The Boarding House Parlour

As a couple of my previous posts have related, I’m currently writing a new chapter for my monograph on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury that addresses the social and cultural space of the boarding house. A number of fictional representations of Bloomsbury boarding houses appear between the 1830s and the 1880s, which, building very clearly on from one another, allow for the development of kinds of realism that were quite unfamiliar in other more conventional narrative spaces. One particular room stands out within cultural discourse upon the boarding house for the way it seems to provoke especial anxiety (or, indeed, subversive delight) on the part of writers, because it accentuates the social hybridity temporary accommodation heralds more broadly: the parlour or drawing room. When Trollope and Gissing make use of the Bloomsbury boarding house in order to produce innovations in realism, they draw specific inspiration from these reception rooms, finding in them an enhanced social precariousness that crystallises the broader spatial phenomenon they exemplify.

Why might this be the case? The historian Thad Logan, who argues in her The Victorian Parlour (2001) that within the symbolism and practice of the period there is no essential difference between parlours and drawing rooms, suggests that these reception rooms became in this period the heart of the family home, and were loaded with more ideological weight than any other room in the house. If, as so much domestic history has confirmed, the home became unprecedentedly crucial to the production and maintenance of bourgeois identity in the nineteenth century, parlours and drawing rooms were the indispensable constituents of such a socio-spatial formation:

the parlour was the scene…for the performance of middle-class leisure, performances critical to the experience of everyday life. The parlour could not, in fact, be removed without radically changing the meaning embodied in the house, without disrupting the house’s ability to signify “home”. (Logan, 27)

Whereas a lot of earlier work on the centrality of the home in this period emphasised the way domesticity was required to secure a space cordoned off somehow from the street and the social world more broadly, Logan shows how the parlour was central to the production of ‘home’ partly because it faced not only inwards to the family but also outwards to society, through the pervasive rituals of ‘calling’ hosted there. The parlour was not only a complex space within the context of the boarding house. Even in the ideal space of the bourgeois home – occupied by one family alone – it had multiple (and possibly contradictory) functions:

Within the domestic structure of everyday life, the parlour’s function is a complex one. It is the most public space in the house in so far as the reception of visitors is concerned: hence (in part) it is strongly associated with decorative display. Yet the parlour is also an inner sanctum – a room into which tradesmen, for instance, did not venture, a room set aside for the private life of the family members, only tended by servants when specifically called for or before the family had awakened. (Logan, 27)

The ‘public/private’ distinction is present in the ideal domestic drawing room, but it appears in a complicated dialectical form, whereby an ‘inner sanctum’ is secured through the constant rehearsal of socio-spatial codes such as taboos on the presence of servants precisely for the purpose of its occasional exhibition to callers from outside the home. (Logan is helpfully anthropological in her explanation that the practice of ‘calling’ allowed most importantly ‘a carefully orchestrated exchange of intimacies, rather than [simply] conversation’ (Logan, 31).)

Another book published a few years before Logan’s, Elissa Heil’s The Conflicting Discourses of the Drawing-Room (1997) uses a very different methodology but perceives something equally complex about this space in the nineteenth century. Relying heavily on a Bakhtinian theoretical framework, Heil intriguingly picks up on a point made in one of Bakhtin’s essays, published in English as part of The Dialogic Imagination (trans. Holquist 1983), which demonstrates his recognition of the parlour as one of the most central literary chronotopes of the period:

In the novels of Stendhal and Balzac a fundamentally new space appears in which novelistic events may unfold – the space of parlors and salons  (in the broad sense of the word)…In salons and parlours the webs of intrigue are spun, denouements occur and finally – this is where dialogues happen, something that acquires extraordinary importance in the novel, revealing the character, “ideas” and “passion” of the heroes. (Bakhtin quoted in Heil, 15)

Heil, though somewhat held back by an over-schematic approach to her subject, makes a good case for the drawing room as an exceptional space within the home, in which, for instance, the woman was a kind of ‘queen’, enjoying a kind of ‘ownership’ that was denied her elsewhere. In part because of this gender exceptionality, and in part, relatedly, because of the way the room ‘houses both the public and private spheres’ (Heil, 20), the drawing room or parlour becomes a ‘decisive space’ within fiction, ‘where encounters and dialogic confrontations’ (Heil, 20) can occur:

The drawing-room sets the stage for personal and social conflicts – for a balance between private need and public obligation – and becomes a testing ground for characters put on social trial. As one of the only meeting places where the forms of propriety entitle women to meet men on an almost equal footing, the drawing-room is charged with infinite possibilities for the making and breaking of relationships, for the acquiescence to and challenging of established societal mores. (Heil, 21)

Returning to the boarding house, what happens when the already complex social space of the ideal family home’s drawing room or parlour is wrenched from its domestic setting and re-inserted into the worryingly hybrid, fluid, even contingent mess that was multiple occupancy accommodation? For one thing, the dialogic qualities Heil discerns are amplified, and the social conflicts she discusses in terms of gender are complicated by the very distinctive additional presence of class difference. In short, the boarding house parlour or drawing room is ‘charged with [still more] infinite possibilities for the making and breaking of relationships’, in that the social mix of characters it enables tends to even more subversive levels of potential equality.

If parlours in general are dialogic spaces (as the etymology, from the old French, ‘to speak’, insists), boarding house parlours enable a still more (apparently) anarchic discourse to take place. Gathered together in one space from all over the city, nation or empire, and representative of different classes and genders, the boarders metaphorically cross borders (if you will) when they engage in conversation in the boarding house parlour. It is the social permeability of these spaces that attracted writers such as Dickens, Trollope and Gissing, who wanted to energise their plots with something new, and in the process, took realism further than it had gone before.

Writers often allude to this social permeability through their depictions of the literal physical permeability of boarding houses, the functionalities of whose rooms were not always as separable as could be desired. As the following testimony illuminates, published in an article entitled ‘Wanted, Apartments’ from Temple Bar in December 1864, even before anyone opened their mouth to converse, boarding house parlours were redolent of seepage and mixture, of matter out of place:

‘I have rung the changes from Pimlico to Camden Town; I have tried stuffy parlours, where the smell of blankets oozes through the folding-doors, and the flavour of bed-tick asserts itself in every dish. I know the second-floors, where there is no bell, and where the meaty miasma from the dinner of the man below mocks the unsubstantial herring at your economic tea.’ (‘Wanted, Apartments’, Temple Bar Dec 1864 p85-88)

In my readings of episodes from Dickens, Trollope and Gissing that occur in the parlours and drawing rooms of Bloomsbury’s boarding houses, I connect the materiality of that oozing ‘through the folding-doors’ with the social and cultural blending and blurring these spaces allowed.


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