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Turkish baths in fiction:

notes on some of the baths that are imaginary,
and on some of the ones that are real

You are here     Saki - The Chronicles of Clovis
Bartlett, Neil - Mr Clive and Mr Page     Thorne, Guy - When it was dark
Galsworthy, John - In Chancery     Waugh, Alec - Kept
Ibbotson, Eva - Morning gift     Wentworth-James, G - A Mental marriage
Moore, George - Esther Waters     Wilson, A N - Daughters of Albion
Rita - The mystery of a Turkish bath    
Doyle, Arthur Conan - Sherlock Holmes     Trollope, Anthony - The Turkish bath
Hornung, EW - The chest of silver     Woodhouse, PG - Psmith in the CityJoyce, James - Ulysses    

The Madonna of the SorrowsYou can print this page -- Click for printer-friendly version

Madonna of the SorrowsSet in London in 1889, a chance meeting in a ladies' Turkish bath leads consulting detective Lady Evangeline St Claire and her lover, Rhiannon Moore, to the murder of a priest, and the theft of a painting that proves to be more than a mere work of art. The Turkish bath is sited in Goswell Road but is not the establishment at number 282 which was open at that time. In fact, according to the author it 'is entirely fictional, a pastiche of numerous Turkish baths of the period, gleaned from my reading'.1

The ladies' Turkish bath was an anonymous grey stone building set between two other nondescript structures, but the door had a stained glass window in it that was designed with a blue crescent moon and a scattering of silver stars. A brass plaque beside the door read, Goswell Road Turkish Bath for Ladies only, prop, Mrs George Urquhart.

The author, Nene Adams, researched her subject very thoroughly, including in her reading David Urquhart's Manual of the Turkish bath and 'tipped my virtual hat to the gentleman by borrowing his name for my proprietress :-)'1 The description of the baths is interwoven with narrative so that by the end of the first chapter we have a very clear picture of the baths.

The vestibule was tiled and spotlessly clean. A brass grill, like those found in banks, was set in one wall. Behind the grill sat a girl with an acne-spotted face who smiled when Rhiannon approached. "Welcome to the safest place for ladies in London. First class service for a crown. Second class, a half-crown. Third class, sixpence," she said. "Entrance for children under the age of three years is a halfpenny. No spirits permitted in the building. No gentlemen allowed within the premises. Soap is provided at no extra charge, courtesy of the Goswell Road Evangelical Society. What is your requirement , miss?"

Rhiannon pays the first class fee and receives a tiny brass star on a loop which she had to wear so the attendants would know that she was entitled to use the moist and dry rooms, the cold plunge, massage, shower and cooling-rooms. In the changing room, a maid helped her remove her clothes, locked them with her bag in a wardrobe, and gave her the key to be attached to her wrist band.

Wrapped in a towel that covered her from armpits to ankles, Rhiannon was led to the dry vapour room, where a continual flow of hot air made the sweat run freely down her body. An effort had been made to give the large space a fashionable Oriental look. Pompeii red and gold and peacock blue tiles covered the floor, walls, and ceiling. The benches were olive-wood and stone, set around the room and in alcoves partially concealed behind plant stands bristling with ferns and aspidistras in Chinese blue-and-white pots.

There were other women here, some lounging in groups and talking, others sitting in solitary splendour, engrossed in magazines or books. A few had gurgling nargileh, the Eastern water-pipe, or were smoking cigarettes. One brave female puffed on an obscenely large cigar. Rhiannon chose an unoccupied spot and sat down, leaning against the wall. The heat was good, relaxing muscles that she had not known were tensed. She stayed until her bones felt melted to jelly, shamelessly luxuriating in the heat. After a while, Rhiannon licked salt from her upper lip and summoned the energy to plod into the moist vapour room, thick with swirling steam.

There were not many women here. She stretched out on a bench and closed her eyes as the languorous warmth drained more tension from her body. After a while, she ventured into the cold plunge and allowed an attendant to help her into the shockingly icy pool. Next, teeth chattering, Rhiannon was taken to a massage room, where a pale Swedish woman with meaty hands pummelled her body, stretched her limbs and rubbed her with oil until she was limp and glowing. A lukewarm shower with a bar of lavender-scented soap revived her somewhat. Rhiannon donned a robe given to her by an attendant and wandered into the cooling room.

This particular paragraph intrigued me because over the years I had found so little written by women describing their use of the Turkish bath. Yet here is Nene Adams relating how Rhiannon, who had been clad only in a large towel, was helped into the plunge by an attendant, clearly indicating that women went into the plunge pool, just as the men did, in the nude. As discussed in an earlier article on this site, I had found no evidence of this practice, yet I too had come to the conclusion that this must have been the case.

So I wrote to Nene Adams asking whether she had come across a source I had missed. She sent me a delightful and amusing reply which I quote at length because her line of reasoning had been exactly the same as mine. She wrote:

Rhiannon going into the cold plunge sans clothing is also purely fictional, though based on…experiences of the sauna here in Holland, which is like the Turkish baths with the steam room and the cold plunge. Here they go naked as the day they were born. I assumed the same might be true of 19th century female bath goers.

Admittedly, there is the question of modesty, but I think from everything I've digested over the years regarding our Victorian ancestors, they didn't have quite the same kind of modesty as we do. Lower class women lived under circumstances that afforded them very little privacy, while middle class, upper middle class and upper class women would not have blushed to be undressed in front of their sisters, maids or dressmakers. It's a question of attitude, I believe. The presence of servants (and bath house attendants would surely have fallen into this category) would have been ignored, much the same as one might ignore a dog being in the room. Servants were invisible, so to speak.

As well, I consider the cold plunge would have been made significantly more difficult if one was draped in a collection of towels or forced to wear a gown (which likely would have become translucent as it became wet anyway, as one would hardly wear a thicker material like flannel). As we know, one doesn't like to linger in the icy water. So Rhiannon went naked, but since there were only women about, I deemed it an acceptable fiction.1

After her icy dip and by now clad in her robe, Rhiannon follows her bath with relaxation, that part of the Turkish bath process which the Victorians so much appreciated.

The cooling room was composed of a large lounging area with couches and chairs; a corridor off the main space was filled with narrow curtained cubicles. The ceiling was ornamented with a stained glass dome that depicted the scantily-clad houris of the Mussulmen's Paradise. Sunlight slanted down through the dome in a blazing riot of colours, predominantly scarlet and yellow and an emerald green that reminded Rhiannon of [her lover] Lina's eyes. A faience-tiled fountain splashed in the centre of the room. At the long mahogany counter, uniformed women busied themselves with samovars and teapots. The air smelled strongly of lemons and mint and sugar.

Rhiannon wanted to rest, so she chose a cubicle and went inside, closing the curtains for privacy. There was a narrow bed with a lumpy mattress, but the sheets were clean and the pillow plump. After a moment, an attendant brought mint tea, served hot and jarringly sweet in the Turkish style, along with a plate of lemony cakes. Rhiannon lay back, fingers laced over her stomach, and blew out a sigh, content.

The Madonna of the Sorrows won the 2006 Independent Publisher IPPY Award—Best Gay/Lesbian. Sadly, Nene died in 2015 at her home in The Netherlands, aged just 48 years.

The Madonna of the Sorrows Nene Adams (Clayton, NC: PD Publ, 2006)

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