Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

With two bodies of work recently reissued, now is a good time to wonder why novelist Patrick Hamilton is worth remembering.


In December 1956, the poet and architectural campaigner John Betjeman speculated about another English writer in the pages of The Spectator magazine: “I have never heard anything about the personality or appearance or age of one of the best of English novelists, Patrick Hamilton, whose Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, seem to me in the top class of novels. What is he like?” A statue of Betjeman stands in London’s newly reopened St. Pancras station, in recognition of his efforts to preserve the building from being demolished in the 1960s. As for Patrick Hamilton, he is best remembered for being an interwar British writer who demolished himself with drink. The novelist J.B. Priestley, an early champion of Hamilton’s work, described his protégé as “an unhappy man who needed whisky as a car needs petrol.” Since Hamilton’s death from cirrhosis in 1962, his books have struggled to stay in print, and despite the regular appearance of new editions with proselytizing introductions by his admirers, he remains, in the words of one of his three biographers (all of whose Hamilton books are out of print), “an eerie non-presence in modern British literary history.” In his introduction to the New York Review Books reissue of The Slaves of Solitude, David Lodge puts this down to a lack of academic interest in Hamilton’s work, which is “neither modernist nor consciously antimodernist” and contains “no anticipations of postmodernism.” It’s not an entirely convincing theory: by this reasoning very few English novels of the 1930s and ’40s would be read at all.

Patrick Hamilton was born in 1904, the youngest of three children. His father, Bernard, trained as a barrister, but after inheriting £100,000 on his twenty-first birthday he had no reason to practice law. Bernard Hamilton devoted the rest of his life to spending his fortune on mistresses and foreign travel (he combined both interests when he went to retrieve a mistress from Canada) and ignoring the decline in his family’s living standards. The last servants left when Patrick was 12, and his mother moved with the children into the first of a series of boarding houses. He left school at 15, and his brother-in-law rescued him from shorthand typing by offering him a job in a theater as an actor and assistant stage manager. Hamilton’s first novel, Monday Morning, was published when he was 21. (There’s no reason to read it now except to enjoy schoolboyish lines such as, “Have you ever noticed the topping way Betty looks worried about her homework?”) Two more autobiographical novels followed, the first set in a theater, the next in a boarding house. The most successful year of Hamilton’s life was 1929: The Midnight Bell, the first part of the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, was published, and his play Rope began a long West End run. (Hitchcock later turned it into a film.) Hamilton wrote to his brother Bruce about the thrill of success: “It is all a strange Byronic dream. For it is not only the money–it is fame.” Outlining his theory of the novel in another letter, he wrote:

There is only one theme for the Hardy-cum-Conrad great novel–that is, that this is a bloody awful life, that we are none of us responsible for our own lives and actions, but merely in the hands of the gods…. It is all, of course, profoundly true, and bears no actual relation to life whatsoever…. Everybody knows, in his heart of hearts, that it’s a first-rate existence if only one or two things would go right.

During the rest of Hamilton’s life, things mostly went wrong. In 1932, he was knocked down by a car in west London and dragged along the street for several yards. He was lucky to survive and regarded himself as disfigured by the facial injuries he suffered. Afterward he would refer to the accident as “When I was killed.” Hamilton hated cars for the rest of his life, and his fictional villains were usually car owners. Alcoholism ran in the family, and Hamilton had more reasons to drink heavily after his mother, whom he adored, committed suicide in 1934. Bruce Hamilton reckoned that his brother was drinking three bottles of whiskey a day by the 1940s. Hamilton wrote his two best novels, Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947), in this decade, but his complicated personal life distracted him for most of the next; from 1948 until his death, he shuttled between his wife and his mistress (even after divorcing the former and marrying the latter his indecision continued). A self-reinforcing cycle of drink and depression and a drought of professional success led to thoughts of suicide. In 1957 Hamilton underwent a course of electric shock therapy. The depression lifted a little, but he published nothing in the five remaining years of his life.

The characters who stumble through Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky divide into two camps–naïve loners or manipulative survivors–but Hamilton shades the picture by making them take turns as exploiter and exploited. The trilogy’s parts also share a time scheme–the action of the third novel takes place in parallel to that of the first–but each part is self-contained as well. In The Midnight Bell, Bob is a barman at the pub of the novel’s title. He was once a sailor and is working in the pub only until he achieves his true ambition of being a writer. Bob isn’t actually writing anything (a few of his stories have been turned down by magazines) but likes to imagine his future success: “Dreams were his life, were becoming more and more his life, and he worshipped at the shrine of dreams.” Ella, the Midnight Bell’s barmaid, is in love with Bob. She is “clean, practical, virtuous and not without admirers” but invisible to Bob, who finds her “optimistically and irritatingly neuter.” Bob is “a favourite everywhere” and Ella, wondering what he does on his afternoons off, suspects him of an attachment. However, Bob is too wrapped up in himself to find anyone else interesting: “Bob was not unaware of his advantages…. He was, for this reason, supremely sure of being able to get a girl when he wanted one, and so (because Providence has arranged that we may sometimes get what we want but never want what we get) he did not really want a girl.”

