A subtle, tragi-comic tale of a good man undone by adoration, ‘in darkest Earl’s Court’
Patrick Hamilton is a not-quite-forgotten, admired author, who specialised in getting inside the heads of those who were disaffected, on-the-margins, or even, dangerously psychopathic – he was a stage and film writer, as well as author, and responsible for the highly charged, tightly wound, thrillers of sinister psychopathology, Gaslight, and Rope
Hangover Square was one of his most iconic novels. Set primarily in London on the very edge of, and then just at the start of, the Second World War, this follows the fortunes (pretty well unstoppably downwards) of George Harvey Bone, a not quite impoverished, weak willed man with a severe drinking problem, some undiagnosed dissociative mental health problems, and a dangerous 2 year infatuation with a hard, vicious untalented actress.
Bone is an unlikely subject to capture a reader’s compassionate interest, yet he does, because despite the fact that he is someone of a definite wasted life, a bit of a bumbling, naïve and pathetic character, he is nevertheless like a lost and vulnerable puppy, possessed of great sweetness of temperament, despite his irritating flaccidity of purpose
Netta, the object of his adoration, is a beautiful and completely amoral woman, without any charm, wit, intelligence, talent or likeability. Her one asset is her extraordinary beauty, which is clearly barely even skin-deep. Whereas Bone is a marshmallow, ineffectual, likeable drunk, Netta, and her closest crony, louche, spiteful Peter, are hard, aggressive, deeply unpleasant drunks.
The trajectory of the story is George Bone’s worsening mental health problems, and the hopeless infatuation with Netta, who is completely uninterested in George, in any way, except as someone to sponge money from, and exploit.
This should be an unbearably depressing book, but instead, there is a kind of gentle humour in George, a puppyish enthusiasm and a potential for excitement and joy which carries the reader along, despite the awareness of the grim background of war on the horizon, the predictable and nasty leanings towards Fascist sympathies espoused by Netta and Peter, and George’s inability to free himself from the nest of vipers he can, in some ways, clearly see.
Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.
Perhaps Hamilton’s ability to make us feel George from the inside, and care about him, too, comes in part from what must have been a certain self-identification in the writer, as Hamilton himself had a disastrous relationship with alcohol, child of an alcoholic father, he died in 1962 of liver cirrhosis. He was a writer who definitely identified with the underdog, the marginalised, and the powerless in society.
Hangover Square was made into a much altered film, setting it in London at the turn of the twentieth century (hence, completely losing the political background which is an integral part of the book’s darkness) and making George Bone into a composer/musician. Effectually, a much more romantic melodrama, more Hollywood, more clichéd. Hamilton wisely did not buy into the hackneyed cliché of the tortured artist in his book. George Bone a much more everyday, genteel, impoverished, distinctly ordinary person. Weak, but essentially decent.
J.B. Priestley in his introduction to the the Penguin Classics edition of Hangover Square, describes Hamilton as one of the best ‘minor novelists’ writing in the interwar and beyond years. And lest that seems like damning with faint praise, it is I think fair, admiring praise.
However………I should caution anyone who gets this edition, with the Priestley introduction to AVOID reading that introduction if you have never read Hangover Square, as foolishly, in the closing paragraph of his otherwise pertinent and interesting introduction, he reveals one of the major spoilers. (I was re-reading, so not a problem)