The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (review)

Patrick Hamilton’s quite brilliant novel, The Slaves of Solitude, takes us back to the winter of 1943. Having being bombed out of her room in Kensington a year ago, Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties, is now residing in Thames Lockdon, a fictional town by the river just beyond Maidenhead. Much of the action takes place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where Miss Roach lives along with a handful of other residents. At first, the town had provided a welcome respite from the bombings in London, but now, after more than a year, life in Thames Lockdon seems closer to Hell. Having given up any hope of marriage some years ago, Miss Roach’s rather drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the dismal surroundings in which she finds herself:

Miss Roach turned on the switch by the door, and saw her room in the feeble light of the bulb which hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room and which was shaded by pink parchment. She saw the pink artificial-silk bedspread covering the light single bed built of stained oak – the pink bedspread which shone and slithered and fell off, the light bedstead which slid along the wooden floor if you bumped into it. She saw the red chequered cotton curtains (this side of the black-out material) which were hung on a brass rail and never quite met in the middle, or, if forced to meet in a moment of impatience, came flying away from the sides; she saw the stained-oak chest of drawers with its mirror held precariously at a suitable angle with a squashed match-box. (pg 7, Constable)

Hamilton has a wonderful knack for capturing the stifling and oppressive atmosphere in this provincial boarding house:

This system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been, added yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing. For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others; and the general self-consciousness which this caused smote the room with a silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself. 

[…] 

Sometimes an attempt at a conversational jailbreak was made, and there would be some unnecessary loud and cheerful exchange between table and table: but this never had any hope of success. As the maid handed round the vegetables one voice dropped down after another; the prisoners were back in their cells more subdued than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

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Miss Roach, a respectable yet somewhat meek woman, finds herself besieged not only by her drab surroundings, but also by the bullying behaviour of another of the Rosamund’s residents, the ghastly Mr Thwaites. Thwaites considers life in the Rosamund Tea Rooms as a ‘sort of compulsory indoor game, in which he perpetually held the bank and dealt the cards.’  With the Rosamund’s dining room as his main stage, Mr Thwaites proceeds to hold court, steering the conversation at mealtimes and passing judgements on the other residents, especially Miss Roach who has to sit at his table:

Mr Thwaites made a habit of being the first in the dining room for breakfast. No one had ever been known to beat him to it. Five, or even ten minutes before the time, he would be found sitting in his place at the table for four in the corner. It was as though he were fretful for the day to start, to be in his presidential position and to take charge of the day from the beginning. However early they appeared, those who entered after him, saying ‘Good morning, Mr. Thwaites’ and catching his eye, had a distant feeling of being on the mat for being late. Miss Roach did at any rate. 

This morning, the Saturday following the one on which she had had drinks with Vicki Kugelmann at the Rising Sun, Miss Roach was in the room while the gong was still being hit, and took her place at the table with Mr Thwaites.

‘Good morning,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘You’re very early, aren’t you?’ But this was not intended as a compliment: it still meant that she was late. It implied merely that a chronically late Miss Roach had appeared relatively early upon the scene.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Roach, ‘I suppose I am.’

Mr. Thwaites, fingering his knife, now quietly stared at Miss Roach. When alone with her he frequently stared at her like this, quite unconscious of her embarrassment and even of the fact that he was doing it. It was the preoccupied stare of one who sought to discover some fresh detail in her appearance or demeanour about which he could say or think something nasty. (pgs. 83-84)

Hamilton’s characters are pin-sharp, and there are some wonderful darkly comic scenes in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – a black tragicomedy of manners might be one way to describe these sections. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, and the novel contains some terrific extended passages which convey Thwaites’ coded conversations with the other boarders. It’s not just what Thwaites says; it’s more what he implies – the implication behind his blustering, coupled with his tone. These aspects seem equally (if not more) important than his actual words. Here’s the beginning of one of his exchanges with Miss Roach:

‘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. (pg. 17)

Actually, the Russians were not Miss Roach’s ‘friends’. She had simply left some political publications hanging around in the Lounge, an activity that Mr. Thwaites considered ‘a diseased and obscurely Russian thing to do.’ As a consequence, Mr. Thwaites comes to associate Russia with Miss Roach and proceeds to torment her accordingly.

Into Miss Roach’s miserable life comes an American officer, Lieutenant Pike, who brings a glimmer of light and spontaneity to the proceedings. He takes Miss Roach for drinks at the local pub, evening walks in the park and at one stage even appears to hint at marriage. But the spontaneous Lieutenant, who also has a fondness for rather too much whisky, often disappears for several days at a time. While Miss Roach is attracted to Pike, she’s unsure as to where she stands with him.

