Stoic, reserved, calm, dutiful, and determined to know as little as possible about world events, Miss Roach, the chief character of The Slaves of Solitude (1947), might be said to represent a number of the kind of attitudes which were found by many to be necessary for enduring life in Britain during World War II. Patrick Hamilton reportedly coped by lying in bed until the evening, all the while feeding an alcohol problem, which demanded three bottles of whisky a day, and writing plays and novels, which, despite attracting comparison with Dickens in their descriptions of the grime and torpor of wartime suburban Britain, were until recently more or less forgotten. Exactly why his books have been neglected is difficult to discern, as The Slaves of Solitude is an acutely observant, highly readable and evocative novel which sits comfortably alongside much of the work of Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene. It has required a recent renaissance through NYRB Classics re-issues of the Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy and a Penguin Modern Classics and Europa Editions release of Hangover Square (what titles!) for Hamilton to achieve even a fraction of the recognition he ought to be due. Prior to that he was probably best remembered — if at all — as the playwright of Rope, which was adapted into an experimental one-take film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948. As The Slaves of Solitude demonstrates, the legacy of Patrick Hamilton, albeit that of a wretched alcoholic, Stalinist, and misanthrope, deserves to be greater.
The setting is the winter of 1943 in the “half-village, half-town” of Thames Lockdon, one of many of London’s satellite towns and suburbs to which many Londoners moved in order to escape German bombardment. There, lodging establishments such as the Rosamund Tea Rooms, still named by its previous incarnation and “resembling in some features every small establishment of its kind all over the country,” were created and housed selections of people who, due to age or gender or other factors, found themselves experiencing war at home rather than abroad. One of them is our heroine, Miss Roach: 39 years old (“but might have been taken for forty-five”), kind, respectful, and thoughtful.
Most of Miss Roach’s fellow guests are relatively incidental to her story. Each contributes, though, to the oppressive boarding house, described by a fellow guest as “a zoo, containing easily recognised types of freak animals.” Much of the detail which describes the Tea Rooms is of this fashion and seems designed to replicate the kind of restrictions and daily inconveniences that the war necessitated, such as the “stop to electricity on the landings,” one amongst a number of wartime rules gladly enforced by the proprietor, Miss Payne, who, full of thrift and niggardly grudgingness, “succoured her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.” Of singular horror are meal times, where “the hellish prevailing melancholy,” self-consciousness and apathy leads the residents back to their dingy rooms even more subdued than before. The dining room, still set out for pre-war day-tripping families, also exposes Miss Roach to Mr. Thwaites, a boorish, noisy and malevolent sixty-something year old man who accuses Miss Roach of harboring communist sympathies because she brings literature home from London — to where she commutes daily to secretarial work in a publishing house — and on one occasion speaks of her admiration for the fight being put up by Russia against the Nazis.
Mr. Thwaites is a hideous creature, apparently portrayed in such a way as to give the impression that Hamilton wanted to create a simulacrum of every pub bore, dullard, ignoramus, and cretin he had ever come across. A lifetime spent in boarding houses in the company of passive and timid middle-aged females has turned Thwaites’ temperament into one primarily concerned with uncontested low level bullying, antagonism and “lifelong trampling through the emotions of others.” For much of the novel he appears to be present merely as a caricature, but it is upon the arrival to the Tea Rooms of Vicki Kugelmann, a coarse and abrasive woman of German origin, and the alliance she develops with Thwaites, that circumstances conspire to cause Miss Roach particular torment.
The origin of this is Miss Roach’s acquaintance with Lieutenant Pike, an off duty American GI with whom she spends most of her evenings in the River Sun pub, drinking quantities of alcohol with which she is not comfortable. Upon closing time they take riverside walks, where each night they sit on the same bench, he kisses her and her heart begins to glow “in occult collusion with the gin.” Though it would be too far to say that she is dazzled, she is attracted to Pike’s geniality, bright smile, his optimistic vision of running the family laundry business in Pennsylvania after the war and just perhaps the vague possibility of escaping Thames Lockdon and even Britain altogether, what with its “lecturing and nagging [. . .] she was not to waste bread, not to use unnecessary fuel, not to leave litter about, not to telephone other than briefly, not to take the journey she was taking unless it was really necessary.”
“Overpaid, oversexed and over here” was a British quip coined to sum up what was wrought by the large number of American serviceman who spent a considerable section of the war stationed in Europe. To Britain they brought strange accents, the first black skin most people had ever seen, small luxuries such as chewing gum, disposable income and, of course, a desire to ravish as many native women as time allowed whilst the native men were in uniform elsewhere. When Pike begins to ask Miss Roach, “And will Vicki be joining us this evening?” the novel’s path seems set and Hamilton’s willingness to inflict pain on a character towards whom he is respectful and affectionate is fully revealed.
As may be expected, Hamilton spent a great deal of time in miserable, dank pubs. “If ever a man knew the atmosphere and life and ethics of these places,” he said, “it’s me.” He was right. So incisive and succinct are some of his observations that it is easy to imagine him in a pub corner, furtively observing all around him whilst pretending to study horse racing form in a broadsheet newspaper. Many of his characters are at once vivid yet nondescript, for instance the middle-aged Miss Steele, “whose whole manner gave the impression of her having had, without her having had, a past.” This works excellently, chimes perfectly with the novel’s overall tone and leaves nothing more necessary to be said of Miss Steele. This economy and deftness of style is present throughout. There is only one brief reference to Miss Roach’s first name, for instance, which may be read as unusual in a novel which places her emotional state and worldview amongst its central features. Hamilton’s conclusion seems to be, though, that at a time of all-consuming war, circumstances will overcome even the most modest hopes, ambitions and aspirations. Humanity in Thames Lockdon and the many, many towns and suburbs it represents is reduced to simply waiting for it all to end soon and favorably, being sucked into and spat out of London, that “crouching monster [. . .] breathing in its own malignant way,” under the pretense of acting under its own free will, slave not only to solitude, but to a situation wholly beyond its comprehension or control.
The publication of The Slaves of Solitude prompted John Betjeman to claim that Hamilton was “one of the best living novelists, and this is the best book he has yet written.” Doris Lessing said that Hamilton “wrote more sense about England and what was going on in England in the 1930s than anybody else.” This is also a brave novel, focusing as it does on a turgid guesthouse, its irritating guests, and what look like relatively minor inconveniences when set against horrors of war with which, at the time of publication, the public was slowly coming to terms. Hamilton was able to see, however, that though much of the fighting and killing took place largely elsewhere, the war’s effects on the suburbs was to halt ordinary British life, encourage pathetic attempts to anesthetize the senses in vile pubs, create unnatural and unlikely relationships, suspend any sense of individual autonomy and, most of all, create a story impossible in the world of drunks, schemers, crooks, and misfits he inhabited, for him to neglect.