an orgy of ennui

Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton

Literary fame is an odd thing. Apparently in his day Patrick Hamilton was a major writer. An Amis or McEwan. Critics and readers both eagerly anticipated his next novel.

Then he was forgotten. Swiftly and comprehensively. He became unfashionable. He became out of date.

In recent years of course he’s had a revival. I wouldn’t quite call him well known, but there’s been an excellent BBC adaptation of his 20,000 Streets Under the Sky (seriously, it’s very good) and his books are back in print. He’s being read again, and referenced as the important London writer that he was.

Slaves of Solitude is the second Hamilton I’ve read. Previously I’d enjoyed the marvellous Hangover Square; a novel with one of the most memorable femme fatales in fiction (the marvellously hateful Netta) and a convincing portrait of the attractions of fascism to small minded people.

Hangover Square was written in 1941. Slaves of Solitude, Hamilton’s next novel (though he had written several before Hangover) was written in 1947. Unlike Hangover Square, however, Slaves of Solitude is actually set during the Second World War.

Hamilton was a master of depicting an England that thankfully is now mostly extinct. It was an England of seedy boarding houses, of genteel want and petty proprieties. It was an England in which one of the few escapes was the local pub, but even that was all too often filled with bar-room bores and drink in any event made a dangerous escape route from tedium.


In Slaves of Solitude Hamilton shows all of that and shows too as a writer exactly what he’s capable of. Miss Roach, a former teacher now working in publishing, lives in the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the London suburb of Thames Lockdon. Like many, she has fled the dangers of the blitz. She commutes into London each day, and each night is disgorged from Thames Lockdon station to find her way by torchlight (the blackout’s in full force) back to her lodgings.

The novel opens with a wonderful image of London as a crouching beast, breathing in commuters in the morning and exhaling them in the evening. It’s a sort of hell, with Thames Lockdon perhaps a sort of heaven by comparison.

Seen closer it’s clear it’s no heaven. The Rosamund Tea Rooms are run by a Mrs. Payne who has converted an unsuccessful teahouse into a somewhat dismal boarding house. The residents are mostly middle aged and elderly, telephone calls must be taken from Mrs. Payne’s room (which she sees no reason to vacate at such times), meals are had together at set hours and existence is ordered.

Mrs. Payne had put a stop to electricity on the landings simply by taking all the bulbs out – thus succouring her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.

Mrs. Roach is a ‘hopeless’ woman. Hopeless in that she is now in early middle age (by the standards of her day), unmarried and with no prospect of marriage. Life in The Rosamund Tea Rooms is for her a perfect hell. Hell because the small community is dominated by a bully and a bore by the name of Mr. Thwaites. Nobody writes bores as well as Hamilton.

Thwaites dominates all conversations. Meal times are a mix of heavy silence and Mr. Thwaites holding forth. To make things worse, he has taken a dislike to Miss Roach and baits her at every opportunity with sly references and insinuations which upset without giving anything concrete to respond to.

So ghastly is Mr. Thwaites that at meal times Miss Roach does not just wait in fear of his attacks on her, she waits in fear too of everything he says because the sheer pomposity of it makes her skin crawl.

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.’
Miss Roach, shuddering under the agonisingly Thwaitesian remark – Thwaitesian in the highest and richest tradition – knew well enough that there was more to follow. For it was a further defect of Mr. Thwaites that when he had made a remark which he thought good, which he himself subtly realised as being Thwaitesian, he was unable to resist repeating it, either in an inverted or a slightly altered form. He did not fail to do so on this occasion.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I Keeps my Counsel, like the Wise Old Bird … I Happens to keep my Counsel … I Happens to be like the Wise Old Bird …’

He gets worse from there, more excrutiating.

Things pick up when an American lieutenant, briefly dining at the Rosamund, takes an interest in Miss Roach. Like the Americans in Britain generally, he comes flush with confidence and money to a tired place filled with the hopeless and people desperate for something to give them hope. He doesn’t know anything of the customs of the Tea Rooms, and he wouldn’t care if he did. Just by being there, he changes everything.

