Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude


This is high praise from Gert – but Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude is as good as anything Anita Brookner ever wrote. Its sad insights reminded me of her, but Hamilton is a much wilder and more reckless personality, enormous fun as well as edgily dark. Thanks to Liz Dexter for putting this book on the radar – I’ve read Hangover Square and will now read it again, but I knew nothing about Patrick Hamilton’s other books.  I listened to Slaves of Solitude on Audible and absolutely loved it.

It isn’t easy to have as your main voice a plain, self-effacing woman approaching middle age. Miss Roach has been bombed out of her flat in London and is living in a boarding house in a village an hour from London. Her companions are inoffensive elderly women and men, with the exception of Mr Thwaites, a lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, with a peculiar brand of loquacity and malevolence.

Well,’ he said. ‘Your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual,’ and oh God, thought Miss Roach, not that again, not that again.

Miss Roach’s ‘friends’ – according to Mr. Thwaites – were the Russian people, and Mr. Thwaites did not like or approve of these people at all. Indeed, it would not be exaggerating to say that the resistance and victories of the Russian people in the last year had practically ruined this man’s peace of …

Mr. Thwaites had since 1939 slowly learned to swallow the disgrace of Hitler, of whom he had been from the beginning, and still secretly remained, a hot disciple. He could now even force himself to speak disparagingly of Hitler: but to speak well of the Russians was too much for him. He could not mention them save gloweringly, defensively, almost savagely. He had also undergone the misfortune of capturing Moscow and Leningrad within three weeks of the outbreak of the war, and so his boarding-house sagacity had been struck at along with his personal feelings.

Actually the Russians were not in any very particular sense Miss Roach’s ‘friends’. Miss Roach was too completely bewildered, stunned, and unhappy in regard to all that was happening in the world around her for this to be so. But Miss Roach sometimes brought back literary political weeklies from London, and had been foolish enough to leave them about in the Lounge, and this, in the eyes of Mr. Thwaites, was in itself a diseased and obscurely Russian thing to do. He had therefore come practically to identify Russia with Miss Roach; and in the same way as Russia gnawed at him, he gnawed at Miss Roach.

Then the ebullient American Lieutenant Pike sweeps into Miss Roach’s life, whirling her off into a round of drinking sessions, movies and kisses on a parkbench. She’s not fooled by the Lieutenant, but she does enjoy it.  Things go wrong, though, when  Vicki Kugelmann comes on the scene.  Miss Roach used to feel sorry for Vicki, shunned because of her German origins, but she soon begins to hate her. Vicki establishes herself in the boarding house and in the pub sessions, ganging up with Mr Thwaites against her and encouraging the Lieutenant to see her as a ‘Silly old spoil-sport.’ . . . ‘Old spoil-sport Roach.’

Like Mr Thwaites, Vicki is a great comic character with her exuberant English:

‘Sporty’! ‘Sporty play’! ‘Sporty shot’! ‘Wizard shot’! . . . ‘Good for you, big boy’! . . . ‘Hard lines’! ‘Hard lines, old fellow’! ‘Hard cheese’!

‘Cheers, old chap’! ‘Mud in your eye’! ‘Down the jolly old hatch’!

But like Mr Thwaites she’s also a vain, deluded bully, and the stage is set for a Christmas denouement when everyone has had far too much to drink.

Patrick Hamilton is a wonderful, merciless observer of human foibles and a gifted mimic,  and Slaves of Solitude is very funny. It’s dreadfully sad at the same time, with the sadness of lonely  lives and the grinding misery of the war:

There were other instances of this sort of thing on the way to the station, where, on boardings, the lecturing and nagging began in earnest. She was not to waste bread, she was not to use unnecessary fuel, she was not to leave litter about, she was not to telephone otherwise than briefly, she was not to take the journey she was taking unless it was really necessary, she was not to keep the money she earned through taking such journeys where she could spend it, but to put it into savings, and to keep on putting it into savings. She was not even to talk carelessly, lest she endangered the lives of others.

