Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires.

Somehow or other, Bone – a large, heavyset man, a little slow on the uptake but fundamentally a decent person at heart – has got himself mixed up with a thoroughly rotten crowd. More specifically, he has fallen under the spell of the magnetic Netta, a half-hearted wannabe actress whose only redeeming quality appears to be her striking beauty.

He dropped his voice as he greeted Netta, and caught her eye shyly, and looked away again. When meeting her after a parting of any length he never dared to look at her fully, to take her in, all at once. He was too afraid of her loveliness – of being made to feel miserable by some new weapon from the arsenal of her beauty – something she wore, some fresh look, or attitude, or way of doing her hair, some tone in her voice or light in her eye – some fresh ‘horror’ in fact. (p. 36)

Bone idolises Netta, creating an illusion in his mind of the type of relationship he wishes to have with her – a quiet, idyllic life in the countryside, complete with a little farm or cottage to match. In reality, Bone knows this is unattainable; nevertheless, he longs to spend time alone with Netta, hoping to prise her away from her vile friends, the fascist bully, Peter, and other associated hangers-on. Netta, for her part, largely rejects Bone’s advances, treating him with scorn and contempt; but she is also sharp enough to draw on his resources whenever it suits her. At heart, Netta is a cruel, manipulative woman, a schemer who knows exactly how to play Bone to perfection, taking advantage of his unbridled generosity and intense feelings towards her without a second thought for his well-being. In the following scene, Netta has agreed that Bone can take her out for the evening as long as their destination is Perrier’s, a well-to-do restaurant in the heart of the West End. At first, Bone is delighted at the prospect of a quiet, intimate dinner with Netta, if only for a few hours; but then it dawns on him that she may well have an ulterior motive for wanting to go there and that he is simply being used as a convenient vehicle to facilitate this trip.

But he was not happy because she was not paying the slightest attention to him; and he was not even now participating in her life. He noticed how every now and again she glanced at herself surreptitiously in the glass. She did not often look into the glass at herself like that, and it told him everything. It told him that this evening she had given him was for a definite purpose, and that purpose was, for some extraordinary reason, Perrier’s. He was of no more importance, had no more significance, than the taxi which would take them there. (p. 69)

By the end of the dinner, Bone’s fears are confirmed, a realisation that leaves him feeling more lonely and miserable than ever.

There was a pause in which he looked at her. He had a sudden feeling of tiredness – a feeling that the evening was at an end. Her loveliness and inaccessibility came over him in a fresh wave of misery. He had been a fool to take her out. He had had too much to drink: he would feel awful in the morning: he had again beaten his head against the brick wall of her imperturbability. He had exhausted his nervous system, and it would take him days to get over it. (p. 78)

Running through the novel are Bone’s ‘dead moods’, periodic episodes when something goes ‘click’ inside his head and he slips into a different mode, one where another, more sinister side to his personality comes to the fore. It is as if the familiar ‘regular’ world has suddenly fallen away, only to be replaced by a muffled and mysterious one.

It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. […] It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track 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. Life, in fact, which had been for him a moment ago a ‘talkie’, had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music. (p. 15)

Quite soon after falling into one of his dead moods, Bone remembers that he has a job to do: he must kill Netta Longdon and go to Maidenhead where he will be happy, and everything will be all right. This business with Netta has been going on long enough, so he must put a stop to it once and for all – and he must plan everything carefully to avoid getting caught. (This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, as the novel opens with one of these episodes during which Bone’s homicidal tendencies are made abundantly clear right from the start. Moreover, Bone associates Maidenhead with a brighter, more peaceful time in his life – a splendid fortnight he spent there with his sister, Ellen, some years earlier when she was still alive – hence his fixation with returning to the town to recapture these elusive feelings.) Fuelled by his heavy drinking and the emotional strain of dealing with Netta, Bone begins to experience these dead periods on a more frequent, more intense basis. In spite of this, Bone has absolutely no recollection of what he has been doing or thinking during these episodes – they can last from a few hours to a day or more – once he returns to ‘normal’ mode.  This makes the storyline all the more gripping as we follow Bone and his shifting mindset from one day to the next.

Hamilton uses repetition to great effect in this novel, both in the depiction of Bone’s dead periods and in the portrayal of his feelings towards Netta. For the most part, Bone is besotted with Netta, even though he knows she remains largely out of his reach. Nevertheless, there are times when he comes close to waking up to the fact that she is simply playing him for a fool. In this scene, Netta has agreed to come away with Bone to Brighton for the night, if he will pay her way and give her fifteen pounds to clear her outstanding rent and other bills.

What in God’s name did it all mean? Was this a change? Had her feelings somehow changed, had his persistence somehow prevailed, so that in future she was going to be kinder to him, so that in future he might, even, have a chance with her?