The development of these relationships (among others, other characters grow in importance as the novel develops) is what drives the plot. The battles, mostly one sided, between Mr. Thwaites and Miss Roach are wonderfully realised. Her romance with the American too. His dream is to return home and to make it big in the laundry business. But is that a world the rather literary Miss Roach could make a home in?

The American is a chance of escape, perhaps to America but even if not at least a chance of escape to the local pub which women are increasingly becoming comfortable entering. The pub here is transformative, a place apart from the dreary constancy of wartime privation. A bubble of light and cheer in an England blacked out for fear of bombs.

This is, I understand, the only wartime novel Hamilton wrote. The war here is in one sense far away. There are no bombs in this novel, no battles. In another sense though it’s ever present. The characters are only in Thames Lockdon because of the war. Mr. Thwaites only has Miss Roach in his power because of it. The war here is not exciting or even particularly frightening, rather it is a constant drain that affects every part of life. The war:

…was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, day by day, emptying the shelves of the shops – sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, papers, pens, and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, wool from the drapers, glycerine from the chemists, spirits and beers from the public-houses, and so on endlessly – while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room from the trains.

It’s not wholly flawless. There are times, thankfully rare, when Hamilton’s sentences overreach themselves (I’ve no problem with a character “in whom street corners actually stimulated loquacity” but it’s a hard line to read). When it happens it’s a little jarring but it didn’t happen often. I mention it really only for completeness.

In the end, Slaves of Solitude is a genuinely excellent novel. It’s characters are memorable; it’s depiction of wartime England is vivid (if I can use that word for something so grey) and the almost surreal heights of the awfulness of the Rosamund Tea Rooms somehow make it all the more credible. There is a sense that perhaps the Tea Rooms are not hell after all – they are not even that dramatic. Rather they are purgatory. They are an interminable waiting room into which Miss Roach has fallen.

John Self of The Asylum has also written up Slaves of Solitude, here. He also has a review of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky over at his. Both are worth reading.

Slaves of Solitude. Mine is the Constable and Robinson edition, which is excellent and which has equally excellent forewords by Doris Lessing and Michael Holroyd. There’s also an NYRB edition, which I haven’t seen personally but which can be purchased here.

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27 Comments

Filed under English Literature, Hamilton, Patrick, Personal canon

27 responses to “an orgy of ennui

  1. I have this one on my shelf (the NYRB version), so I plan to get to it one of these days. I have a weakness for novels set in boading houses as the setting allows various types to be thrown together. I enjoyed Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse very much and intended to get back to Hamilton. Does it have any humour in it?

    BTW check out the cover for Alan Brownjohn’s Window on the Moon. It’s the same scene taken from a slightly different angle.

  2. Like Guy, I had had Hamilton marked down for the future. Thanks for the reminder — once I get through the press of new books on hand, I’ll get him on the agenda.

  3. It has humour, certainly, but it’s not a funny book. Quite grim in places.

    The small bullying is perfectly captured, which in places makes it quite ugly. There’s a petty viciousness to some of the characters. Thwaites, until the war, thought Hitler was helping clear Germany up…

    The Brownjohn cover is the same scene. One for the Caustic Cover Critic perhaps.

    Kevin, if you do this isn’t a bad one to start on. Both John and I started first with Hangover Square, which is also excellent but the premise (a man who has blackouts in which he becomes essentially sociopathic) is a bit far fetched.

    As long as you’re fine with the premise though Hangover Square is an excellent starting point. Good enough for me and John anyway.

