36. The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton
Lizzy Siddal and I agreed to do a readalong of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (1947) when I realised that we both had recently got copies – I bought it off the back of a recommendation from my friend Rhona, and I am hugely indebted to her, because Hamilton is an incredibly good writer, and The Slaves of Solitude is a great novel. It is often hilarious, but somehow also increasingly bleak. As you can see, it’s straight onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. It’s not often that you can tell from the first paragraph that a novel will be brilliant, but almost from the first word of The Slaves of Solitude, I knew I was onto something special.
It’s 1943 in Thames Lockdon, a rather dreary suburban town in which 39 year-old Miss Roach (we don’t learn til about halfway through that her unwelcome Christian name is Enid) has found herself, since she’s been bombed out of her flat in Kensington. She is forced to live in a boarding house, inaptly named the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but it might as well be the third circle of hell. I know I quoted this section in an earlier post, but I’m going to do so again – this is the paragraph which made me certain that Hamilton was a writer of no small talent, and that I was in for a treat with The Slaves of Solitude.
As she let herself in by the front door she could in the same way see the Rosamund Tea Rooms – the somewhat narrow, three-storied, red-brick house, wedged in between a half-hearted toy-shop on one side, and an antique-shop on the other. She saw its bow-window on the ground floor, jutting out obtrusively on to the pavement; and above this, beneath the first-floor windows, the oblong black wooden board with faded gilt letters running its length – “The Rosamund Tea Rooms”. But now, since the war, it was the Rosamund Tea Rooms no more – merely, if anything, “Mrs. Payne’s”. Mrs. Payne would have taken the sign down had not the golden letters been far too blistered and faded for anyone in his right mind to imagine that if he entered he would be likely to get tea. All the same, a few stray people in summer, probably driven slightly mad by the heat, did still enter with that idea in mind, and quietly had their error made clear to them.It was the word ‘half-hearted’ that did it. So few writers would have picked that word, there, and it creates such a perfect image.
There can be few places described as dispiritingly as these Tea Rooms. The guests creep miserably around the house, obeying the notes which proliferate:
Mrs. Payne left or pinned up notes everywhere, anywhere, austerely, endlessly – making one feel, sometimes, that a sort of paper-chase had been taking place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but a nasty, admonitory paper-chase. All innovations were heralded by notes, and all withdrawals and adjustments thus proclaimed. Experienced guests were aware that to take the smallest step in an original or unusual direction would be to provoke a sharp note within twenty-four hours at the outside, and they had therefore, for the most part, abandoned originality.I just meant to write that there were notes, but when I flicked to the page in question, that quotation was irresistible. I have a feeling this review will go in that direction – Hamilton’s writing is just too delicious and perceptive and perfect for me to paraphrase. He is a prose writer par excellence and, even though I’m going to try and make some comparisons, in reality utterly defies comparison. He has the breadth and rich extravagance of Dickens, but the subtlety, nuance and irony of Austen. Reading it is like being in a whirlwind, but also in the calm at its centre. Hamilton never puts a step wrong.
Although we see this horrible place through Miss Roach’s jaded eyes, it is one of her boarding house companions who is most memorable – indeed, as Harriet writes in her review, he is surely one of the most memorable characters of all English literature. His name is Mr. Thwaites and he is the dominant figure in the small kingdom of the Rosamund Tea Rooms. He is in his sixties, but has lost neither energy nor the habit of bullying. Mr. Thwaites is a grotesque, but one who is entirely believable. His hideously affected tricks of speech are recorded perfectly by Hamilton, each a separate anguish to Miss Roach. I hope Harriet doesn’t mind me copying across a section from her review, as the examples she has chosen are perfect; these are Harriet’s words, with Hamilton’s/Thwaites’ in the brackets:
He is fond of substituting the third person verb for the first (“I Keeps my Counsel — like the Wise Old Bird”), is partial to hideous cod dialect (“I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said”), and falls into dreadful and protracted archaisms (“She goeth, perchance, unto the coffee house…there to partake of the noxious brown fluid with her continental friends?”)
