obviously doomed to a later life of petty violence and possibly prison, lives in the lowest grade of lodgings, whereas Golspie and his daughter, the flashy visitors and swindlers, rent a temporary flat in Maida Vale, whose former association with Edwardian kept women signifies their marginal status, in society and morally. The discomfort the desperately genteel Dersinghams feel in their ‘lower maisonette’ is reflected in their social precariousness in attempting to maintain gentility on a slipping income from a foundering firm.[36] No-one in this novel owns a house, and no-one is secure. These examples from the interwar context suggest why Yates’ essentially upper middle-class heroes found not living in their own homes so traumatizing.

<20> The geographical movement of Silberrad’s characters in these texts is instructive as a way to understand how she may have regarded lodgings, and the concept of a home. There is always a movement from or to London and an invented country town. If specified, the town is in Essex: it is always near enough London by train to count as a commuter town. The London settings are always shabby, or (only in the case of Desire) wealthy but non-specific in location. The London locations also afford independence for the heroine, socially or intellectually. In Princess Puck Bill finds her freedom by breaking her engagement while working as the cook and housemaid in Bayswater. In The Success of Mark WyngateJudith finds intellectual freedom in London, where she is free to work, and learn, and pursue a scientific problem for the joy of research. In The Good Comrade Julia finds freedom when she passes through London to Holland, and when she returns to find a legacy, but this most self-possessed of heroines is more concerned with finding freedom for her father. For him, a London ‘boarding-house would be moral extinction’, where he would drink and gamble on no resources. For Johnny Gillat it would be starvation.[37] Desire finds freedom from the social restrictions of her unpleasant step-mother when she moves to lodgings on her own, and also finds her vocation as a partner in business with the man she comes to love. Catherine in Ordinary People finds freedom from her past by returning to London lodgings, and rescues her benighted husband from them as well. Thus it would appear that while the lodgings themselves are not always benign or malign, they are certainly, in Silberrad’s work, sites of change and resolution: they are places to leave.

Class conflicts

<21> I have already referred, unavoidably, to class in connection with lodgings, because different classes had different perspectives on lodgings as a class of housing. In the fiction I am interested in here, the upper classes were written about by novelists who were not of the upper class themselves, and thus their interpretation of what was or was not upper-class behaviour is from the perspective of those who were not of it.

<22> With class affiliation came political stance, particularly immediately before and after the First World War. Edward VIII ‘was as unthinkingly conservative in outlook as ninety out of a hundred young men born outside the working class’.[38] Things got complicated during the First World War. ‘A majority of First World War officers came from outside the traditional “officer class”, and … the largest single element came from what [C F G] Masterman called “the suburbans” … If the new officer lacked ‘gentlemanly’ qualities it could simply be in the sense of not possessing a private income, not sharing the regular’s interests in landed pursuits, or not having attended a sufficiently exclusive school’.[39] This describes Dornford Yates exactly. He came from a family of provincial lawyers, but was educated out of his class at Harrow and at Oxford, and became an officer in the war (though he hardly saw any fighting). He possessed no private income and thus had to work, a detail he glamorized in his faux-biographical character Boy Pleydell, who is aristocratic to the bone, but also is obliged to work in the sadly impoverished post-war days. Throughout his fiction Yates specialized in venerating the upper classes, and in his thrillers in particular he made a point of representing the social disruption experienced by this class after the war in terms of habitation.

<23> Social disruption was experienced by people being moved out of their rightful class, and up, or down, into a different class: this movement was not usually approved of. An example of such approval in fiction can be seen in Ernest Raymond’s novel The Old Tree Blossomed (1928), which describes a demobbed clerk who is ashamed of the lodging-house and the wife he has returned to, and gravitates back to the officer’s mess. This can also be read as an example of approval of the positive effects of being an officer in the war, of raising standards, expressed in terms of where one chooses to live.[40] In Yates’ fiction, such class movement was unnatural and wrong, because it implied moving in such circles without having earned the right of entry by birth. Such rights could be earned by war service, for example, or the discovery of a titled forbear, but without these fantasy excuses such a character would always have the class of an upper servant. (Even marrying an American was, ultimately, considered to be a little dubious.) Silberrad’s characters were more forgiving and flexible, but also ready to condemn a character for inappropriate class behaviour in terms of their manners. 