  4. it reminds me must read another of his books ,read 20000 a couple of years aqgo and loved it ,he seems to sum up a seedy side of london so well ,bars and lonely people in a great metropolis ,he needs to be rediscovered he is better than amis and mcewan in some ways ,20000 seemed unforced writing and from amis and Mcewan there books sometimes seemed a little forced almost shoehorned into a situation just to write the book about it ,all the best stu

  5. That’s his great strength Stu, he conjures up that loneliness among vastness tremendously well.

    I actually rate him as better than Amis and much better than McEwan (who I don’t much like), though that’s obviously personal taste. They were really just the comparators that occurred to me. The Doris Lessing piece in the edition I read is interesting on his career and how he dropped into anonymity.

    The tragedy of course is how many great writers have suffered the same fate, without being brought back to our attention. Right now on second hand piles there are books by authors none of us have heard of which are genuinely excellent. I’m quite certain of it.

    To paraphrase an old saying, few books are undeservedly remembered.

  6. It does make you wonder what is required to stay about as a writer ,talent dosen’t always seem a deciding factor in staying about ,agree there are many forgotten gems in secondhand shop ,sometimes its just taking a chance on someone and finding a gem ,all the best stu

  7. I’ve been meaning to read Hangover Square for a long time, although I don’t recall when, where or by whom it was recommended to me.

    I am incredibly interested in the idea of writers discussing war without depicting it – or rather, depicting the atmosphere that war creates as opposed to the literal circumstances of war.

  8. LaurencePritchard

    I’d been staying at a friends for a few nights in London and woke up one morning, hungover, and the friend was waving Hangover Square at me. I read it later. It was superb. Excellent characters – did Netta say she likes the Nazis at one point? It’s said in a very casual way and all the more chilling for it.

    Is it too much to see a double-meaning in the title? That the threat of war is ‘hanging over’ London.

    Great to see a revival of interest in his work. Will definitely check out Solitude and 20,000

    Another thought: drinking heavily, threat of terrorism, chasing ideals – sounds a bit like contemporary London to me …

  9. Another writer from not so very long ago who has slipped into obscurity. Verso Book are reviving John Berger at the moment and the one I am reading, Corker’s Freedom seems to have quite a bit in common with Slaves of Solitude- the seediness of post-war London particularly. Early William Trevor also has similarities perhaps.

    Funny how the “spinster” character seems to have disappeared from modern fiction – single women these days are seldom so limited in their ambitions and interests as the “spinster” used to be.

  10. GB Steve

    I started to watch 20,000 SUTS but couldn’t get into it. The characters just looked so young. I should probably give it another go. I’ve got a biography of Hamilton but I’ve been reading Kersh instead. His Night & The City is excellent, and possibly a bit more racy than Hamilton.

  11. leroyhunter

    I agree it’s an excellent novel Max, and you bring out the qualities I admired perfectly. Thwaites is truly monstrous. And there are some nasty surprises lurking in the “other characters” you mention as well. I think having also read Hangover Square I can honestly say Hamilton is a great writer: 20000 Streets is on the TBR shelf, being saved. I know you (or was it John Self?) also praised Julian Maclaren-Ross, who I associate with Hamilton and would like to get to some day.

    I like the point about the Rosamund being a surreally awful place – it reminds me of the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink.

    “Nobody writes bores as well as Hamilton.”
    Hmm. You should look at some of Flann O’Brien’s stuff – it might make you change your mind on this. His collected columns (The Best of Myles) has a section simply entitled Bores, which I think is a pretty good primer on the subject. The mixture of humour, outrage and despair with which he describes his targets takes some beating.

  12. leroyhunter

    It must have been the Asylum where I saw Maclaren-Ross reviewed; he’s not on your category list.

  13. Leroy,

    My originally planned name for my blog was Of Love and Hunger, but on blogger where I started out it was already taken.

    It was John’s where you saw it written up, but it’s one of my favourite novels. It’s superb.

    I’ll come back to the other comments shortly, but I have to dash for now.

  14. Stu, I think talent needs a helping hand from blind luck. I’ve certainly no better answer than that myself.

    Brendan, having seen your blog I’d be delighted to see your take. Certainly it’s the sort of thing that from looking at yours I think you might find interesting.

