Bob, a waiter at the London pub from which Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 novel, The Midnight Bell, takes its title, has saved—from tips, in shillings and pence—eighty pounds. On his days off, Bob likes to stroll past the bank that houses the fortune which, he imagines, will someday enable him to quit the bar and become a writer. But Bob’s plans for the future are disrupted when he falls in love with a young, beautiful, ferociously unredeemable prostitute, Jenny Maples. Unlike Bob, the reader soon intuits that Jenny will wind up with most, if not all, of those eighty pounds. But before we can think “Oh, that story,” Patrick Hamilton has us too busy worrying about Bob—and about his bank account in particular. As the balance drops and drops again to finance generous “loans,” to purchase a new suit, and to pay for a holiday trip to Brighton, we find ourselves anxiously subtracting these increasingly reckless sums from the original eighty as Hamilton evokes (in the reader, if not in his hero) the most upsetting financial panic in literature since Emma Bovary frantically counted and recalculated her debts.
With their intense, and intensely mixed, sympathies for the men and women who haunted the pubs and walked the streets of London’s tawdrier districts just before, during, and after World War II, Patrick Hamilton’s novels are dark tunnels of misery, loneliness, deceit, and sexual obsession, illuminated by scenes so funny that it takes a while to register the sheer awfulness of what we have just read. In The Plains of Cement (1934), the third novel in the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, about the Midnight Bell and its unhappy patrons, Ella, the barmaid at the pub, adores the handsome Bob. But she is insufficiently pretty and manipulative to attract the sort of self-destructive man at the center of Hamilton’s fiction.
Only Mr. Eccles, a patron of the bar, appears to see something in Ella. A nattily dressed older gentleman who spends the first part of their courtship mashing his face into Ella’s and the second phase lecturing her on his many tedious opinions and quirks, Mr. Eccles has snagged Ella’s attention with the hint that he might be planning to propose marriage. Ella knows she cares only about his money, but she is tempted by the most pitiful promise of pleasure. An evening at the theater and dinner at a Lyons Corner House are enough to make her seriously consider the grim stability of a future with Mr. Eccles.
But Mr. Eccles’s fantasies are more immediate and more carnal. At the end of their first date, he decides to collect what’s owed him. When he insists on walking her home, Ella must fend off his advances:
“It was ever so kind of you,” she tried, and since she could shirk it no longer, she turned her head and met his eyes.
“What?” said Mr. Eccles, gazing at her in a hypnotized, semi-squinting way, and all at once she felt his arm round her waist.
His face was now so near to hers that she found herself squinting back. “I don’t know,” she said, blindly, in complete prostration of the intellect.
But this was no answer for Mr. Eccles.
“M’m?” he said, and then, again, as his hold round her waist was made firm, “What?…”
“You shouldn’t be doing this, you know,” said Ella. “Should you?”
“M’m?” said Mr. Eccles. “What?”
Could the unfortunate murmuring man say nothing but “What?” Hysteria would seize her in a moment and she would start giggling.
“I said you shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “Should you?”
“What?” said Mr. Eccles. “What?”…
It was no good. Mr. Eccles was in a trance, and would go on saying “What” till midnight and beyond if left in peace. She definitely would have to leave him.
Ella’s problems are exacerbated when her boss’s young grandson is obliged, by an illness going around his school, to spend a few days hanging around the pub. Bored and out of sorts, the “healthy yet loathsome” child tortures Ella with his intellectual superiority. “Unable to refrain from seizing any and every opportunity to wipe the floor with her,” Master Eric asks if she knows the H2O content of the bottles she’s putting away. (Taunting the hired help is a favorite pastime in Hamilton’s fiction; the snobbish Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce in Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse (1953) jollies up her Irish servant girl by speaking in a fake Irish brogue.)
Sensing a trap, Ella dodges Master Eric’s question, only to have him ask her what H2O is. Ella knows the answer, but as the boy badgers her, she begins to doubt herself. Finally, she says it’s water, but her tormentor still wins when he makes her admit she doesn’t know what the letters stand for. It never occurs to the deeply conventional Ella that it might be possible (let alone permissible) to dislike a child, so she cannot even identify the emotions that their unpleasant exchange has inspired.
Such scenes evoke situations you may feel you’ve observed in life—first dates gone awry, exchanges between nannies and their truculent charges—and yet you cannot recall similar passages in fiction. Hamilton’s novels are unlike anyone else’s, though at moments you catch glints of other writers: Charles Dickens, William Trevor, Henry Green, Patricia Highsmith. In their simultaneously purposeful and almost giddy malevolence, some of his characters recall the principals in Jacobean tragedy, which seems fitting since, in addition to his novels, Hamilton was also the author of two popular melodramas, Rope and Gaslight.