<24> One cause of social disruption in post-war society was the change in income caused by altered social circumstances and too few jobs for returning soldiers. Storm Jameson’s demobbed soldiers in Company Parade (1934) are poor, and live in shabby lodgings: one gentleman ex-officer even lives in a poorly-heated caravan because his earnings from left-wing journalism are pitiful. In contrast, another officer, distinctly not a gentleman, is clinging to his Flying Corps post because this assures him a higher level of income and lodgings than he would get as a civilian. Social status was no longer an assurance of earnings. It was also a bar to claiming assistance from the state. None of Yates or Silberrad’s characters in financial need claims social assistance, a sure marker of their middle-class status. ‘In the 1920s, one of the principal organizations of small businessmen, the National Businessmen’s Association, described its constituency as follows: “By ‘middle-class’, for the purpose of this Association, is meant that section of the community (men and women) who, through their financial position, would be ineligible to receive state aid or municipal relief during periods of adversity, and whose incomes have been above and including £250 per annum’.[41] Yates’ heroes would rather starve than beg. It would degrade their class loyalties to accept charity.[42] 

<25> Another income-related cause of this post-war social disruption was a widespread belief ‘that the middle-class had been pauperized … It was the professional and clerical classes whose real income was so unpredictable … the grandees of the old free professions, like law and medicine, were significantly worse off in 1923 than in 1914, while their juniors were significantly better off’.[43] All through his writing career Yates, a former solicitor, was vociferous on the subject of looming poverty for his heroes, and he transmuted this personal terror in his fiction into a more generalized and pathological fear of class conflict.[44] 

<26> The thrillers in which Yates specialised reiterated this melodramatic response, in serialisation and in book form. Ross McKibbin describes the type of books to which Yates’ works belonged as ‘the literature of conflict’, which was ‘was anchored firmly in the early 1920s and the angst which much of the middle class experienced in those years. Class conflict was, directly or indirectly, central to this genre. Such conflict is usually seen by the reader through the eyes of an ex-officer and it is often around his status in post-war Britain that the plot flows’.[45] The ex-officer in financial and housing trouble was also a trope that Yates over-used: ‘the plight of the landed order, as well as that of the bourgeoisie, could be evoked by the members of the officer class threatened by social decline’.[46] But Yates does not invent plausible ex-officer characters. He uses a stock gentleman type, or more inarticulate muscle than brains, who will of course have served as an officer, and then places him in the most socially degrading circumstances that Yates can imagine, in a situation no gentlemen should have to endure: in lodgings. This ordeal is of course a test of character, and also a means of ensuring audience sympathy for the character. The juxtaposition of a lady, or an officer and a gentleman, and lodgings, produced a short cut to empathy that left Yates free to concentrate on plot twists, rather than work harder on that character’s delineation. In his ‘Bricks Without Straw’ (1928) the upper-class Nadège lives in rooms, which are described rather vaguely, as a transient chorus girl rather than marry to obey her greedy mother. She is only rescued by her former lover, now a taxi driver, also reduced to working for a living rather than marry to oblige his father. So maintaining one’s pride, and upper-class codes of behaviour as Yates imagined them, risks a descent into unhealthy and degrading working-class lodgings. Yates himself had lived in serviced apartments during his early career as a barrister, before the First World War, but after the war he speedily found fame and fortune, and moved into his own house, and then left Britain altogether for the south of France. Consequently his descriptions of lodgings are short on interior detail, but very clear about the misery endured by those who had to live in them. He only once drew a positive portrait of a landlady, and it was positive only because she nurtured the hero.[47] 