The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a new lodger at the Rosamund, Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman whom Miss Roach has befriended in the town. At first Vicki charms the Rosamund’s residents, Mr. Thwaites included, whom Vicki quickly identifies as the dominant figure of the boarding house. In fact, the previously rather chauvinistic Thwaites seem positively smitten by Vicki despite his initial suspicion of having to reside alongside a German woman. If anything, Thwaites seems ‘more alert, lively and responsive’ when Vicki is around, and this change in his demeanour is accompanied by an increasingly savage and sarcastic attitude towards Miss Roach, ‘as if he were angrily comparing her to Vicki.’

And it’s not only the Rosamund’s residents who fall under Vicki’s spell. Miss Roach’s American Lieutenant considers Vicki cute, and the German ends up joining the couple on a raucous night out. As far as Lieutenant Pike and Vicki are concerned the evening’s a blast; but Miss Roach is embarrassed by her friends as they cavort around in a drunken manner, and she cannot wait to get home. It’s not long before Vicki reveals another side to her personality as she adopts a rather spiteful and disdainful attitude towards Miss Roach:

‘No,’ said Vicki, moving towards the door. ‘You are not sporty, Miss Prim.’ She reached the door and opened it, ‘You must learn to be sporty, my friend. You are the English Miss. No?…Good night.’(pg. 169)

Alongside the main narrative, Hamilton also does a terrific job in capturing the ‘endless snubbing and nagging’ nature of war and its effects on provincial towns such as Lockdon. Billboard signs lecture inhabitants at every opportunity – citizens must not waste bread, use unnecessary fuel, undertake journeys unless absolutely necessary, etc. etc.  The war, which had started by making drastic demands of people, had now turned into a ‘petty pilferer’, stealthily stealing every last luxury and necessity. Even a simple sign that says ‘NO CIGARETTES. SORRY’ seems to sneer at Miss Roach with its rather sarcastic and nasty ‘sorry’.

I won’t say any more about the story for fear of spoiling it, but our sympathies are with Miss Roach as we will her to escape the confines of this ‘death-in-life’ existence. Suffice it to say that The Slaves of Solitude is a downright enjoyable and satisfying novel – as devastating as it is darkly humorous, as accomplished as it is atmospheric. I can’t recommend it highly enough – one for my end-of year highlights.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal has posted an excellent review of this novel.

The Slaves of Solitude is published in the UK by Constable. Source: personal copy.

50 thoughts on “The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (review)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I loved this one so much, Lisa! It’s a magnificent book – I hope you enjoy it (should you have a chance to read it). I’m not on GoodReads; I’ve thought about it…

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    Though set in a very different time as my own, when I was in my 20s I always had this fear of a lonely drab future that could come in my 30s. Luckily it did not happen but this book seems to tell a tale that reflected my concerns. Based on your commentary the characters sound very well drawn so this sounds like a book that I would like.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. Yes, it must have been a very difficult time for a young woman in Miss Roach’s position, and whilst some of the scenes are darkly comic, Hamilton really captures the drab and oppressive nature of this woman’s existence. I’m relieved to hear that your own fears of a drab future did not come to pass. Yes, great characterisation and mood here – I think you’d enjoy this one.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, thank you, Fleur – that’s so nice to hear. I have a couple of Hamiton’s other novels on my shelves, and I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. Have you read any of his others?

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I love Hamilton’s writing and I keep hearing good things about this one – so I’m really looking forward to it!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, great – I absolutely loved this one and I hope you enjoy it, too! I feel as if I’ve discovered a new favourite author. Slaves reminded me of your post on Julian Maclaren-Ross as I think you compared (or likened) his writing to Patrick Hamilton’s…

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Yes, they’re often bracketed together, and if you like Hamilton I’m sure you’ll llike Maclaren-Ross.

        Reply
  3. Emma

    This sounds really good.
    I’ve read Hangover Square by him and it stayed with me. He writes wonderfully and he has a way to take you in his characters’ heads.
    I highly recommend it and I’m tempted to read this one. (Problem is my TBR is huge)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed Hangover Square. I have a copy of it on my tbr pile, and I’ll probably save it for next year just to put a bit of space between the two. I loved Hamilton’s writing, the characterisation, the mood – everything really. I can’t recommend this one highly enough if you want to try another by him at some point.

      Reply
  4. Scott W.

    I only know of Patrick Hamilton from seeing his books next to James Hamilton-Patterson’s on the bookstore shelves, and this may well be the first review I’ve read of anything by him. I’ll put it on the TBR list.