    Laurence, Netta and her friends are barroom fascists. I think she does say she likes the Nazis, certainly it’s clear she’s the type to. For Hamilton fascism has its true home in petty-minded people fonder of certainty than understanding.

    You might be right about the title actually. I hadn’t ever thought of that. I think it has multiple meanings but that may well be one of them. Perhaps too the war is the hangover to the morning after of 1930s totalitarianism.

  15. Tom, I have that. I broke my no review copies policy for it since I was going to buy it anyway (I’ll make that clear when I finally write it up). Interesting to hear of similarities, but of course they were writing to similar realities.

    I haven’t read any William Trevor and should. Where would you suggest starting?

    Steve, it wouldn’t be hard to be racier than Hamilton. There’s not a lot of on screen action in that sense, his interest is far more in impotence and frustration. I’ve not read any Kersh either. He’s another forgotten writer in a sense isn’t he? Night and the City, I’ll look it up.

    And I forgot to say earlier, I should have known my assertion that nobody writes bores like Hamilton would be soon proved (proven?) wrong. I’ve heard Flann O’Brien’s superbly funny, is that right?

  16. Night and the City:

    “At the height of the 1930s Depression, Harry Fabian pursues his dream of becoming the top wrestling promoter in London, making money by pimping, blackmail, and scams that send him spiraling ever further into the depths of depravity and immorality.”

    Well, I just have to read that.

  17. leroyhunter

    O’Brien’s a genius in my book, and yes, he’s fantastically funny. Joyce said of him “That’s a real writer with a true comic spirit” – which was nice of him considering how frequently O’Brien pulled the piss out of him in print.

  18. Max – re William Trevor I’d go for Felicia’s Journey

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Felicias-Journey-William-Trevor/dp/0141044624/ref=sr_1_17?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1283364947&sr=1-17

    or watch the film with Bob Hoskins in the lead role – brilliant.

    I didn’t know about your policy of not writing about review copies. I only write about them when I think they’re really good – with the one exception of the Perfect Nazi which annoyed me enough to get my keyboard rattling

  19. Thanks for the recommendation Tom.

    It’s not a moral thing the policy, it’s just that practically the odds on my being offered something I want to read (given I tend to read older works when I read literary fiction) are quite low. The Berger was an unexpected exception – a reissue of an older work by a writer I was recently very impressed by.

    Having a policy saves on the potential awkwardness inherent in saying no to people.

  20. I have the NYRB edition — I bought it on impulse [I have not heard of Patrick Hamilton before, sadly] mostly because I trust the publisher, plus the copy appealed to me. That said, I had the impression that this was one of those darkly comic novels. A little sad, but a little quirky. Kind of a lighthearted Richard Yates, if there is such a thing. I mean, the copy ends with “…one of the finest and funniest books written about the trials of a lonely heart.”

    So thank you for the review. Please know that I’ve bumped it up the TBR stack. You made the book sound so much better than the voices in my head when I bought this on a whim. Me and my tendency to love all things grim.

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  22. In a similar vein, can I suggest “London Belongs to Me” by Norman Collins, another writer who once sold millions and is now forgotten.

    http://resolutereader.blogspot.com/2007/11/norman-collins-london-belongs-to-me.html

  23. Norman Collins, that name vaguely rings a bell. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check out your thoughts.

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  26. shigekuni

    Excellent review this. I LOVED the book, reviewed it at the time, too, I think.
    I have never read another one of his books though. Must do this now. *heads over to amazon*

  27. Gosh, I’d forgotten how good the comments I got here were. Funny that Steve recommended Night and the City. I forgot that too (consciously anyway, it probably loitered somewhere in my mind). He was quite right about it.

    Shig, try Hangover Square. For real fun you could always read it against Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open for two of the most chilling female characters in fiction.

    The Norman Collins is huge but definitely on my list. Thankfully there’s a kindle edition. Lifting a hardcopy would probably risk breaking my arm.

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