Bob’s other source of satisfaction is the £80 it has taken him seven years to save. His self-satisfaction starts to crumble when he meets a prostitute called Jenny and falls in love with her. In a series of meetings she gets him to part with his savings while offering him nothing in return. Bob’s romantic idealization of Jenny may explain his avoidance of sex, the only thing she does seem willing to offer, but it’s impossible to take such a one-sided affair seriously: “So elusive had she always been that he had developed towards her the passion almost of a collector rather than a lover.” After Jenny cons Bob out of the last of his savings, he gets drunk and spends the night in a flophouse. The novel ends abruptly with Bob dismissing thoughts of suicide and deciding to become a sailor again. Hamilton read and admired Dreiser, and The Midnight Bell ends with a passage as awkward and trite as the final paragraphs of Sister Carrie:

The solution–salvation! The sea! Why not? He would go back, like the great river, to the sea! To the sea of his early youth–the mighty and motherly sea–that rolled over and around the earth!… For because of this power of glowing and resolving, and straining still to rise, Bob, weak as he was, revealed, perhaps, something which was far greater than and embraced himself–something which he shared, perhaps, with the whole race of men of which he was so insignificant, needy, and distressed a member.

The Midnight Bell is the most sentimental part of the trilogy; it’s also the most autobiographical. In 1927 Hamilton fell in love with a prostitute called Lily Connolly. The affair was as unsuccessful as Bob’s affair with Jenny, but Hamilton did better than his hero by coming out of it with material. For instance, the letter Jenny writes excusing her failure to show up at an arranged meeting is a near-transcription of a letter Connolly wrote to Hamilton. It would be going too far to suggest that Hamilton pursued Connolly so that he could write about her–he had a lifelong interest in prostitutes–but, as he explained to Bruce, he did think of the idea for the trilogy around the same time he knew her: “I daresay you know it’s always been one of my leading ambitions to write about the life of servants–particularly female ones–and their oppressed hideous condition. And it’s also been my ambition to write about harlots.”

The Siege of Pleasure (1932) begins the week after Jenny has abandoned Bob and taken his money; it then goes back in time to tell the story of how she became a prostitute. It’s a slight novel, just over 100 pages. The plot turns on Jenny’s decision to drink a single glass of port; she then gets into the wrong crowd (car owners, of course) and loses her job as a live-in servant. The narrator of this novel knows no more about Jenny’s motives than Bob does in The Midnight Bell: “It is doubtful whether Jenny could be said to be the owner either of a character or conscience…she had no active evil in her soul, and her gift of pleasing was as yet an invaluable discipline upon her conduct.” In The Plains of Cement (1934), while Bob chases Jenny, Ella, the book’s heroine, is being courted by Mr. Eccles, a regular at the pub who starts to take her out and eventually proposes to her. Mr. Eccles is older and ridiculous, but he’s also a gentleman: “She wondered what they would all think if they knew that there was a gentleman with a rich private income behind her, who really did think she was beautiful, and was prepared to support his opinion with fur coats and legality.” However, after a chance meeting with Bob (“now transfigured with almost unholy attractiveness”), who is just about to go to sea, she breaks her engagement and gets on with her work at the Midnight Bell.

The trilogy suffers from a slimness of plot, which Hamilton tries to cover with repetitive commentary. The bossy narrator of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is not so much omniscient as know-it-all–always circling around his characters and acting as an over-eager tour guide for the reader. In The Plains of Cement, Ella goes to the cinema by herself to escape Mr. Eccles but can’t shake the narrator’s pity: “It is a sad pass when a solitary young woman in London is so low in spirits and miserable in her thoughts that she decides she must buy herself some sweets and go by herself to the pictures…. It is the sweets which give the tragedy to the spectacle.”

Hamilton is a better writer when he lets his characters speak for themselves. He was also a playwright, but the deadpan absurdity of the dialogue in his novels is much more believable than the dated articulacy of his well-made plays. This is Bob trying to raise Jenny’s consciousness about her situation:

“It’s all economic, anyway. Jever hear of Bernard Shaw?”
 ”Yes, I’ve heard of him. He’s one of them Great Writers, ain’t he.”
 ”Yes. Well, he wrote a book called Mrs Warren’s Profession–an’ showed it was all economics.”
 There was a pause.
 ”Well,” said Jenny, with emphasis, “I guess he was just about right.”

In an update of the plot of The Midnight Bell, and in another echo of Hamilton’s life, George Harvey Bone, the hero of Hangover Square (1941), is infatuated with an actress who manipulates him for her convenience while carrying on affairs with other men. In Hangover Square Hamilton bridged the gap between his gift for dialogue and his weaker narrative skills. His choice of hero helped him greatly. Bone is an undiagnosed schizophrenic who alternates between a blank, tranceless state (afterward he can’t remember what he has said or done) and periods of self-awareness. Creating a more psychological novel merely through the figure of a mentally ill character could be absurdly literal, but Hamilton avoids bathos. Bone’s shift between states is signaled by a “click”–“It was as though a shutter had fallen.” The camera imagery soon gives way to a film analogy: “It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the soundtrack had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world.”