    Reply
  5. hastanton

    You have reminded me that I really must read more PH . I read Hangover Sq years ago ….and also watched adap of Twenty Thousand Streets on BBC4. He does seedy so well doesn’t he ?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, he does! Slaves is great, Helen, and I’m sure you would enjoy it. I think Hangover Square will be the next Hamilton I read, and I have a copy of Twenty Thousand Streets, too. Somehow I just knew I’d love this author’s work.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’d be interested to hear how you find The West Pier, Seamus. It’s part of his Gorse Trilogy, isn’t it? Funnily enough, I’ve encountered much love for Patrick Hamilton this week, especially for Slaves and Hangover Square.

      Reply
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  7. Max Cairnduff

    Thanks for the pingback. I loved this, as you did. Nobody captures that feeling of being trapped and of petty bullies like Hamilton. I think most people have been in a situation where someone belittles you, but in a way that’s impossible to pin down, where any quote could seem innocuous. Hamilton captures that petty viciousness so well.

    Also as you say it’s that sense here of what austerity means, the drabness, the absence of little luxuries and tedious public messages.

    Have you read Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger? If you liked this you may well like that. If the name hadn’t been taken it’s the book I was going to originally name my blog after.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Very welcome, Max. I’m sorry I hadn’t picked it up before yesterday. I should have checked yours earlier as I wasn’t surprised to discover that you’re a Hamilton fan.

      I know exactly what you mean by that tactic of small-minded bullying. Occasionally I’ve seen it happen at work, where the remarks are impossible to criticise when taken at face value; usually it’s a person’s tone and demeanour that make the experience so belittling and slippery. Hamilton really gets this, along with the penny-pinching atmosphere of wartime.

      I haven’t read anything by Julian Maclaren-Ross, but I bought Of Love and Hunger just the other day (as another of my commenters mentioned similarities between JMR and Hamilton). I’m delighted you’ve mentioned him too as I should be on to a winner there. One for next year I think, just to put a bit of distance between the two. Of Love and Hunger would have made a great name for your blog, although I do like Pechorin’s Journal. It’s from Lermontov, isn’t it? Another author I’ve yet to read…

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m reading Of Love and Hunger right now, and it’s absolutely bloody marvellous! It’s this year’s Slaves of Solitude for me. Thank you for another brilliant recommendation.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Like it? I love it! It’s terrific. The clipped sentences and slang give it a really authentic feel, and the character portraits are just brilliant. Early days, but I can see this on my end-of-year list for sure. It might be a while before my review goes up as there are six others ahead of it in the write-up queue, and I need to play catch-up. Think I’m going to have to read a couple of very long books soon, maybe one or two things I have little desire to review as they’ve been covered extensively elsewhere…

          Reply
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  12. evastalker

    I see from the time stamp on your post that it’s more than a year since I read this review and decided I had to read The Slaves of Solitude! I have just finished reading it and found it as brilliant as you made it sound. What an excellent novel. I’ve never read anyone better on the petty, unsaid aspects of human relationships. I adore your description of it as ‘a black tragicomedy of manners’ – that’s perfect.

    I also watched Gaslight based on his play (the 1940 British one) and loved that. Will definitely be picking up more of his work. And I have Of Love & Hunger to get to as we discussed!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! I am so thrilled that you loved this novel. It’s one of those books that I want to press into the hands of friends and strangers alike. I completely agree with you on Hamilton’s skills in portraying those petty exchanges between individuals. God, what a dismal existence that must have been for Miss Roach, especially with Mr Thwaites chuntering away in the dining room.

      I really enjoyed Gaslight, too. It got a limited (re)release in cinemas a couple of years ago, and I managed to catch a screening at the BFI – just perfect. And did you know that Hamilton wrote Rope, the play that became a Hitchcock film? He certainly knew how to write a good drama that’s for sure.

      I have another Hamilton (Hangover Square) just waiting to be read, so I hope to get to it next year…and his trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is on the shelf too. I can’t wait for you to read Of Love and Hunger – I’m pretty sure you’re going to love that one as well!

      Reply
  13. evastalker

    I didn’t know about Rope until I saw it listed in the paperback under other works! I happened to have watched it a few years ago – my boyfriend has a Hitchcock box set that we pick from every so often.

    Looking forward to Of Love – I’m going to do the same as you mention in an earlier comment and leave a wee while between it and the Hamilton.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I love those old Hitchcock films – I never seem to tire of them despite repeated viewings.

      Good idea to leave a bit of a gap between Slaves and the Maclaren-Ross – variety is the spice of life and all that. Thanks again for dropping by. :)

      Reply
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