The latter may be one of the few literary titles to have become a verb. “To gaslight” is now commonly used to mean the willful undermining of someone’s sense of reality in order to drive that person mad, a malign scenario often enacted in Hamilton’s fiction. Along with alcohol, loneliness, and romantic obsession, the abuse of power—the small but all-important degrees of dominance conferred by class, gender, status, and beauty—is Hamilton’s great subject. For Hamilton’s heroes, falling in love entails surrendering their autonomy to undeserving women who mistreat their abject suitors, partly because it is the only power these women will ever have, and partly because they enjoy it.
At the start of The Siege of Pleasure, the second novel in the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy, Jenny Maples has just finished breaking Bob’s heart and blowing the last of his savings. Now she looks back on the social and moral descent that began when—poor, alone, dependent on her so-called betters—she worked in the suburbs as a live-in servant, entombed with two ancient sisters and their gaga brother. How little she would have sold her soul for, or, for that matter, her body. A car ride seemed exciting. Tea in a tea shop! A movie! A drink! Especially a drink. Jenny blames her downfall on a single glass of port, which led to another glass of port. Here is how Patrick Hamilton describes alcohol’s seductive and ultimately successful assault on her virtue:
A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around—together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, and a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news.
Much of Patrick Hamilton’s fiction was loosely based on personal experience, a biography that involved considerably more alcohol than good news.
Few literary families (excluding, perhaps, the Trollopes) produced as long a list of books and plays as did Patrick Hamilton’s. Both of his parents were writers, his brother Bruce a prolific novelist, his sister Lalla a singer, actress, and playwright. Patrick’s second wife, Lady Ursula Stewart, a relative of the Earl of Shrewsbury, also wrote and published novels, several of which focused on the unhappiness of women who marry beneath them.
Hamilton’s father, Bernard, was a disputatious drunk whom his wife and children dreaded, a womanizer who squandered the legacy he inherited from his Scottish military clan. The setting of Bernard’s first novel, The Light?, ranged from ancient Egypt to the Battle of Waterloo. For other novels, he chose Danton and Columbus as heroes, and in life he was a passionate admirer of Mussolini. That Bernard’s first wife was a prostitute is worth noting since Patrick’s own fascination with prostitutes would become a theme in his fiction. Bernard’s snobbish, class-conscious second wife, Nellie, the mother of Patrick and his siblings, was the author of two novels, daring for their era, on topics that included erotically frustrated wives. Like her predecessor, she committed suicide. Throughout Hamilton’s fiction, his parents make frequent cameo appearances, thinly disguised as bullying blowhards with military backgrounds and blowsy parvenus who capriciously mistreat their employees.
Born in 1904, Hamilton spent his childhood in and around Brighton and in Chiswick, a western suburb of London, navigating the steep slope of his family’s downward mobility. It’s easy to see why he found a kindred spirit and a literary model in Dickens. He left school at fifteen and briefly attended a commercial college in London, where his sister Lalla was performing on the stage, and where his brother-in-law got him a job as as an actor and an assistant stage manager.
Like several of his main characters, Hamilton knew early on that he wanted to be a writer. His first novel, Monday Morning, published when he was nineteen, takes its title from the day when, the hero promises himself, his life as an author will begin. His second book, Craven House, was set in a boardinghouse much like ones he lived in with his family during periods when they were especially strapped for cash. One of his ambitions, he told his brother, was to describe the hideous existence of prostitutes and servants.
In 1929, Rope, a thriller with marked similarities (a resemblance that Hamilton denied) to the Leopold and Loeb murder case, was a West End hit. That same year he published The Midnight Bell, which was enthusiastically received and sold well. At twenty-five, Hamilton went from penury to wealth and success. “I am known, established, pursued,” he wrote to his brother Bruce. “The world, truly, is at my feet.”
Hamilton’s demons seemed to have pursued him even more assiduously than the admiring world. Over the years, his alcoholism worsened to the point that he was consuming three bottles of whisky daily, an expensive habit in wartime. He spent his royalties on alcohol and on the prostitutes with whom he had ruinous, obsessive affairs. His first great love of this sort was Lily Connolly, who wrote him letters that he gave Jenny to send Bob in The Midnight Bell. In Patrick Hamilton: A Life (1993), Sean French astutely notes the many small edits that Hamilton made in one of Lily’s letters, so that her fictional counterpart would seem less affectionate and kindhearted than her real-life model.