<27> Silberrad was knowledgeable about the practical realities of lodgings and probably had experience of them herself, or from friends or family, although no records survive to give us any clues on this. She wrote extensively on life in a boarding-house, the economic realities for those who lived and worked in them, and the relief and reassurance caused by having a room of one’s own, even if it was furnished with damaged furniture, smelt of onions and had a wobbling washstand: ‘Not that the onions and the noises unduly troubled her … Rachel was used to unagreeable conditions, far more unagreeable than the present, when she was her own mistress, free in mind and body. She was curiously content in her little bare room.’[48] 

<28> Living in lodgings in Silberrad’s fiction is to live in transience, and to endure impermanence. The characters hope to move upwards and onwards, and the story relates this movement, with the lodging -house the nadir of all their expectancies. But letting, or living in, lodgings, meant independence, for women and men, and this is a very clear advantage in all Silberrad’s writing about lodgings. Even Yates had to admit that there could be a certain freedom in the simple life lived in a rented room, but, tellingly, this only occurs in his most fantastical novel, Stolen March(1926), and the room was in Paris. In all other cases, to live in rooms, without servants, was, literally, purgatory for Yates’ characters. (A tent, or a caravan, did not count, since this was clearly a holiday habitation, even if it was the hero’s only one.) 

<29> Silberrad’s novels Princess PuckThe Success of Mark WyngateDesire, and Rachel and her Relations are considerably more nuanced than Yates’ fiction, since they explore whether lodgings could be a safe female environment. In Ordinary People, Silberrad shows considerable ambivalence about the privacy of living in rooms. Her heroine is exposed to unwanted intrusion by the landlady and her servants and family, to impertinence, and to the noise of the lower-class neighbourhood.[49] These inimical conditions, based on class difference, are used by Silberrad to accentuate her heroine’s unhappiness. Catherine’s natural good breeding is revealed by the vulgarity she shrinks from in her surroundings.[50] Even her wedding is intruded upon by her lodgings. ‘The few mature ladies of the boarding-house who, with the perennial interest of mature ladies in such things, had, uninvited, witnessed the ceremony, went away’.[51] A similar effect is achieved when John, her estranged husband, falls ill in his own lodgings, with no-one to look after him, until Catherine comes, disguised as his secretary, to take care of him. Lodgings are most clearly not a real home, and fellow lodgers are not one’s own family. The villain of the novel, John’s vindictive and manipulative cousin Ada, is cut off completely from the respectable home she had schemed for, as a just punishment for her ill-wishing. 

<30> Yates gave the theme of exposure to the vulgar classes and their housing its nastiest expression in his short story ‘Ann’ (1924). This is a bizarre class nightmare, in which the daughter of an earl marries her father’s groom, and is punished over an interminable day of mingling with her new relatives in their natural habitat (which is utterly degrading to her), ending with the death of her new husband in a street fight. Yates’ vicious demonization of class transgression sets Ann’s punishment in a street of lodgings populated by the London working-classes, in a suburb called Suet. This isn’t strictly London, since it is a seaside resort, but, as Jerry White advocates, between the wars anywhere within reach of London effectively became London, in this case ‘London-by-the-seaside’.[52] We are shown relentlessly that these vulgar and hostile working-class individuals are now Lady Ann’s only family, by her marriage, because she has betrayed her class and can never go back. The setting of lodgings exacerbates her degradation by total immersion.

<31> The poor conditions of lodgings are also used to show the adaptability, practicality, resilience and self-reliance of characters forced to live there. In her books, Silberrad used the period of living in lodgings as a way to show that her characters deserved reward for cheerful and uncomplaining endurance. Silberrad’s heroines do well from their stay in lodgings: Rachel eventually inherits an estate, Bill finds her true love and an estate. Desire, a rich man’s illegitimate daughter, finds love and spiritual equality by moving out of the class that rejects her when her father’s death, will-less, leaves her penniless. Catherine falls in love with her husband, and they have a child, allowing her to forget her dead illegitimate baby. Lodgings are also used as a moral cleanser: in Yates’ ‘Oliver’ (1925), Yates’ couple are purged of their worldly belongings and riches after a financial crash, and have to live in rooms and do their own cleaning and cooking. They rediscover the value of love by being made to work for each other. In several of Yates’ stories and novels the hero is introduced living in undeserved and reduced circumstances out of his class, enduring a lowly life in lodgings with patience and humility, before being released to take action, and gain riches and love. Most importantly, he is restored to his proper place, in the form of a country estate with a beautiful, often rich, wife. Such stability, and rootedness in the land, is Yates’ rejection of the earlier unstable existence in lodgings.[53] It is also blatant wish-fulfillment, and a type of ‘comfort’ fiction that was synonymous with the formulaic platitudes that middlebrow writers were accused of.

