The story of an English family who moves to Italy to open a guesthouse, Hotel Portofino is set in the titular coastal town in 1926. People ask me: did I go there to research it? Sadly not. (Blame COVID – I do.) But there’s a lot you can find online nowadays – more maps and photos than any sane person could want – and even more you can read in places like London’s British Library, where I called up long-forgotten memoirs of Anglo-Italian life like Cecil Roberts’ Portal to Paradise (sample quote: ‘It has been said that Englishmen are born with two ineradicable loves – one for the England that breeds them, the other for the Italy that lures them’) and wincingly hilarious travel guides from the period. Without fail these depict Italians as noble yet easily corruptible simpletons who have nevertheless managed, more by accident than design, to produce some of the world’s finest art, literature, and cuisine.
The interwar period, when wealthy Westerners discovered the pleasures of ‘abroad’, is remembered (or misremembered, depending on your viewpoint) as the Golden Age of Travel. Taking advantage of the latest technologies – planes, trains, and automobiles – they crisscrossed Europe in search of exclusive hotels and ravishing beauty spots. If you had the time and the money, you could go skiing in St Moritz then take the Blue Train from Paris down to the Côte d’Azur. From there you could drive along the coast to Monte Carlo for a spot of blackjack before crossing the border into la bella Italia…
Italy was one of the most popular interwar destinations. The barrier island in the Venetian Lagoon known as the Venice Lido became a magnet for the fashion-conscious super-rich. But the Italian Riviera, a crescent-shaped strip of rugged Ligurian coastline studded with pastel-coloured towns, appealed to the prosperous middle classes who valued its quaintness, its beauty, and the restorative comforts of its warm yet fresh climate.
Ever since the seventeenth century wealthy Brits had been stopping off in Italy on their Grand Tours. (Americans, too – see Mark Twain’s bestselling travel memoir Innocents Abroad.) For this reason there was something proprietorial about how comfortable they felt in the country and how readily they colonised certain Riviera towns, opening English libraries and ‘British Shops’ selling Gordon’s gin and Huntley & Palmer biscuits.
Italy also had massive cultural snob value. The merest exposure to its wealth of paintings, frescoes, and historic buildings was held to be improving – an attitude roundly mocked by EM Forster in A Room With A View, published in 1908 and filmed to acclaim by Merchant Ivory in 1985. (Who can forget Judi Dench as writer Eleanor Lavish? ‘A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell…’)
Forster was fascinated by the ‘Italian temperament’ and English responses to it. Although they’re set some twenty years before Hotel Portofino, for research purposes I re-read both A Room With A View and the earlier Where Angels Fear to Tread, about a free-spirited English woman, Lilia, who defies her family by marrying the handsome young Italian man she met on holiday and remaining in Italy.
The free spirit in Hotel Portofino is matriarch Bella. The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she’s the driving force behind the hotel and channels her entrepreneurial zeal into forging a new life in Italy for her family. Her husband, Cecil, is an aristocrat (and a cad to boot) but like many of his kind in the 1920s he has no money. Which puts all the pressure on her.
Their artist son Lucian was badly injured in the trenches. He spent his convalescence reading travel guides to remind himself that a better life might one day be possible. Because this was no longer a prospect anyone took for granted. ‘I do feel that during the war something in [England] got killed,’ wrote Forster on his return home from India in 1922. Many other writers and artists felt the same way, fleeing to Mediterranean countries whose beauty and climate seemed to stand for the opposite of combat. The title of the WW1 memoir Robert Graves wrote after moving to Majorca – Good-Bye to All That – says it all, really.
For a historical novelist, reading novels from the period is the best research you can do, because above all you want your characters to feel real – and novels capture consciousness with a precision no other form can match. Elizabeth Bowen’s 1927 debut novel The Hotel, based on a holiday the Anglo-Irish writer took not far from Portofino, was incredibly helpful in this respect; also in more obvious ways to do with how things looked, what people wore and what the plumbing was like.
Just as useful, though, was a sequence of novels not published until the 1990s – Elizabeth Jane Howard’s bestselling Cazalet Chronicles, which follow the fortunes of a well-heeled English family from just before WW2 until the 1950s. Like Hotel Portofino, the Cazalet books are as much character- as plot-driven. Their use of viewpoint is very revealing, both about the gestalt of family life and the way the most compelling drama often derives from the natural friction between characters rather than the violent contortions of plot.
So no, as it transpired I didn’t need to go to Italy to research Hotel Portofino. But in a COVID-free world would I have wanted to?
Do you really need to ask?
J. P. O’Connell has worked as an editor and writer for a variety of newspapers and magazines including Time Out, The Guardian, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph. J. P. has also written several books, including a novel, a celebration of letter-writing, a spice encyclopedia, and, most recently, an analysis of David Bowie’s favorite books and the ways they influenced his music. J. P. lives in London.