Like all great comic nemeses, Mr. Thwaites is both a joy to read and a horror to imagine. He is secretly pro-Hitler, and loathes the Russians – one of the points of attack against Miss Roach, since he willfully misconstrues her silence on the topic of Russians as an all-abiding love for Socialism:
This, clearly, was another stab at the Russians. The Russians, in Mr. Thwaites’ embittered vision, were undoubtedly perceived as being “all equal”, and so if the Germans went on retreating westward (and if Miss Roach went on approving of it and doing nothing about it) before long we should, all of us, be “all equal”. “My Lady’s Maid,” continued Mr. Thwaites, “will soon be giving orders to My Lady. And Milord will be Polishing the Pot-boy’s boots.” Failing to see that he had already over-reached himself in anticipating very far from equal conditions, Mr. Thwaites went on. “The Cabby,” he said, resignedly, “will take it unto himself to give the orders, I suppose – and the pantry-boy tell us how to proceed on our ways.” Still no one had anything to say, and Mr. Thwaites, now carried away both by his own vision and his own style, went on to portray a state of society such as might have recommended itself to the art of the surrealist, or appeared in the dreams of an opium-smoker.
But this hellish existence is not static for Miss Roach. She meets an American Lieutenant and begins an uncertain, meandering relationship with him – which mostly involves sitting next to him at the local pub while they both drink too much, and being nonplussed by his roars of affection or amusement. Miss Roach is plagued by doubts as to whether she should take his intentions seriously or not – alternatively laughing at herself, and wondering what she might miss out on. It is all observed so perfectly, so subtly.
And then there is Vicki Kugelmann. Vicki is a young German woman and a friend of Miss Roach – believed to be shy and unassuming, albeit with ghastly old-fashioned and odd linguistic quirks (“Hard lines, old fellow” ; “Do be sporty!”) – until she is persuaded to move into the Rosamund Tea Rooms. Their quiet friendship develops somehow, as Vicki becomes more domineering and cavalier herself, into a passionate and unspoken hatred. Vicki manages Mr. Thwaites as Miss Roach could not dream of doing; she patronises and frustrates Miss Roach; she flirts with the Lieutenant.
“No,” said Vicki. “That is not me, my dear. I do not Snatch. I do not Snatch the Men….”
Miss Roach was about to say something, but Vicki, still patting her, went on.
“No, my dear. I put him off. Have no fear. I do not Snatch. I am not the Snatcher.”
Then, with a final “No, I am not the Snatcher. Do not be alarmed. I do not Snatch,” the German woman, in a dignified way, left the English one alone in the dining-room of the Rosamund Tea Rooms.
Through the second half of the novel, this battle weaves and wends itself, on many fronts. On the small stage of a boarding house, Hamilton enacts the most impassioned and fierce of antagonisms – but always in miniature, and always in undertones. Anger seethes through the dialogue, but it is quashed by the modes and manners which Miss Roach will not – cannot – relinquish.
I had vaguely heard of Patrick Hamilton, because of his novel Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, but hadn’t heard of The Slaves of Solitude. (Actually, a search of my inbox shows me that ‘Anonymous’ mentioned it on this post back in 2009 – thanks, whoever you were!) Why? But why? Hamilton is a great writer, and this is a great novel. It is so rich; so filled with perfect observations and finely sculpted dialogue. (Hamilton was, after all, a successful playwright – amongst his works is Gaslight, later a famous film.) Nothing is over the top; everything is subdued and repressed by the force of good manners and Miss Roach’s enforced calmness. But that makes each line more potent, and each emotion more powerful.
What else can I say? The Slaves of Solitude is unusually, astonishingly good. I could read it over and over again. Instead, I shall move onto the rest of Hamilton’s output – thank goodness there is more, and bless Rhona for introducing me to his genius.