Later on, Hamilton was fascinated by a doctor’s speculation that alcoholism might be an inherited condition. Yet by that point he’d had plenty of reasons, beyond the genetic, to seek solace in drink. In 1932, he was hit by a car that jumped the pavement while he was walking near Earl’s Court Road. He suffered multiple fractures and lost much of his nose. Concerns about his altered appearance may have aggravated the sexual problems that had plagued him since youth. His long first marriage, to Lois Martin, whom he met at J.B. Priestley’s house, most likely remained unconsummated. With characteristic tact, Bruce Hamilton refers to the “the idiosyncratic deviations from absolute normality that Hamilton shared with almost every normal man (though few admit it) and which with him was a mild form of masochism.” Patrick reported to Bruce that his first “unequivocal love-making” followed directly upon his horrified response to seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Rope, with its obvious homoeroticism. That “unequivocal” experience was shared with Ursula Stewart, for whom Hamilton left Lois and began a marriage so tempestuous that he frequently retreated back to the undemanding comforts of Lois’s household. He continued to migrate between the two women until the end of his life.
His political views would become as extreme as his father’s, though at the opposite end of the spectrum. A committed Marxist, he was one of the few members of his circle (a group that included the journalist Claud Cockburn) to remain untroubled by the Hitler– Stalin Pact. After Stalin’s excesses were admitted, Hamilton switched his allegiance to Khrushchev, and in his final years veered to the right and voted Tory.
Eventually, he fell into a depression so profound that in a letter to his brother, he compared himself to a small boy forced by his parents to stand in the corner of a locked and empty room all day and all night for a year. Electro-convulsive therapy abated his depression, along with the last vestiges of his desire to write. In failing health, he consented to experiment with various treatments and cures, yet managed to drink heavily even while in residence at a dry-out clinic. He died of liver and kidney failure in 1962. By the time of his death, Hamilton’s novels were rarely read or talked about.
In recent years, he has been the subject of a documentary produced by the BBC, which also broadcast an adaptation of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. And five of his novels are again in print, for the first time in decades.
One can all too readily find possible explanations for the eclipse of Patrick Hamilton’s reputation. His success as a melodramatist may have been responsible for an occasional, unhelpful reliance on artifice, and for certain antiquated strains in the structure of books such as The Siege of Pleasure and Hangover Square. The darkness of his relentlessly Darwinian vision and the escalating horrors of his protagonists’ debasement can become oppressive. His ambivalence about his characters is frequently extreme; it’s hard to think of another writer who so thoroughly despises the weaknesses of the very same men and women he so desperately and compassionately longs to save from themselves.
At times his view of humanity seems positively Manichaean. Half his characters are consumed by shame and regret while the other half feed on the tender, foolish emotions of the first half. He allows his characters to descend to a level of degradation so low that you might assume they’d hit bottom unless you’d read enough of Hamilton’s work to expect them to sink further as they anguish over every major slight and minor decision. He may be among the earliest authors to chart the infernal arithmetic of telephoning the beloved: when to call, when to call back, how soon to call again.
Hamilton is often seen as the darkly comic bard of alcoholism, but drunkenness was only a subset of what engaged his interest. He was fascinated by consciousness in all its forms, ordinary and altered, pathological and normal. The last writer one might think to compare him to is Virginia Woolf, but in fact the proportion of exterior to interior action in his work is at times reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway, and there’s a similar recognition of how little it requires to send someone hurtling down a rather rocky path of memory and reflection.
Our introduction to George Harvey Bone, the hero of Hangover Square, involves the alarming attacks he suffers, brief neurological blips—perhaps a combination of petit mal seizures and alcoholic blackouts—during which the life around him suddenly stops and turns mute until the action and sound resume:
It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead…. It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. It had come over his brain as a sudden film, induced by a foreign body, might come over the eye.
Hamilton was no less engaged by, and skillful at describing, other psychological states. On the morning after her date with Mr. Eccles, Ella awakes in her bedroom above the Midnight Bell, and we get this account of the shifting moods that so often accompany the start of a new day:
The deceptive juice Sleep, while it no doubt actually reconstructed and refreshed Ella’s nervous resources, always gave the appearance, first thing in the morning, of having wrecked them…. So soon as she was conscious her mind would go stalking anxiously through the debris of yesterday, certain of signs of calamity and wreckage, and seeking to discover what precise shape they had taken, and for what she was to be indicted by herself. Never did she fail to fix upon something to make the jagged worst of, moved by a hateful yet deliberate impulse. As the day wore on the streams of health and positiveness flowed once more in the dried-up channels, and she was her proper self.
When Hamilton’s work is at its best, his preoccupations—consciousness, power, obsession, sex, and social class—converge, and their combined weight gives the fiction a momentum that moves it above the sooty streets of Earl’s Court and the cheap Brighton hotels. Whenever history enters the novels, it’s like a windowshade snapping up, flashing a spike of bright light through the dreary pubs, and showing us that we have been watching something more complicated than the regulars drinking too much and hurting themselves and each other.
