Turkish baths in fiction

         

                           
This is a single frame, printer-friendly page taken from Malcolm Shifrin's website

Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

        

Original illustrated page with notes

                           

 

 
A checklist of  Turkish baths in fiction

This is a basic list of works of fiction known to include references to, or scenes which take place in, a Turkish bath located (mainly) in the British Isles.  Some of these have come from visitors to the site. There must be many more such books; if you know of any please let us know.

It is intended that, in due course, notes on these references will be incorporated in the directory entries for each of the Turkish baths mentioned. This table indicates those which have already been included.

Below the table will be found:
a.  notes on references to specific establishments not yet incorporated in directory entries;
b. notes on references to unspecified establishments;
c. notes on references to Turkish baths in general.

Where no link is indicated, notes will follow in due course.

Page last updated 14 November 2015

 

Author Title

Link

Submitted by

Bartlett, Neil

Mr Clive and Mr Page (Published in USA
   as: The House on Brooke Street)
London: Jermyn Street (92) (See notes)

 

 

a

Matt Houlbrook

Doyle, Conan

The Adventure of the illustrious client (1924)

The Disappearance of Lady Frances
   Carfax
(1911)
London: Northumberland Avenue

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

Galsworthy, John

In chancery (Chap.6: A Summer night) (1920) 
London: Jermyn Street (76) 

 

 

a

Devra Wiseman

Hornung, E W

The Chest of silver (1905)
London: Northumberland Avenue

 

Notes

   

Ibbotson, Eva

Morning gift (1993)
London: Leicester Square (23)

 

a

Devra Wiseman

Jepson, Edgar and Eustace, Robert

The Tea-leaf (1925)

London: Jermyn Street (92 ?)

[fictionalized as Duke Street]

Joyce, James

Ulysses (1922)
Dublin: Lincoln Place

Notes

Image

     

Mansfield, Katherine

Bains Turcs (1913)
   [Unspecified, in France]

 

 

Massie, Allan Change and decay in all around I see
   (1978)
London: Jermyn Street, 92
   
McLeod, Nanzie Tales of the Arlington (1996)
Glasgow: Arlington Street (61)
   
Moore, George Esther Waters: an English story (1894)  b  

Rita (Eliza Margaret J
   Humphreys)

The Mystery of a Turkish bath (1888)
   [Unspecified]

b

  

Saki (H H Munro)

The Recessional (1912)
London: Jermyn Street (76 or 92)

Filboid Studge (1912)
   [General mention]

a

 

 

c

Ellen Jordan

Thorne, Guy (Cyril Arthur
   Edward Ranger Gull)

When it was dark (1903)
London: Jermyn Street (76)

 

a

    

Trollope, Anthony

The Turkish bath (1869)
London: Jermyn Street (76)

Notes

    

Wentworth-James,
   Gertie de S.

A Mental marriage (1926)
Limpley Stoke Hydro
  
[fictionalized as Dimpley Oak]

 

 

a

    

Wilson, A N

Daughters of Albion (1991)
   [Unspecified; fictionalized as
    Miller St Baths]

 

 

b

Devra Wiseman

Wodehouse, P G

Psmith in the City (1910)
London: Northumberland Avenue

Notes

Mark Hodson

Neil Bartlett's Mr Clive and Mr Page (published in the States as The House on Brooke Street) 'takes the reader from the brittle glamour of the twenties into the violent repression of the fifties; from Mayfair dining rooms to the steam room of a gentlemen's Turkish bath' as it describes gay relationships during a period  when they could not be talked about openly.

There are no scenes specifically set in a Turkish bath, though the narrator repeatedly refers to his Saturday visits to a Turkish bath in Jermyn Street as visits to the London and Provincial at Number 76. 

But the London Hammam, owned by the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company, closed just before the end of 1940, only months before the building was destroyed on 17 April 1941 during the London Blitz. So far as we know, it was not a known meeting place for homosexual males. The Savoy Turkish Baths at No. 92, however, was such an establishment and was frequently under police surveillance.

Since the Savoy closed in 1975, two decades before the novel was published, there is no obvious reason for the identity of the baths to have been camouflaged. When this was raised with the author, he wrote that he had wanted to set the story in 'the baths where Rock Hudson was thrown out for importuning in 1952'. However, the newspaper article documenting this incident refrained from naming the establishment, specifying only that it was an 'all-male Turkish Bath on Jermyn Street'.