The gaps in Bone’s understanding create interesting spaces for the reader, too. Bone’s madness is moving because his actions make so little sense, and Hamilton lets Bone’s childlike non sequiturs speak for themselves. In one of his “dead moods,” Bone “remembered what it was he had to do: he had to kill Netta Longdon. He was going to kill her, and then he was going to Maidenhead, where he would be happy.” The more detached narration is balanced by more restrained dialogue. This forms a sharp contrast to Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky where conversations can run on for pages, as if Hamilton doesn’t know what to do if they were to stop. Netta’s put-downs of her devoted admirer couldn’t be more pointed:

“Will you come and have a meal with me sometime this week, Netta?” he said.
 ”How do you mean, exactly, ‘meal?’ ” she said.

Hangover Square is set just after the signing of the Munich agreement and, viewed through Bone’s disconnected consciousness, the event takes on a surreal air: “All grinning, shaking hands, frock coats, top-hats, uniforms, car-rides, cheers–it was like a sort of super-fascist wedding or christening.” Netta and her friends are naturally in favor of appeasement. Netta’s lover, Peter, is a “blond fascist” who has been in jail for assault and has killed someone in a drunk-driving accident. Hangover Square‘s politics, both geopolitical and sexual, aren’t subtle, but here allegory is a huge improvement on direct authorial intervention. Bone murders Netta and Peter and kills himself after leaving a note asking someone to take care of his cat. He fails to make the front page of the newspapers, as he commits the murders on the day war is declared. The novel ends with the only headline he does get:


The Slaves of Solitude is set during the Second World War. Miss Roach works as a publisher’s secretary in London and lives in a boarding house in a fictional riverside town called Thames Lockdon. Hamilton describes her in sexless terms–she had “the complexion of a farmer’s wife and the face of a bird”–but she is seeing Lieutenant Pike, an American soldier who takes her out and kisses her on park benches. Miss Roach’s fellow boarders are elderly spinsters and widows, a failed actor called Mr. Prest, and Mr. Thwaites, the most vivid of Hamilton’s many grotesques. Mr. Eccles in The Plains of Cement was an early prototype, and Hamilton brilliantly conveys how he can bore and bully Ella at the same time: “‘It changes everything, doesn’t it,’ said Mr Eccles. ‘Love.'” (It’s the placement of “said Mr Eccles” that transforms the sentence.) Mr. Thwaites is a more dislikable villain as we are closer to his victim. In this novel Hamilton actually inhabits Miss Roach’s thoughts instead of merely reporting them. When Vicki Kugelman, the German expat she has befriended, joins forces with Mr. Thwaites, Miss Roach’s anguish is real but also very funny. Here she is, unable to sleep for thinking about her new tormentor: “Her words. Her expressions. Not her behaviour so much as her vocabulary!”

“You must learn to be sporty, Miss Prude.’…
 ”Miss Prim.”…
 ”The English Miss.”…
 Miss Roach sat up in bed and took a sip of water in the darkness.

The only other character with an inner life is Mr. Prest. In the novel’s fairy tale-like ending, he makes a surprising comeback on the stage and Miss Roach defeats Mr. Thwaites, inherits a small fortune and moves to London. It’s a triumph for self-awareness.

Neglected writers are often overestimated in rediscovery, and Doris Lessing was exaggerating when she took up Hamilton’s cause in 1968: “I’m continually amazed that there’s a kind of roll call of OK names from the 1930s, sort of Auden, Isherwood, etc. But Hamilton is never on them and he’s a much better writer than any of them…[he] was very much outside the tradition of an upperclass or middle-class writer of that time. He wrote novels about ordinary people. He wrote more sense about England and what was going on in England in the 1930s than anybody else I can think of.”

It’s possible, of course, to read Hamilton as social history–for the descriptions of Lyons Corner Houses, bed-sits and the people who work and live in them. The shabby room Jenny shares with another prostitute in The Midnight Bell is a typically grim backdrop:

There were two arm-chairs–threadbare, down at castors, and bursting. There was a deal cupboard, with shelves above for plates. There was a large double bed, whose sheets were grey. There was a washing stand with a jug and basin–a source of cleanliness, no doubt, but easily the dirtiest thing in the room. A towel, attached to it by a line of string, was several grades greyer than the sheets….
 More “Mixtures,” more Bovril, more Cod-liver oil, more Ovaltine, more Veno’s Lightning Cough Cure… are consumed by these bemused and felonious creatures than in any other section of the community.

But social history is also the dullest approach to Hamilton, who is too peculiar and obsessive a writer to be praised or dismissed as a representational realist. Much of his early work, including Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is flawed by sentimentality and a lack of narrative skill; elsewhere the writing is spoiled by a lack of material, which Hamilton overcompensates for with heartlessness. But in his two great novels of the 1940s, Hamilton for a moment looked after his talent and achieved a balance between content and style that he failed to attain in the rest of his work. The Slaves of Solitude is his funniest and most hopeful novel; it’s also the most controlled, and the best reason for Patrick Hamilton to be remembered.

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