And if there was a change – why? Had she just changed because she had changed, or had she some motive? Was she just getting something out of him? Yes, fifteen pounds. But Netta, the shrewd, cruel Netta who scorned him, could never resort to so vulgar and obvious a ruse as that – she would be too proud. Or would she not be too proud? Was she, perhaps, just a common little schemer playing him up just to get some money out of him? (p. 139)

Hangover Square is an utterly compelling character study of a lonely, desolate man driven to distraction by a terrible femme fatale. Hamilton perfectly captures the inner solitude and isolation of Bone’s existence as he slopes from one bar to the next, waiting for an opportunity to call or visit Netta for a few moments each day. There is great attention to detail here, particularly in the depiction of the pubs in Earl’s Court: the thick smoke; the infernal noise; the damp, claustrophobic atmosphere inside, especially during winter. In other words, the book excels in its depiction of the nightmarish world of the habitual drinker and the hopelessness of his solitary existence.

The time period in which the story is set feels very significant too. The year is 1939, with Britain poised on the cusp of WWII. Fascism is on the rise, a development which is echoed through Hamilton’s portrayal of Netta’s friend, Peter, and his equally nasty acquaintances. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, there is a growing sense unease in more ways than one as the story moves towards its somewhat inevitable conclusion.

All in all, this is a really tremendous book, one that is sure to make my reading highlights at the end of the year. In many ways, it feels like the ideal companion piece to Hamilton’s later novel, The Slaves of Solitude, which I also adored – you can read my review of it here.

Hangover Square is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.

59 thoughts on “Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

  1. madamebibilophile

    I thought Twenty Thousand Streets was just brilliantly written, and the quotes from this have reminded me what a great writer Hamilton is. This sounds really powerful and horribly believable. I have a copy buried in the TBR mountain somewhere, I will dig it out!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I feel sure you will love this one, Madame Bibi. It’s right up your street. I think he’s still hugely underrated as a writer in spite of penning the plays behind a couple of excellent Hitchcock films – Gaslight, and one of personal favourites, Rope.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s a shame. A new edition (with a different cover to mine) was published last August, so it should be readily available. I hope you’re able to track it down.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, this depicts a very different end of the social spectrum to the genteel world of Barbara Pym. You should give him a try, Simon. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite writers.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a copy of Twenty Thousand Streets in my TBR but will probably leave it for a little while just to have some special to look forward to! Hangover Square was one of the first books I picked for my Classics Club list, and I’m delighted to say that it didn’t disappoint. Such a brilliant novel – I found it all rather poignant, especially towards the end.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    The characters in this book sound so very good. Obsessions are the source of some great fiction. Sadly George reminds me of some people that I have known in real life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this is one of the most striking character studies I have read in quite a while. In some ways, it reminded me a little of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, a favourite read from the end of last year. Both of these novels feature highly obsessive/damaged characters, vulnerable men haunted by various demons from their past and present. I think I’m developing a taste for psychological novels set in this particular era.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. This is another novel I would would recommend to you, especially given the period and the London setting. Hamilton is so good when it comes to capturing the seedy atmosphere of Earl’s Court, You can almost smell the heady aroma of stale booze and cigarettes as you turn the page…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, his emotional state really does swing from one end of the spectrum to another. I found it a very affecting read. especially towards the end. My sympathies were definitely focused towards Bone…

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    I do have this somewhere in my pile and have been meaning to read this – especially when you mentioned Maidenhead as the ‘ultimate Garden of Eden’ in Bone’s head.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, I thought of you when the Maidenhead connection came up! It’s fairly close to my own neck of the woods too. I would be fascinated to hear what you think of this one, Marina.

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    I read this as a teenager and it went right over my head. I do remember feeling very depressed afterwards, though. The parts you’ve quoted do give a powerful idea of the obsessiveness of Bone’s thinking, but for me they feel a bit “telly”. I suppose it was the style of the time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very interesting to hear. To be honest, I’m not sure what I would have thought of this book (or Hamilton in general) had I read it in my youth. I suspect it might have troubled me greatly, especially in my teenage years which were dark and depressing due to a death in my immediate family. As with many distinctive things in life, this author is probably not to everyone’s tastes – but if you’re interested in this period of British life then he’s definitely worth considering.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        When we were kids my brother and I invented a book called “Concrete Monday”, which, as I now recall, was based on a another Hamilton title, The Plains of Cement.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I wasn’t aware of the film. I don’t know if I can bear to watch it as I loved the book so much! The characters are so fixed in my mind now, especially Netta and Bone.

      Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    This was my first Hamilton (pre-blog) and I really enjoyed it. I suspect it’s an influence on Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open (review at mine but it’s seriously bleak stuff). The depictions of the bars and the fascist bores is brilliant as you say, and that mounting sense of menace. “Click.”

    Great stuff. I should reread it, but time…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I had a feeling you’d read it at some point in the dim and distant past. Superb, isn’t it? I’d been saving it for a while as a little treat to myself, and I’m delighted to say that it didn’t disappoint. Yes, Hamilton is so good on the little details in the seedy bars and backstreets of London – you can tell it’s all coming from personal experience.

