A tender, tragic and darkly comic account of small lives on the margins
Patrick Hamilton was described by J.B. Priestley, in the introduction to one of his best known books, Hangover Square, as one of the best ‘minor novelists’ writing in the interwar and beyond years.
Though for a time his star blazed very brightly indeed, through a couple of stage plays which went on to a broader life as classy, noir films by Hitchcock, Gaslight and Rope, he never quite achieved the enduring fame of a writer like Graham Greene, who also explored what might be called the shadow side of human nature.
Hamilton as a man had his own shadows to wrestle with – alcoholism, and perhaps this was a bulwark against a nature both too tender and too angry. Perhaps his fierce Left politics also began to fall out of favour in the fifties when the Cold War began to bite and many feared reds under the bed.
In many ways his writing reminds me of a ‘minor’ Victorian novelist, who similarly wrote from rage but also from compassion and a humour which was dark and un-cheery – George Gissing.
London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels
Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943 in a suburban boarding house, in ‘Thames Lockdon’ (loosely modelled on Henley-on-Thames) There is a seedy, penny pinching respectability, a po-faced rather right-wing sense of little-England righteousness which stalks the pages and the mean, soulless little rooms of the ‘Rosamund Tea Rooms’. Rosamund is no longer a tea-room. The economies of war have turned the tea rooms into a boarding house, where those of more than slender means have found possibly their final resting places – several of the residents are quiet elderly spinsters or widows.
The central character is Enid Roach – how she hates both her names, and the spiteful sobriquet of Roachy, or even worse, Cockroach, which were hers as a not successful teacher. Miss Roach is teetering on the edge of 40. She is a refugee from London, where she still works as a publisher’s assistant, though to be honest, more of her work involves accounts and clerical duties than reading manuscripts. Bombing flattened her rented accommodation in London; hence she has shored up here, commuting daily.
She is far less grey and nondescript and irretrievably spinster than she thinks. Various onlookers (some of them the elderly ladies and gentlemen in the boarding house) like her ability to be more free-thinking and less petty and insular than many. For example, she leans towards sympathy with Russia, and does not automatically assume that every German is a Nazi. She also has a certain something ‘a rather nice face’ which makes some men see her as not quite past interest.
Unfortunately, the boarding house also contains a horribly blustering and opinionated bully in the person of Mr Thwaites, who embodies everything about little-England righteousness, and an unerring instinct to attack the tender and kind, who don’t have the killer instinct to lash back. His victim, on a daily basis in the nasty boarding house dining room, is Enid.
Two other major movers of the novel’s dynamic are a kindly, heavy-drinking American, one of the ‘over paid, over-sexed, over-here’s, Lieutenant Pike, who has some designs on Enid, and a further nemesis, in the hands of Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman who has lived in England for well over a decade, and has been taken under Enid’s kindly wing, in part because of her degree of being ostracised for being German, but, also for representing, like the Lieutenant, a wider world.
Hamilton captures, beautifully, the narrow world, the thinking processes, the pettiness and the glories of his characters. Although in many ways this is a dark, sad book, echoing Enid’s sad cry:
at last she put out the light, and turned over, and adjusted the pillow, and hopefully composed her mind for sleep – God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us
it is also horribly, viciously comic in its exposure of the nasty, small-minded petty tyranny of the Mr Thwaites of the world, who imagine their spiteful drivel and their pompous utterances against their fellows is ‘bluff humour’ instead of the wearing, pointless savageness of its true nature.
You know’, said Mrs Barratt, I don’t think you really like the Russians, Mr Thwaites. I don’t think you realise what they’re doing for us.’ ….
Mr Thwaites was momentarily taken aback by this unexpected resistance, and there was a pause in which his eyes went glassy.
‘Ah’ he said at last. ‘Don’t I?….Don’t I…Well, perhaps I don’t…Maybe I thinks more than I says. Maybe I has my private views….’
Oh God, thought Miss Roach, now he was beginning his ghastly I-with-the-third-person business. As if bracing herself for a blow (as she looked at the tablecloth), she waited for more, and more came.
‘I Keeps my Counsel.’ said Mr Thwaites, in his slow treacly voice. ‘Like the Wise Old Owl, I Sits and Keeps my Counsel.’
Hamilton is clear where his loyalties lie, and where he wants ours to lie. ‘Thwaiteness’ is not the glittering crime-against-humanity which fills the news, which ‘the silent majority’ may look at, and tut at, in horror, but it is instead, a relentless small spitefulness and viciousness, on a daily basis, which arises out of those small lives, as much as, on the other side, daily small kindnesses may arise from the lives of the nameless.