However, for the general reader, moving the baths a few doors further down Jermyn Street is of no significance since the book itself, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year, is an excellent read and the story continues to exercise the mind long after the last page has been turned. (No pun intended!)

John Galsworthy is one of several writers who take their characters to the Turkish bath in order to relax when under pressure. In Chancery includes one such occasion, when a stressed Soames Forsyte decides to redirect his cabdriver in order to  return to the West End:

The scene he had passed through had gone from him already, what was before him would not materialize, he could catch on to nothing, and he felt frightened, as if he had been hanging over the edge of a precipice, as if with another turn of the screw sanity would have failed him. 'I'm not fit for it,' he thought; 'I mustn't—I'm not fit for it.' The cab sped on, and in mechanical procession trees, houses, people passed, but had no significance. 'I feel very queer,' he thought; 'I'll take a Turkish bath. I—I've been very near to something. It won't do.' The cab whirred its way back over the bridge, up the Fulham Road, along the Park.

'To the Hammam,' said Soames.

Curious that on so warm a summer day, heat should be so comforting! Crossing into the hot room he met George Forsyte coming out, red and glistening.

'Hallo!' said George; 'what are you training for? You've not got much superfluous.'

Buffoon! Soames passed him with his sideway smile. Lying back, rubbing his skin uneasily for the first signs of perspiration, he thought: 'Let them laugh! I won't  feel anything! I can't stand violence! It's not good for me!'

Eva Ibbotson's novel Morning gift is especially interesting because it appears to describe part of a London Turkish bath, that at No.23 Leicester Square, which was stated to have been completely demolished. According to Peter Jackson,

'... in 1936 [the Alhambra in Leicester Square] was completely demolished, together with the house adjoining on the north, and replaced by the present Odeon Cinema.'

But this information came from vol 34 of the London Survey, which states that, 'The site was later incorporated into the Odeon.' However, this seems unlikely. It would be natural for the cinema to be built on the site of the Alhambra, especially since the site, with rear access extensible to Charing Cross Road, would be large enough for all possible requirements without the need to spend additional funds on the purchase of a relatively small additional area. Possibly a re-numbering has confused the authors. A look at the exterior of the present-day No.22 shows remarkable similarities to photographs of No.23 as it was re-built after the 1882 fire.

And additional support for this view is found in a passage in Morning gift where the author describes a meeting which took place around 1938:

In trying to think of a place where they would meet no one of his acquaintance, Quin had hit on The Tea Pavilion in Leicester Square...He had not, however, expected to score such a hit with Ruth who looked with delight at the Turkish Bath mosaics, the potted palms and black-skirted waitresses, obviously convinced that she was at the nerve centre of British social life.

This seems to indicate that there may still be partial remains in a currently inaccessible space. Research is still in progress, and it is hoped that it may be possible to contact the author prior to investigating the site further. Watch this space!

George Moore's youth spent 'in a world centred on racing supplied rich material for the horsy elements in Esther Waters (1894)'. It confirmed the cynicism with which many, at that time, had treated the exaggerated claims made for the benefits to be derived from the use of the Turkish bath in the training of racehorses. Two characters in a pub, Stack and Journeyman, are discussing the racehorse Ben Jonson. Stack asks:

Do you think if they brought him to the post as fit and well as he was the day he won the Ebor that he'd win?

What, fit and well as he was when he won the Great Ebor, and with six-seven on his back? He'd walk away with it.

You don't think any of the three-year-olds would have a chance with him? A Derby winner with seven stone on his back might beat him.

Yes, but nothing short of that. Even then old Ben would make a race of it. A nailing good horse once. A little brown horse about fifteen two, as compact as a leg of Welsh mutton.... But there's no use in thinking of him. They've been trying for years to train him. Didn't they used to get the flesh off him in a Turkish bath? That was Fulton's notion. He used to say that it didn't matter 'ow you got the flesh off so long as you got it off. Every pound of flesh off the lungs is so much wind, he used to say. But the Turkish bath trained horses came to the post limp as old rags. If a 'orse 'asn't the legs you can't train him. Every pound of flesh yer take off must put a pound 'o 'ealth on. They'll do no good with old Ben, unless they've found out a way of growing on him a pair of new forelegs. The old ones won't do for my money.

