The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Had Charles Dickens travelled forward in time, had Muriel Spark travelled back, had they met in wartime London, they might have collaborated on this book.

“London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. 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 of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.”

They didn’t, but Patrick Hamilton was there, and when I picked up this book I quickly realised that he was a far more interesting author than I had expected.

The Slaves of SolitudeMiss Roach worked for a publisher in the heart of London, but she had been bombed out of her room in Kensington a year earlier. She found lodgings in a run down boarding house. An upstairs room with a feeble ceiling light, a slippery synthetic bedspread, curtains that wouldn’t quite meet, and no bedside light.

Such was genteel poverty for Miss Roach, and for the other middle aged women and men who were boarding at the redeployed Rosamund Tea Rooms in 1943.

The worst of the Blitz had past but they were still worn down by the effects of the war.

“The war was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, emptying the shelves of the shops — sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, beer from the public houses, and so on endlessly — while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room on the trains.”

They were also worn down by Mr Thwaites. I could compare him to a villain by Charles Dickens, I could compare him to a grotesque by Molly Keane. He is an extraordinary character: a spoilt attention-seeking child who never grew up and who never seems to have been pulled up on his behaviour; a man who had travelled and decided that facism was the answer to the world’s problems; and a bully whose target was Miss Roach.

Mr Thwaites’ weapons are words, and he declaims, referring to himself in the third person and adopting an extraordinary mix of the arachaic, the anachronistic, and what he believes to be dialect, to glorious, glorious effect.

Miss Roach’s had a friend –  the German born, English raised Vicki Kugelman –
but she would find that her friend was duplicitous and self-serving, and that she would play up to Mr  Thwaites to torment Miss Roach even more.

There was verbal warfare in the Rosamund tearooms, warfare as fierce as anything happening in the world beyond.

It echoed the war outside, very, very effectively.

All of this sounds bleak, and yes it is, but it is made palatable by vivid prose, acute observation, and brilliant characterisation.  There’s a thread of dark humour, that I can’t quite pick out but I know that it must be there for this book to be as effective as it is.

And Miss Roach was a heroine worth holding on to, a quiet, intelligent decent woman. She hung on, holding her position under fire, while others crept around.

Something had to break …

I’d love to say more but I won’t  – actually I can’t – because it is the finest details that make this story sing.

It read beautifully, and  it played out perfectly.

7 responses

  1. Yet again, Patrick Hamilton is an author I’ve meant to read for ages, and managed not to. Must rectify this. Incidentally my copy of Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge uses the cover photo you picture too!

  2. A fabulous review, Jane, and what a riveting opening sentence! Who could resist? I read this book peeking through my fingers, so to speak. It was a tad grittier than my favourite ‘domestic’ stories (you could feel drunk just reading about so much alcohol!) but distance has given me a fondness for it. I’ll certainly never forget it and no doubt will read it again.

  3. One of the best novels I have ever read, and Mr. Thwaites one of the most chilling villains – because (unlike Dickens’s) he is possible, even if a grotesque too.

  4. Looks like I’m in good company with my love of this novel! Just popped over to find your review after reviewing it myself today. It’s an amazing mix of bleak and cringily hilarious, such observation, such exactness!

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