Patrick Hamilton is one of those mid-20th century writers who is forever in danger of being forgotten. His books slip in and out of print, so we are fortunate that – for the time being – his best works are all readily available. Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky are in a (larger branch) bookstore near you in Penguin and Vintage Classics respectively. And just recently, his last great novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947) has been reissued, in the UK by Constable & Robinson, and in the US by New York Review Books.
Hamilton was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver and who at the time of writing The Slaves of Solitude was, according to his brother, getting through three bottles of whisky a day. This seems to have been his optimum working level, because The Slaves of Solitude is pretty much flawless and the best of his work that I’ve read.
It is set in Hamilton’s favoured milieu, the grim and grimy streets of the wrong parts of England: sticky pubs, notorious parks and down-at-heel boarding houses. Much of the action (and it’s mostly verbal and psychological) takes place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where a disparate bunch of loners and misfits are staying during the second world war. The Rosamund Tea Rooms – no longer tea rooms but a boarding house – is in Thames Lockdon, a “half-village, half-town” at the end of the line outside London, “a place to pass through, above all,” which speaks poorly for those who end up lodged there.
And Hamilton does love nothing more than to speak poorly of his characters. For this reason The Slaves of Solitude will not delight everyone – lovers of Richard Yates are probably a good bet, though – and readers who find themselves ground down by relentless cynicism and misanthropy may not get on with it at all. But it’s terrifically funny while doing all this, and Hamilton’s winking, sly character portraits are a joy, as of the central character Miss Roach:
She had, she knew, the complexion of a farmer’s wife and the face of a bird. Her eyes, too, were bird-like – blackly brown, liquid, loving, appealing, confused. Her hair was of a nondescript brown colour, and she parted it in the middle. She was only thirty-nine, but might have been taken for forty-five. She had given up “hope” years ago. She had never actually had any “hope.” Like so many of her kind – the hopeless – she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.
Or her (first) adversary Mr Thwaites:
In his large, flat, moustached face (with its slightly flattened nose, as though someone in the past had punched it), in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call the “bully”. That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly’s wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy’s wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him now as he looked as Miss Roach; it never entirely left him. He had money of his own and he had lived, resounded through private hotels and boarding houses all his life. Such places, with the timid old women they contained, were hunting grounds for his temperament – wonderfully suited and stimulating to his particular brand of loquacity and malevolence.
And it is the conflict between Miss Roach and Mr Thwaites (and later, others) which drives the storyline of the book. But what Hamilton manages is to make these scenes simultaneously horrible, very funny (Mr Thwaites’s pretentious use of language is a particular comic highlight) and eventually highly involving. Even those of us who don’t care for whether or not a book has characters we care for, will find ourselves rooting for Miss Roach as the final conflict approaches. And given all that has gone before, the ending is somewhat surprising too.
In addition the book contains scattered fine snapshots of life in wartime. The blackout material around the “Open” sign in a pub makes it look like “a waterside brothel instead of a healthy public house”; the conscripted soldiers in the village who would tramp by but “said nothing, giving expression to their slow sorrow and helplessness in their boots”; the wartime newsreels with “a curiously menacing voice, threatening to the enemy, yet admonitory to the patriot, and on one tireless note.” The blackout also neatly reflects Hamilton’s pitch-dark humour and world-view. Well, alcohol is a depressant, after all.