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By Chryssa Marinou

May Sinclair’s 1915 A Journal of Impressions in Belgium is a record of her time near the Belgian war front. According to Suzanne Raitt, the journal is one of the first wartime diaries published in Britain (163) and describes the 19 days Sinclair spent in Belgium as “secretary and reporter for the Munro Ambulance corps” (Brasme 2). On September 25th 1914, Sinclair “set off with Dr Hector Munro’s ambulance corps, mostly made up of women, in order to provide assistance for the Belgian refugees” (Forster 232). Rich in emotional overtones, the passage registers the arrival at Ostend and the first impressions from the hotel, aptly called the Terminus, in a style that oscillates between the attempt for clinical objectivity and the sarcastic glance of the sophisticated traveller. Isabelle Brasme argues that Sinclair’s text “constantly signals its flaws as an accurate record and highlights its increasing temporal distance from the events narrated” foregrounding its unreliability (5). Whether Ηotel Terminus actually existed under the same name is unclear, yet the precarity and insecurity that Sinclair’s description conveys is impressive:

And we have landed at Ostend.


And we found the bathing-machines planted out several miles from the town, almost invisible specks on a vanishing shore-line. The refugees we met walking about the streets of Ostend were in fairly good case and bore themselves bravely. But the town had been bombarded the night before and our hotel had been the object of very special attentions. We chose it (the “Terminus”) because it lay close to the landing-stage and saved us the trouble of going into the town to look for quarters. It was under the same roof as the railway station, where we proposed to leave our ambulance cars and heavy luggage. And we had no difficulty whatever in getting rooms for the whole thirteen of us. There was no sort of competition for rooms in that hotel. I said to myself, “If Ostend ever is bombarded, this railway station will be the first to suffer. And the hotel and the railway station are one.” And when I was shown into a bedroom with glass windows all along its inner wall and a fine glass front looking out on to the platforms under the immense glass roof of the station, I said, “If this hotel is ever bombarded, what fun it will be for the person who sleeps in this bed between these glass windows.”

We were all rather tired and hungry as we met for dinner at seven o’clock. And when we were told that all lights would be put out in the town at eight-thirty we only thought that a municipality which was receiving all the refugees in Belgium must practise some economy, and that, anyway, an hour and a half was enough for anybody to dine in; and we hoped that the Commandant, who had gone to call on the English chaplain at the Grand Hôtel Littoral, would find his way back again to the peaceful and commodious shelter of the “Terminus.” (Sinclair 4-6)

The hotel seems to be an extension of the railway station reminiscent of the ties between mobility and commercial hospitality. The newly-arrived Sinclair is incisive in her comments about the location as well as the building structure; reading the station and the adjacent hotel as practically merged, she considers the ominous possibility of a potential bombardment and finds that the buildings would be one of the primary targets. On a similar pessimistic note, the glass walls of the hotel room that would, in times of peace, be considered an asset now seem like a deadly trap. The prominence of glass on the inner wall of the room and the “fine glass front” in combination with the “immense glass roof of the station” underscore the fragility of the human existence and overshadow its more common architectural function of visibility. The certain death that would befall any guest caught sleeping between these windows is rather cynically characterised as “fun” perhaps pointing to the likelihood of a generalised de-sensitisation about perishability altogether. Forster acknowledges Sinclair’s ambivalence towards the landscape arguing that “the war had a marked impact on Sinclair’s work” and that, occasionally, “the war-torn Belgium is described as a tourist venue”, while “the spatial images of war-zone and Flemish landscape are awkwardly juxtaposed” (Forster 235).

Even the hotel name “Terminus” echoes the very literal connotations of last stop or end of the line, as well as the metaphorical notions of life’s end, mortality, and death. Yet after the Terminus, Sinclair was to make more stops at hotels, namely, the Flandria Palace Hotel at Ghent, then a military hospital (Sinclair 21, 23) and the local Hôtel de la Poste that accommodated War Correspondents (Sinclair 91, 92). Both these establishments, in turn, foreground the versatility and adaptability of the hotel space to the new social uses produced by the super-imposed condition of World War I. Sinclair’s hotel trajectory in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium is a reminder of both the bleak uses of the hotel space in dark times and the presence of women in the war.

More on May Sinclair’s wartime adventure in Robbie Moore’s “‘Blank, blond horror’: The Hotel as Medical Facility” that discusses the author’s hotel peregrinations in Ghent (Hotel Modernisms. Eds. Anna Despotopoulou, Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Efterpi Mitsi [Forthcoming by Routledge, March 2023])

Works Cited

Forster, Laurel. “Women and War Zones: May Sinclair’s Personal Negotiation with the First World War”. Inside Out.

Leiden: Brill, 2008. Web.

Brasme, Isabelle. Writers at War. Exploring the Prose of Ford Madox Ford, May Sinclair, Siegfried Sassoon and Mary Borden. London:

Routledge, 2023.

Raitt, Suzanne. May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sinclair, May. A Journal of Impressions in Belgium. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915.

Ghent, Belgium.
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher
Date Created/Published: [between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915]Summary: Photograph shows the Graslei on the Lys (Leie) River, Ghent. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011)
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Picture of May Sinclair, 1904. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.



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