Like The Midnight Bell, Hangover Square has, at its center, a man with the bad luck to fall for a woman who does not return his affections. The oafish but fundamentally decent George Harvey Bone is madly in love with Netta Longdon, a beautiful would-be actress who turns out to be shallow, grasping, abrasive, and lazy. The book takes place in 1938, in the shadow of Munich and Chamberlain’s concessions, and though one never experiences George and Netta’s endless pub crawl as a parable, one can’t help noting the gleeful determination with which the powerful trample the weak, or simply those burdened with a functioning moral conscience. Halfway through the novel, we learn that Netta is not merely a parasitical fraud but a Nazi who harbors “a feeling for something which was abroad in the modern world, something hardly realized and difficult to describe.”
This something, which she could not describe, which was probably indescribable, was something to do with…blood, cruelty, and fascism…. In secret she liked pictures of marching, regimented men, in secret she was physically attracted by Hitler; she did not really think that Mussolini looked like a funny burglar. She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts. She was, probably, sexually stimulated by these things in the same way as she might have been sexually stimulated by a bull-fight. And somehow she was dimly aware of the class content of all this: she connected it with her own secret social aspirations and she would have liked to have seen something of the same sort of thing in this country.
As we watch Netta—and Patrick Hamilton—groping to find words for this “something,” Hamilton’s themes begin to seem not merely timeless but modern. His attempt to describe this challenging “something” mirrors our own efforts to understand and explain precisely why the thunderclouds looming above our horizon seem, at the current moment, quite so ominous and threatening.
If the The Slaves of Solitude (1947) is arguably Hamilton’s most formally and emotionally satisfying novel, it’s partly because its setting (“intense war, intense winter, and intensest black-out in the month of December”) enables him to give a deeper sense of a claustrophobic milieu, and partly because its heroine, Miss Roach, is the most sympathetic, resourceful, and complex of Hamilton’s creations. Unlike Bob, Ella, and George, she’s more intelligent than her tormentors and therefore more capable of outwitting their machinations; perhaps one reason that Hamilton allows Miss Roach to prevail is that war (and not erotic longing) is the force that has flung her into their treacherous orbit.
Driven from her London home by the air raids, Miss Roach has found shelter in a suburban boardinghouse, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where she comes into contact with two of Hamilton’s most thrillingly awful bullies: Mr. Thwaites, whose principal weapons are language (he speaks a maddening faux-Elizabethan, faux-Scottish patois) and merciless, hounding repetition, and Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman whom Miss Roach befriends until she learns that there is nothing to which the scheming Vicki will not stoop. Like Netta Longdon, these two have a soft spot for the Nazis. Mr. Thwaites is secretly a “hot disciple” of the Führer, while Miss Roach will have cause to wonder:
Were not all the odours of Vicki’s spirit—her slyness, her insensitiveness—the heaviness, ugliness, coarseness, and finally cruelty of her mind—were not all these the spiritual odours which had prevailed in Germany since 1933, and still prevailed?… Was not this woman one who would, geographically situated otherwise, have been yelling orgiastically in stadiums, supporting S.S. men in their ambitions, presenting bouquets to her Fuehrer?… In fact, if one interpreted Vicki Kugelmann in the light of some aspects of Nazidom, and if one interpreted some aspects of Nazidom in the light of Vicki Kugelmann, were not both illuminated with miraculous clarity?
The answer is, quite definitely, yes. As we read The Slaves of Solitude, the assaults, deprivations, and sufferings occasioned by the war become nearly indistinguishable from the power grabs and petty cruelties that the residents of the Rosamund Tea Rooms inflict upon one another. To fully appreciate the miraculousness of that clarity—the light that the behavior of the amateur bully sheds on that of the bullying dictator—it’s helpful to have read not only The Slaves of Solitude, but other Patrick Hamilton novels, and to know something about his difficult life. With the perspective that such knowledge provides, Miss Roach’s low-key resistance and modest triumph (she manages to rid herself of both Thwaites and Vicki) seem, without ever appearing transparently allegorical or reductive, a major victory, not only for herself but for people like Bob and Ella and George, and for the innocent victims of the private and public incarnations of Netta Longdon, Vicki Kugelmann, and Mr. Thwaites.
At the end of The Slaves of Solitude, Miss Roach, “knowing nothing of the future, knowing nothing of the February blitz shortly to descend on London, knowing nothing of flying bombs, knowing nothing of rockets, of Normandy, of Arnhem, of the Ardennes bulge, of Berlin, of the Atom Bomb,” slips peacefully out of wakefulness into a sort of benign piety:
…At last she put out the light, and turned over, and adjusted the pillow, and hopefully composed her mind for sleep—God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us.
This final benediction seems all the more affecting when we reflect that its author was an atheist with little interest, and less belief, in the efficacy of prayer, in the consolations of religion, or in the power of faith to protect us from a future that we, like Miss Roach, may be better off not knowing.