Like Austen On Acid

It is 1943, and the war ‘which had begun by making dramatic and drastic demands, which had held up the public in style like a highwayman, had now developed into a petty pilferer. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look around without finding something else gone or going.’ So writes Patrick Hamilton in his brilliant, dark novel about the fate of civilians in a time of conflict, The Slaves of Solitude. The observations here are filtered through the perceptions of Miss Roach, who is exactly as she sounds, a respectable, timid, dignified spinster, who has given up on her life, as not least amongst the items the war has pilfered are eligible men, meaningful work and pleasant places to live. Bombed out of London where she works at a publishers (‘slowly but surely another enormous and menacing No was creeping forward – no paper’), she has been forced to commute from Thames Lockdon and rent a room in the existential hell of a boarding house with the misleadingly twee name of the Rosamund Tea Rooms. The intense psychodrama of bored and miserable people acting out on one another is sharply and hilariously described, as Miss Roach struggles to gain a fresh start out of life, one way or another.

The actual war may not feature at all in The Slaves of Solitude, but unarmed combat is engaged in constantly under the cover of the sort of extreme politeness English dining rooms are fabled for. The chief villain is Mr. Thwaite, a retired man with the ‘steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others.’ The boarding house, with its endless supply of reticent women was the perfect hunting ground for his particular combination of ‘loquacity and malevolence’. Mr Thwaites is a dreadful bully, and Miss Roach his favourite victim. His methods are all concerned with dominating the conversation (easily done in the restrained and super-polite atmosphere of semi-strangers) by means of accusing Miss Roach of things she hasn’t done (sympathise with the Russians, in particular) or by delivering speeches in a range of peculiar discourses, including a cod-Scots: ‘I Hae ma Doots, that’s all…’ a cod-renaissance: ‘A fine morning, in Troth… In veritable Troth, a beauteous morning’ and referring to himself in the third person: ‘I Happens to be like the Wise Old Bird…’ Patrick Hamilton was better known as a dramatist than a novelist and you can see why because the dialogue is outstanding; vivid, full of character, often perverse, hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr Thwaites and his language of Troths is the most painfully funny creation in a painfully funny book.

So, there’s poor Miss Roach, forced into endless attempts to deflect Mr Thwaites’ needling, with little else to look forward to in life, when two possible supporters come on the scene. The first is the American, Lieutenant Pike, stationed nearby and dining at the Rosamund Tea Rooms who starts to take Miss Roach down the pub and then on to be kissed in the park, and a German expatriate, Vicki Kugelman, who Miss Roach has befriended and who is to take up residence in the boarding house. Only of course, these two turn out to be false friends with different ways of torturing Miss Roach. Lieutenant Pike is a desperate hedonist, determined to enjoy whatever remains of his days in wartime, drinking himself into a stupor and even out of it again, and Vicki turns out to be the worst of them all, out to steal Miss Roach’s final possessions – her fledgling relationship, her sense of self and her peace of mind.

For me, this novel provided a searingly astute portrait of a sensitive, cautious, introverted mind being pushed beyond its limits by ill-intentioned extroverts. It contains some of the best scenes I’ve ever read of what happens to sober people surrounded by riotous drunks, determined that everyone should ‘join in’ so that they don’t have to face a measure of decent humanity in their pursuit of excess. Between them, Mr Thwaites, Lieutenant Pike and Vicki Kugelman push Miss Roach to breaking point – but when that calamitous moment finally arrives, the outcome is not at all what the reader would suspect.

