Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude
For the critics who applaud Jane Austen for her witty narration of ‘all the officers’ but denounce her failure to explain the battles in which they fought, there is an antidote a century later in English novelist Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote about the home front but remained entirely involved with the nature of war. The biography provided by the New York Review of Books describes Hamilton (1904–1962) in terms that would be blackly humorous if only they were fictional: ‘His father was a bullying alcoholic comedian and historical novelist; his mother, a sometime singer… In 1927 Hamilton fell unhappily in love with a prostitute… In 1932, he was badly injured and permanently disfigured after being hit by a car… Hamilton died of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure after a lifetime of heavy drinking.’ The sense of tragedy Hamilton inherited is clearly present in The Slaves of Solitude, but is tempered with the sort of wit that is capable of holding in balance the horrors of war and a biting social commentary, making a straightforward story both epic and hilarious.
Set during World War II, this 1947 novel tracks the life and emotions of Miss Roach and her encounters with the other residents of her boarding house. Deftly handled, the apparently inconsequential interactions, short-lived romances, and gossip that ensue eventually become crucial, creating a commentary on the war itself and the concept of the nation-state that allows war to occur. Funnier than one might assume, deeper than this plot description might appear, The Slaves of Solitude also provides a new way of conceptualizing both the nation and the definition of a ‘war novel’.
Driven out of London by the Blitz, Miss Roach has found a temporary home in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, an odious lodging-house that becomes an increasingly claustrophobic setting for a war of social disgraces. However, the book is saved from being a copy of nineteenth century or Edwardian novels of society and manners by the narrator, whose intended intrusions, highlighting the artificiality of the medium, renders the novel inescapably modern. He is, perhaps, too honest in his renderings: in describing Miss Roach, we are told that, ‘Like so many of her kind – the hopeless – she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and so sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel’. This developing character of Miss Roach is the true purpose of the plot, which unfolds around seemingly mundane events: she encourages a friend, Vicki Kugelmann, to stay at the Rosamund Tea Rooms and begins to date American Lieutenant Dayton Pike, who is far removed from the ideal of illustrious heroism. Apparently innocuous, these actions set off a series of changes in the precarious social makeup of the boarding house, causing Miss Roach an undue amount of distress and leading to scandal and even death.
Hamilton is at his most amusing as he creates characters we are clearly meant to loathe. Though it becomes impossible to discern if Miss Roach’s growing dislike of Vicki is justified or merely a figment of her imagination, others lack the complexity that such uncertainty provides, yet make up for this lack with their entertainment value. Seen through Miss Roach, Mr. Thwaites is a definitively odious character, yet his only faults are rudeness and a relative lack of wit, while his forays into self-indulgence are always amusing:
“I Hay ma Doots, that’s all…” said Mr. Thwaites. “I Hay ma Doots…”
(He is not, thought Miss Roach, going to add “as the Scotchman said,” is he? Surely he is not going to add “as the Scotchman said”?)
“As the Scotchman said,” said Mr. Thwaites. “Yes…I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said – of Yore…”
(Only Mr. Thwaites, Miss Roach realized, could, as it were, have out-Thwaited Thwaites and brought “of Yore” from the bag like that.)
Though Mr. Thwaites remains a source of laughter, his true purpose is to shed light on the mind of Miss Roach. Though he may seem only a minor annoyance and an easily-mocked stock character to the reader, to Miss Roach, he is ‘president in hell’.
The ease with which the microcosm of the boarding house, as confined as a Petri dish in a laboratory, is transformed into a wider vision of war is crucial to considering the political importance of a novel that is, from one point of view, only a comedy of manners. The boarding house, and the small town of Thames Lockdon in which it is placed, each expands beyond their actual borders and mapped locations to encompass a personality and meaning, to become actors in the story. The same device is used in describing London, which ‘like every other monster has to breathe... 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.’ The ability of a place to subsume its human population and become an acting entity is woven into the very setting of the novel, reminiscent of later – and earlier – psychogeographers of London. One is never allowed to forget that the tale of the individual Miss Roach is backgrounded by the machinations of a city and indeed a nation-state, an idea that challenges the concept of individual autonomy, a concept so important to the history of the novel as a genre.
The political levels of Hamilton’s writing add to his literary significance and scope, and merit consideration in any reading of The Slaves of Solitude. However, it should be read, imperatively, for pure enjoyment. Many of Miss Roach’s faults are all too familiar to a present-day reader, and the charismatic style of the narrator runs on a fine edge between the humour and tragedy Hamilton had so often experienced, between the absurd humor and painfully true insights. It is the sort of forgotten classic that one may devour in one sitting and that still indicates, at every turn, a deeper level of significance beneath the explosions of laughter it is causing.
– Jessica Morton is a student at Notre Dame, Southbend, Indiana, and a former intern with Poetry Ireland.