What messages were sent?

<32> Yates’ fictional milieu was 1920s gadabout London, and a highly romanticised interwar Europe, where the natural habitat of his characters was secure and unquestioned luxury. His depictions of the urban lodging house, below a certain social level, were automatically locations of horror, degradation, and social humiliation. Silberrad’s characters were also ‘reduced’ to life in London rooms in shared houses, but while her characters aspired to leave these settings through a deserved improvement in their condition through wit, integrity and hard work, her attitude to these ‘low’ locations was affectionate and knowledgeable. Why was there this difference in their approaches? 

<33> They had different messages for their readers to absorb, and profit from. Yates resented class mobility, and his extreme attitudes ossified fairly quickly into a loathing of the non-upper class, the non conservative, the non traditional. Maintaining prewar social expectations was Yates’ primary intention in his fiction. This meant maintaining the class system, and where the different classes ought to live, and, more importantly, ought not to live. He expressed his fears about cross-class movement as a series of threats to the Englishman’s castle. In his fiction the working class and nouveau riche could threaten to move into that castle just as often as the castle’s rightful owners could be thrown out of it, and this represented a threat to the natural order. Lodgings and ‘rooms’ were the natural antithesis to that castle, the worst that could happen to a gentleman. 

<34> Silberrad’s use of lodgings was quite different. She used them to express transience, impermanence, a low period in a character’s life, but also a place of safety, and relative security. The costs were known, there were no catastrophes that the landlady would not deal with, all that had to be found was the rent and money for meals. This was a simple existence, with pared-down requirements that admitted only the present, no thought for the future, and very little for the past. Her protagonists did not stay in lodgings, but many of her minor characters did. Lodgings were thus suitable for some, but not for others.


[1] For more on middlebrow writing and its definitions, see, for example, Rosa Maria Bracco (1990) ‘Betwixt and Between’: Middlebrow Fiction and English Society in the Twenties and Thirties (Melbourne: University of Melbourne); Rosa Maria Bracco (1993) Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Oxford: Berg); Lynne Hapgood and Nancy Paxton (2000) Outside Modernism. The Pursuit of the English Novel, 1900-1930 (Basingstoke: Macmillan); Nicola Humble (2001) The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Lynne Hapgood (2005) Margins of Desire. The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925 (Manchester: Manchester University Press); Ann Ardis (2008) Modernism and Cultural Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); and Kristin Bluemel (ed.) (2009) Intermodernism. Literary culture in mid-twentieth-century Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press). 

[2] See Hapgood 2005. 

[3] Tom Crook (2008) ‘Accommodating the outcast. Common lodging houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Urban History 35: 3, 414-36, 417. 

[4] Crook 414. 

[5] Jerry White (2001) London in the 20th Century (London: Vintage, 2008), 240. 

[6] R A Valpy, ‘Common Lodging-Houses’, in Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, vol 1, , East, Central and South London(London: Macmillan & Co, 1892), pp.205-219; George Orwell, ‘Common Lodging-Houses’ (The New Statesman and Nation, 3 September 1932); Barrie Trinder, The Market Town Lodging House in Victorian England (Leicester: Friends of the Centre for English Local History, 2001); Crook 2008. 

[7] Valpy 1892, 207. 

[8] Wild 65. 

[9] Wild 68. 

[10] Silberrad Desire, 7.

[11] Jonathan Wild (2006) The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880-1939 (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 21. 