This is the kind of book in which a great deal is made out of a very little; in essence, not much happens, but that not much is magnified, explored, dissected and scrutinised. It might have been dull, but the superb quality of the prose means that it offers instead a very rich account of timeless humanity. I can’t help but think about books at the moment in terms of Josipovici’s analysis of modernism. On the face of it, this is a simple novel of realism. But the way that moments are slowed down and made to expand over pages, their invisible contents exquisitely detailed, gives it a distinct modernist flavour. Many modernist novels tend towards stasis and suspension because of the underlying conviction that the task of telling a truthful story is impossible. It’s also the neurotic’s mantra – ‘I can’t but I must’. I think that in this case, it is the fault of the war, pilferer of light, hope, happiness and reason, as well as stockings, groceries, cigarettes, places on trains, etc, that produces the requisite neurotic and claustrophobic circumstances. But although this novel is very dark, it is consistently amusing, and it even has an almost-happy ending. I’m very grateful to Simon T for organising a readalong – The Slaves of Solitude had  been sitting on my shelves for a while without any incentive for me to pick it up, and now I’m very glad I did.

17 thoughts on “Like Austen On Acid

  1. One of the enormous pleasures of taking a break from posting but not reading is that when I wake up in the morning there are 10 posts in my google feed reader and the first one is from you! Which is just another way of saying that I enjoyed your analysis very much. I too have been thinking about modernism, and like your point about how this fits in. I look forward to reading it — and I might even have time! xo

  2. How did you miss reading this with the Slaves of Golconda? It’s a good one and I remember enjoying it quite a lot. Mr. Thwaite was quite the domineering character. And Vicki, oh she rubbed me wrong from the start.

  3. Wow, this sounds quite good. I am also a fascinated by what happens to ordinary people during a war, and it’s a little bit of what was on my mind when I wrote The Orphan’s Daughter. He sounds like such a skilled writer – I love the prose you quote about the war going from “highwayman” to “petty pilferer.” Such description!

  4. Lovely post, and this sounds like a good book to read alongside The Heat of the Day–another book in which not a lot happens but it is all endlessly significant. But this sounds a bit more readable, which is not a bad thing!

  5. Wonderful review, Victoria, which captures so much of why this novel is brilliant. Mine has gone up now, too – and, of course, is just as enthusiastic!

  6. I loved this one, too! Mr Thwaite was a character you love to hate–really odious, but the things he came up with–the language was something. I didn’t realize Hamilton was a dramatist, but that certainly explains a lot. This makes me want to read the book again–though I recently bought one of his other novels, so will have to bump that one up the pile perhaps.

  7. I got this one and Hangover Square waiting for me. The urge to “join in”… It is so difficult to say no to “riotous drunks” and other wise btw. Imagine a business dinner and you drink no alcohol. They immediately assume that you had a prolem, are taking tablets or are just an old bore… Didn’t Hamilton die quite young because of his alcohol addiction.
    Your review makes it sound like a book I should read very soon.

  8. Pingback: The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  9. What an intriguing book. From the cover, it looks like a film noir, from your descriptions, it’s a psychological thriller… makes me feel that the seemingly “plotless” story is filled with undercurrents of conflicts and tensions.

  10. It seems like I need to get on a train with some books in order to do some “proper” reading and ride for hours, thoroughly engrossed (and focused) and this book might fall in the train category. I’ve several other “real” books to finish as well including FREEDOM (just.can’t.finish. it) and Mary Carr’s memoirs and I am going to read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW…I am as well as one of Edward Tuft’s books.

    I confess i’ve been away from serious books for nearly two months, not being able to settle down but instead seeking some kind of page-turning amusement in which I only need to dip a toe rather than plunge in headlong. It’s been quite the same with writing. Coming up with little bits of silly things.

    I did, as always, greatly enjoy your writing in this review. It’s always excellent to hear your voice and discussion of a book (and of other things, as well, of course!)

    I’m headed out into the sunshine, with a notebook and pen and hope I do more than just sit there.

  11. Bloglily – oh bless you – you are such a sweetheart. Modernism is an intriguing topic, because it seems to be the last great movement, after classicism and romanticism, to rush through the art world. There is post-modernism, I know, but it’s an offshoot of modernism, evidently!, and so can’t be seen as something entirely new. I’d love to know what you think of this if you read it. It’s a good writer’s book – a masterclass in dialogue (which heaven knows, I could use!🙂 )

    Harriet – I completely agreed with you! Always nice when that happens.