Rita's The Mystery of a Turkish bath was published in 1888. Rita, the pseudonym of Eliza Margaret J Humphreys, was a prolific writer of light fiction. The mystery is set in a speculative Hampshire Hotel Spa which is not living up to its financial promise.

One is tempted to identify the hotel with the Mont Dore in Bournemouth ( at that time in Hampshire) and which had opened shortly beforehand in 1886. But this theory won't wash as Charles Bartholomew was only called in to  install Turkish baths there in the following year, 1889. However, as Alastair Durie has pointed out there was certainly no shortage of  underperforming hydropathic establishments to serve as a model for the author.

To this establishment come,

besides several ladies who meet to talk in one of the hot rooms, a Russian Princess with a love of  'occult science' and a mysterious past, and a Colonel with a pretty gift of mesmerism. A séance is arranged—with results that are disastrous, not only to the Princess and the Colonel, but probably also to the speculators and their winter resort.

The first three chapters of the mystery are called: The first room; The second room; and, The cooling-room. Only minimal descriptions are given, although a temperature of 110°F is mentioned for the first room. It is remarked that few go into the hottest room and that white robes were worn to bring all classes to the same level. This seems to imply that the hotel (again like the Mont Dore) was also open to the general public. But phrase 'all classes' must here be interpreted in the spirit of the times.

Saki (H H Munro), sets The Recessional, one of the stories in The Chronicles of Clovis, in a Turkish bath in Jermyn Street. But the establishment is not referred to as the Hammam and, since there were two Turkish baths in Jermyn Street between 1910 and 1941,  it is not known which one is the setting for the story. This begins:

Clovis sat in the hottest zone but two of a Turkish bath, alternately inert in statuesque contemplation and rapidly manoeuvring a fountain-pen over the pages of a note-book ...

It is tempting to suggest that the story takes place inside the establishment at No.92 simply because it is difficult to imagine anyone using a pen in a hot room at the London Hammam—but this is pure conjecture.

In a second story, Filboid Studge, no specific establishment is name d, but Saki well observes a frequently found unwillingness to admit going to a Turkish bath for enjoyment.  This influenced many of the advertisements for early Turkish baths—and can still be encountered today.

Spayley had grasped the fact that people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure. There are thousands of respectable middle-class men who, if you found them unexpectedly in a Turkish bath, would explain in all sincerity that a doctor had ordered them to take Turkish baths; if you told them in return that you went there because you liked it, they would stare in pained wonder at the frivolity of your motive.

It is seems quite possible that this attitude originated as a response to early disapproval of the Turkish bath by many doctors who saw its ability to alleviate the pain of sufferers from complaints such as rheumatism as a threat to their livelihood. It was felt that ordinary people should only visit a Turkish bath under the supervision of a doctor. Unfortunately, many patients continued to bathe there even after they were no longer ill. As a certain Dr Richardson remarked of the bath in the austere pages of the British Medical Journal:

From the use of the heated air bath as a therapeutical agent to its use as a social enjoyment or luxury, is a wide step, and a step which I, for one, hold back from taking. It seems to be the misfortune of this remedy, that its administration is for a time attended by a sensation of great pleasure and satisfaction...

Guy Thorne's book When it was dark: the story of a great conspiracy is, according to Claud Cockburn, a 'stew of spicy cunning, gross pomposity, wild melodrama, heavy religiosity, anti-Semitism and acute class-consciousness', and is probably best left unread these days though, with the blessing of the then bishops of London and Exeter, it was extremely popular in its day.

Thorne, like Trollope and Galsworthy, also sends one of his characters to the London Hammam for de-stressing. But unlike Trollope's short story, which describes some of the customs at the Hammam in a gently humorous manner, Thorne's novel describes the procedures in a straightforward way. The author also emphasizes how relaxing it is for those with problems on their minds. No wonder that this excerpt was reprinted in the Hammam brochure until, at least, the late 1920s.

