Monday, April 30, 2012

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Cover image from Harriet Devine

In the introduction to the 2006 Constable edition of The Slaves of Solitude (originally published 1947), the well-known literary biographer Michael Holroyd calls this last of Patrick Hamilton's novels "the most sombre of all." He characterizes the book as a "black comedy of manners," and indeed it has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Holroyd also quite rightly calls this work a "powerfully redemptive novel." It was engaging too; I stayed up half the night to find out what was going to happen.

"This was war late in 1943," reports the impersonal narrator, setting the scene of the novel. Before introducing his protagonist, Hamilton describes London as a "crouching monster" that sucks up suburban people through the train system each morning and and "violently" exhales them back out at day's end.

Very early, we glimpse of the scene of the main action: a boarding house called the Rosamund Tea Rooms in Thames Lockdon, which is a nice pun for the name of the fictitious London exurb.

Miss Roach, a publisher's assistant and former school teacher, is first seen enroute home to the boarding house in the blackout. She has just got off the train after a day's work in London. Leaving the dark station, she hears others "blundering" along in front of her and behind her, using weak torches to light the way.

We get to know this woman well, but do not learn that Miss Roach is called Enid until much later. Her name, when finally uttered, has been shortened to Eeny by "her" American Lieutenant.

Hamilton described his book as a war novel, but he features neither politicians nor generals nor wounded soldiers. Instead, the story is a merciless and clear-eyed portrayal of the insidious psychological effects that war has on ordinary people as it erodes and demeans the human spirit through small but cumulative attritions, privations and losses.

Miss Roach is an intelligent, decent and patient woman. She is educated, and she understands how the war is taking its psychological toll even on those who hear nothing but "the planes going out" night after night. All through the book she is unaccountably bullied and needled by a fellow boarder, an old man with the psychological profile of a mean and immature schoolboy.

Day after day, Miss Roach absorbs his rude and malicious treatment with forbearance.  It is only when she is subjected to further pointless attacks from a completely unexpected quarter that she reaches the end of her rope. By the end of the book, our protagonist has been betrayed by one she befriended. She has also lost control of her temper, and experienced a passing glimpse of romance.

On top of this, she has been obliged to confront two deaths, one of them shockingly sudden, and absorb some unexpected and life-changing news.

Finding herself back in London, with her immediate future uncertain, she checks in for a night at an expensive hotel, then salves her conscience for spending the money by looking with delight at the private bath. She decides to use the tub night and morning to "bathe some of the money back."

Thus washed clean, Miss Roach lies in her comfortable bed at Claridge's. As she composes herself to sleep, the fully omniscient narrator returns to remind us that she knows, "nothing of the February blitz shortly to descend on London, ...nothing of flying bombs..of rockets, of Normandy, of Arnheim, of the Ardennes bulge, of Berlin, of the Atom Bomb."

Meanwhile, now that the immediate causes of her distress have passed, our protagonist finds within herself a vast tolerance. Willingly, she forgives her tormentors, though she is not quite noble enough to regret her small and measured acts of revenge. Before sleeping, this "slave of her task-master, solitude" utters an all-encompassing prayer that is also a plea, "God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us." And so she sleeps and the book ends.

In her introduction to this edition, Doris Lessing also weighs in on Patrick Hamilton, saying he was much read in his lifetime, and forgotten after his death, as even good writers often are. She characterizes his work as an absolutely faithful rendering of the time and place he wrote about.

Hamilton also wrote for the theatre. He was only twenty-five when Rope was produced in the West End. This, along with his story Gaslight, was later made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.

Sadly, the talented Patrick Hamilton was an alcoholic. He died in 1962, aged fifty-eight.

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