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.