    Stefanie – of course! It was a Slaves pick. I couldn’t think how I’d ended up with a copy of this, but thought it was for a readalong of some kind. Well, I was very glad to get to it in the end. Vicki was a real piece of work!

    Melissa – the prose is exquisite – concise and evocative and clever in a very quiet way. I, too, love social history, and this book, along with Lissa Evan’s Their Finest Hour and a Half have been the best war books I’ve read in ages. I’d love to know what you think of this one if you get hold of it.

    Rohan – definitely more readable that Elizabeth Bowen, and I say that still liking her very much! This is an era of British literature that I don’t know much about – I haven’t read the well-known authors from it, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Olivia Manning. My impression is that they are a bit depressing, but that is a dreadfully unfair sweeping statement! I should read more; I do love the quality of the prose, which is often very elegant.

    Simon – thank you for organising this readalong! I really enjoyed it, and should do more. Reading things in a group is such fun, and it’s lovely when we all agree we loved a book.

    Lilian – every time it’s painful, it also manages to be funny, so it’s well balanced in that way!🙂

    Danielle – oh the big question now is whether I read more Hamilton. I daresay I won’t be able to resist! I’m so glad you loved it too, and couldn’t agree more than Mr Thwaites is a wonderful villain. I also quite want to see Hitchcock’s film, Rope, which was adapted from one of his plays. I never knew that before!

    Jenny – I’d love to know what you think of it if you get hold of it.

    Caroline – nothing is more annoying (to me at least) than being bullied to ‘join in’ to something I don’t want to do. I feel it as an infringement of my human rights! You’re quite right, Hamilton was apparently on three bottles of whisky a day when he wrote this (however did he manage it??). I’d love to know what you think of it when you get to it.

    Arti – how interesting that you should see it in filmic terms like that. It does sort of have noir elements, and psychological thriller elements, although the plot is essentially about friends who become enemies and hate each other more intensely because of that – and how the balance of power plays out between people who are nominally ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. But your comment certainly gave me some interesting new perspectives on the book!

    Oh – my friend, I hear you. Sometimes life just gets in the way of serious reading, doesn’t it? I’ve had long periods when I haven’t had the space in my mind to read anything other than entertaining, easily accessible books, and thank heavens people write enough of those to keep a person occupied and soothed in the midst of chaos. Writing is impossible too, unless there’s a bit of head space to create in. I do hope your time in the garden is productive, and even a few good daydreams and a bit of emotional processing would be considered successful to my way of thinking!🙂

  12. Introverts pushed to breaking point by those who like to think themselves extroverts, pushers of fun and progress are always so interesting. I’ve spent a few years trying to carve out a comfortable balance in my friendships (where I’ll try not to insist people be over enthusiastic about something they’re not up for, as long as they keep to the same rules and we’ll all have a much better time when we’re really feeling into it)but I can well imagine how we’d all pop under the strain if my group of friends were less accomodating.

  13. I couldn’t help but think about Lord of the Flies when I was reading your review. I am always fascinated by how human beings choose to behave when placed in difficult or stressful situations. This seems the perfect sort of book for a book club since I believe there is so much to discuss and analyse about a read like this.

  14. I am glad to see that Patrick Hamilton is still being read and enjoyed. Personally, Slaves of Solitude doesn’t quite have the edge and power of Hangover Square.Verily and Forsooth Thwaites is a superb comic monster but i couldn’t quite square up Vicky Kugelman’s awfulness with her seen as an embodiment of Nazism at its darkest.Netta with her languid erotic dreams of fascism and power is far more convincing and disturbing- perhaps too a little disturbingly mysogynist. Slaves of Solitude is good and a fantastic page turner- but for me Hangover Sqyare is Hamilton’s best.

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