Depressing, also, to Miss Roach, were the unadvertised enforcements of these prohibitions – the way that the war, while packing the public places tighter and tighter, was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, day by day, 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, wool from the drapers, glycerine from the chemists, spirits and 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 from the trains. It was, actually, the gradualness and unobtrusiveness of this process which served to make it so hateful. 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, incessantly pilfering. You never knew where you were with it, and you could not look round without finding something else gone or going.

It must be one of the best books ever written about wartime Britain.

I can highly recommend Lucy Scott’s Audible reading. You’ll never forget Mr Thwaites :

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A fine morning, in Troth . . . In veritable Troth – a Beauteous Morning . . .’ And he went on with his porridge.

When Mr. Thwaites started this Troth language it generally meant that he was in a good temper. If only as a symptom of this Miss Roach hoped that it might continue, and it did.

‘And dost thou go forth this bonny morn,’ he said, addressing Mrs. Barratt, ‘into the highways and byways, to pay thy due respects to Good King Sol?’

or Vicki Kugelmann:

‘Can I make a cocktail?’ said Vicki, conscious of having made a success, and so enlarging upon it, ‘or can I make a cocktail? Uh-huh! Oh, boy! Wizard!’

(‘Uh-huh!’ ‘Oh, boy!’ ‘Wizard!’) The mere mention of ‘cocktails’, in 1943, was frightful enough, but with the addition of ‘Uh-huh’, ‘Oh, boy’, and ‘Wizard’ a depth was reached of which Miss Roach had not even thought Vicki capable.

12 thoughts on “Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude

  1. Elements of the present day, with its relentless admonitions, especially in airports, to wear the mask, “If you see something, say something,” don’t leave the baggage unattended, etc. all the while you are looking for an open restaurant, a water fountain, a place to with appropriate social distancing. . . . All of it understandable and reasonable in some narrow sense, but relentless. I should be looking for the humor in it, clearly!

      1. Thanks Gert! We’ll be leaving in a week to spend time with kids in Seattle, and with sun and beaches in Los Angeles. I rather like airports, for their sense of being between-worlds where people of every sort mingle, and anonymity is easy. But the announcements are never-ending.

  2. Oh, the horrors of Mr Thwaites and the Rosamund Tea Rooms! Not to mention that minx Vicki Kugelmann…there were times when I wanted to give her a good slap.

    Even though I only discovered it 7 years again, I think this might be one of my all-time favourite books. As you say, it’s absolutely one of the best fictional depictions of wartime Britain. The loneliness and isolation of it, the darkness and drudgery – it’s all there. I’ve been threatening to choose it for my book group for several years, but I think your post has probably pushed me over the edge! I’m delighted you loved it so much. (PS There’s a post on it at mine, back in my early days of blogging when I was still trying to find my feet, not that I think I’ve found them now…)

    1. I just read your rv – you were well ahead of me. What is it about that British institution, the boarding house? It seems to be part of the British soul. If you’re into audio books, as I said I can highly recommend this one which really brings those horrible characters to life.

  3. Thanks again for drawing attention to another eminently insightful and interestly-peopled novel which, though I’m not sure I’ll get round to, is at least on my radar. Brilliant quotes.

  4. Thank you for the shout-out and I’m so glad I introduced you to a book so enjoyed so much! The audio book sounds fun, I’ll have to check with my husband if he knows of that narrator, as he will pick up a book if it’s narrated by one of his favourites, pretty well whatever it is. I do like a boarding house novel and there are a few around, but this is brilliant, isn’t it. I need to re-read this and his others.

    1. I reread Hangover Square – what a bleak, terrifying book it is! Masterly though.

      A well-read audiobook book is a real treat, but quite often I just can’t take the voice. Just as well they have a preview before you buy!
      Happy Xmas.

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