      The Raymond has been on my radar for a while, possibly as a result of a previous recommendation from you. I’ll definitely take a look at your review, just adding it to my list of things to read before I forget. You know it’s funny, I have a recurring twitter conversation with Kirkdale Books every now again where we start off on Patrick Hamilton (usually Slaves of Solitude) then move on to Julian Maclaran-Ross (Of Love and Hunger); then it’s Gerald Kersh (who I’ve yet to read). I suspect Derek Raymond might have cropped up there too.

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    I’ve got this and The Slaves of Solitude but I’m not sure they would be right for me at the moment. I’m not hadnling bleak so well right now. I’m still trying to recover from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh my goodness. I have a copy of Judith Hearne in my TBR. I’d heard it was pretty bleak but beautifully written. Thanks for the warning as it’s useful to have confirmation of that…

      Yes, keep Hamilton for a time when you’re feeling brighter. I found both of these books rather poignant at times, especially towards the end. One point in particular really got to me, but it’s hard to discuss in detail without revealing potential spoilers…

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I had nightmares after finishing it. The writing is marvelous but it’s so sad. And there’s so much in it. I started the review two times now and still can’t put it into words.
        I know I’ll find much to admire in Hamilton but I have to be careful with this kind of book.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, wow. That does sound pretty full-on. I experienced something similar last year after watching the film Son of Saul. My sleep patterns were disturbed for several weeks, and I couldn’t get some of the more horrific images out of my mind (well, they were all pretty horrific, but some were more searing/affecting than others if you know what I mean). I hope you find a way to write about Judith Hearne. I for one would love to hear more however bleak it may be.

          Reply
  7. bookbii

    I can understand why you would enjoy this book Jacqui, the story is so intricate and detailed and focused on the interplay of personal relationship which seems to be a theme you really enjoy. And the quotes show Hamilton to be a strong and expressive writer. I’m not sure this one would appeal to my (current) taste, there seems to be an underlying cruelty to the story which is both representative and authentic, but which would put me off. I know I have struggled with this with other writers. But maybe for the future. Between Isherwood, Hamilton and Yates which is your favourite and do you feel they are comparable writers?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s the psychological angle that appeals to me here. In some ways, it reminded me a little of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, the novel that forms the basis for one of my all-time favourite films (same title – Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame play the lead roles). Plus I love all the period detail in these novels – I am becoming increasingly convinced that I was born in the wrong era!

      Yes, on balance, I’m not sure Hamilton would be right for you at the moment for the reasons you mention above. Of those three writers, I would be tempted to steer you towards Isherwood. He’s more compassionate and engaging than the other two – more entertaining as well, if that makes sense. If you fancy giving him a try, I would suggest Goodbye to Berlin as it’s a series of loosely connected short stories, a very charming read. As for picking a personal favourite from Hamilton, Isherwood and Yates, I think I would find that virtually impossible to do. I guess it’s like being asked to choose a favourite child – there’s no way of answering that question. I love them all, but in slightly different ways!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Hard, isn’t it! I suspect you might find the Hughes a little too bleak for your tastes as well. Take a look at Isherwood, but only if you like the sound of him. :)

          Reply
          1. bookbii

            I’ll bear that in mind, thanks Jacqui. I’m not sure what it is with the bleakness that I’m finding so offputting at the moment but it hasn’t always been the case and I’d hate to write off a writer just because I’m in a particular mood. They all sound good.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              We probably all gravitate towards (and shy away from) particular styles of books at various stages in our lives. So much of my reading is driven by my mood or frame of mind at the time, it’s not always easy to pick the most appropriate thing especially if it’s a ‘new’ writer…

              Reply
  8. Scott W

    I’m so glad you wrote about this Jacqui, as Hamilton is a writer I strongly want to read every time I read about him – but then I forget about him. I will remedy that soon. This seems like it might be a good place to start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Either this one or The Slaves of Solitude would make a great starting point with Hamilton. The most important thing is to start somewhere. I would be very curious to hear how you get on with him!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great stuff – either this or The Slaves of Solitude would be ideal. Mind you, I still think you should give Barbara Pym a whirl – she’s such terrific fun! :-)

      Reply
  9. Emma

    I loved Hangover Square after Max recommended it to me. (There’s a billet on my blog)
    The writing is brilliant and what a terrible story.
    I felt sorry for George for falling for Netta and also for his mental illness that was not identified as such. He’s very lonely and I wished he could have escaped the terrible duo Netta & Peter.
    It is also a great picture of the atmosphere just before WWII starts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it made me think how terribly hard it must have been to deal with a mental health condition back in the 1930s, especially for someone like George as he has no real family, close friends or other support mechanisms to help him. He must have felt so isolated from society.

      I’ll definitely take a look at your billet – thanks for letting me know. Just adding it to my list of things to read during the week. :)

      Reply
  10. Annabel (gaskella)

    Lovely review. Hangover Sq was my Book of the Year a couple of years ago. Everyone says The Slaves of Solitude is even better, but I haven’t had time to read that yet, but feel I have a treat in store.

    Reply
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