[12] Jerome K Jerome, Paul Kelver. A Novel (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1902), 185. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of this article for directing me to this useful text. 

[13] Jerome 1902, see particularly Book II, Chapter 1. 

[14] Una L Silberrad (1921) Rachel and her Relations (London: Hutchinson), 232. 

[15] In the Census records for Eliza Francis, more famously known as Mrs Eliza Warren, editor for nearly forty years of the pioneering woman’s magazine the Ladies’ Treasury, her profession is listed variously as a ‘boarding-house keeper, ‘lodgings keeper’ and ’lodgings’, from 1861 to 1891. See Kate Macdonald and Jolein De Ridder (2010) ‘Mrs Warren’s Professions: Eliza Warren Francis (1810-1900), editor of the Ladies’ Treasury(1857-1895) and London boarding-house keeper’, Publishing History, 66: 5-17. See also Alison C Kay, ‘A little enterprise of her own: Lodging-house keeping and the accommodation business in nineteenth-century London’, London Journal, 28.2 (2003), 41-53. 

[16] Una L Silberrad (1909) Ordinary People (London: Thomas Nelson & Son), 90.

[17] Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, Maps. South-western sheet (London: Macmillan & Co, 1892). 

[18] Silberrad Rachel, 183. 

[19] The Times, 1 March 1932, 2-3. 

[20] See, for example, John Marden’s apartment in Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘The woman in his life’ (1928). 

[21] Jane Hamlett, Material Relations. Domestic interiors and middle-class families in England, 1850-1910 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010). 

[22] Silberrad, Desire.

[23] Mary Higgs and Edward E Hayward (1910) Where Shall She Live? (London: King & Son), reviewed by H Bosanquet, The Economic Journal, 20.79 (Sept 1910) 419-420. 

[24] Ross McKibbin (1998) Classes and Cultures in England 1918-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 49. 

[25] McKibbin 183.  

[26] John K Walton (1994) ‘The Blackpool landlady revisited’, Manchester Region History Review, 8, 23-31, 24.

[27] Una L Silberrad (1902) Princess Puck (London: Macmillan), 128-9. 

[28] Una L Silberrad (1908) Desire (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co), 179-180. 

[29] McKibbin 201. 

[30] Silberrad Rachel, 6. 

[31] ibid 

[32] McKibbin 72, quoting Philip Massey. 

[33] C.F.G. Masterman (1911) The Condition of England (London: Methuen), 88. 

[34] McKibbin 74. 

[35] Wild 160. 

[36] J.B. Priestley (1930) Angel Pavement (London, William Heinemann), 106. 

[37] Silberrad, The Good Comrade, 242. 

[38] McKibbin 6, citing Lady Donaldson.

[39] Martin Petter (1994) ‘“Temporary Gentlemen” in the aftermath of the Great War: Rank, status and the ex-officer problem’, The Historical Journal, 27:1 (March), 127-152, 139. 

[40] Wild 134. 

[41] McKibbin 45. 

[42] See Petter 130.

[43] McKibbin 52. 

[44] McKibbin 54. 

[45] McKibbin 479. 

[46] Petter 131. 

[47] Dornford Yates (1940) ‘Beggar on Horseback’, in Period Stuff (London: Ward, Lock & Co, 1942), 129-152. 

[48] Silberrad 1921, 225. 

[49] Silberrad Ordinary People, 97. 

[50] Silberrad Ordinary People, 124. 

[51] Silberrad Ordinary People, 129. 

[52] White 29. 

[53] Dornford Yates (1925) ‘Oliver’, As Other Men Are (London: Ward, Lock & Co, 1930), 105-132; see also Yates (1937) She Painted Her Face(London: Ward, Lock & Co), Gale Warning (1939) London: Ward, Lock & Co); ‘And Adela, Too’ (1941), in Period Stuff, 197-220. 


To Cite This Article:

Kate Macdonald, ‘The Use of London Lodgings in Middlebrow Fiction, 1900-1930s’.  Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access].