After breakfast, the lunch time of most of the world, he found it impossible to settle down to anything. He was not due at the office that night, and the long hours, without the excitement of his work, stretched rather hopelessly before him. He thought of paying calls in various parts of the West End, where he had friends whom he had rather neglected of late. But he dismissed that idea when it came, for he did not feel as if he could make himself very agreeable to anyone.

He wanted a complete change of some sort. He half thought of running down to Brighton, fighting the cold, bracing sea winds on the lawns at Hove, and returning the next day.

He was certainly out of sorts—liverish, no doubt—and the solution of his difficulties presented itself to him in the project of a Turkish bath.

He put his correspondence into the pocket of his overcoat, to be read at leisure, and drove to a Hammam in Jermyn Street.

The physical warmth, the silence, the dim lights and Oriental decorations induced a supreme sense of comfort and bien être. It brought Constantinople back to him in vague reverie.

Perhaps, he thought, the Hammam in London is the only easy way to obtain a sudden and absolute change of environment. Nothing else brings detachment so readily, is so instinct with change and the unusual.

In delightful languor, he passed from one dim chamber to another, lying prone in the great heat which surrounded him like a cloak. Then the vigorous kneading and massage, the gradual toning and renovating of each joint and muscle, till he stood drenched in aromatic foam, a new, fresh physical personality. The swift dive under the indiarubber curtain left behind the domed, dim places of heat and silence. He plunged through the bottle-green water of the marble pool into the hall, where lounges stood about by small inlaid octagonal tables, and a thin whip of a fountain tinkled among green palms. Wrapped from head to foot in white towels, he lay in a dream of contentment, watching the delicate spirals from his Cairene cigarette, sipping the brown froth of a tiny cup of thick coffee.

At four, an attendant dressed in Turkish costume brought him a sole and a bottle of excellent wine, and after the light meal he fell once more into a placid restorative sleep. 

And all the while the letter from Jerusalem was in his overcoat pocket, forgotten, hung in the entrance hall. The thing which was to alter the lives of thousands and ten thousands, that was to bring a cloud over England more dark and menacing than it had ever known, lay there with its stupendous message, its relentless influence, while outside the church bells all over London were tolling for Evensong.

At length, as night was falling, Spence went out into the lighted streets with their sudden rush of welcome. He was immensely refreshed in brain and body. His thoughts moved quickly and well, depression had left him, the activity of his brain was increasing.

Mrs Gertie de S Wentworth-James sets part of her novel A Mental marriage in another hydropathic establishment which she calls Dimpley Oak. This is based on the West of England Hydropathic Establishment at Limpley Stoke, near Bath, in the mid-1920s.

Clearly, the management of the hydro was not displeased for it included a quotation in its prospectus, remarking that there were also references  in various other novels.  ( Anyone know any others?)

A N Wilson's Daughters of Albion indicates that there were also establishments where some bathers went for a different type of pleasure and satisfaction. 

I was not so naïf as to suppose that everyone attended Turkish baths purely for the enjoyment of steam and heat. The proximity of scantily clad sweating male bodies never happened to be a temptation to myself, but—chacun á son goût. I had never seen any man at the Miller Street baths behaving in a remotely suggestive manner, but for some reason on this occasion, the hand of my near neighbour, even though it was not yet touching me, made me think that I was unquestionably in the presence of a man on the prowl for a sexual partner. It seemed the moment to cross one's legs and fold one's arms.

While there do not seem to have been any totally gay Turkish baths in the British Isles (as there are, for example, in the United States),  there were some  establishments where sexual activity could be found, especially those which remained open all night. Many more were known to be gay tolerant, even if overt sexual activity was (from time to time) discouraged.

It is difficult to discover whether such baths were to be found in the nineteenth century,  but in the 1920s and '30s, though homosexuality was still a criminal offence, there were certainly Turkish baths  where 'men forged a public sexual culture with its own protocols and micro-geography which was remarkably insulated from surveillance and hostility: a functionally private and queer tolerant space in which they could meet friends, relax and enjoy sexual encounters without fear.'

A number of works of fiction mention such baths and it is hoped, in due course, to include them in future notes on the establishments concerned.

                                  

 
 


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The West of England Hydropathic Establishment at Limpley Stoke

Book cover of Rita's The Mystery of a Turkish bath

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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