As some of you may know, I have fondness for books featuring the great British boarding house – an interest sparked by novels such as Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Boarding-House by William Trevor, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.
Craven House, a fledgling novel by the aforementioned Hamilton, fits right into this groove, set as it is in a West London boarding house during the early part of the 20th century. While Craven isn’t as polished as Hamilton’s later work – he was only twenty-two when the book was first published in 1926 – there is still much to enjoy here, particularly in the use of the setting as a vehicle for fiction.
In some ways, Craven House could be thought of as a collection of character studies, an exploration of the lives and traits of the somewhat disparate group of individuals who inhabit this dwelling. While very little actually happens in the way of plot – the book reads like a sequence of episodes or occurrences – there is much to treasure in the characterisation, especially in relation to the younger residents of the house.
Craven House is owned and managed by the tireless Miss Hatt, an outwardly amiable individual who has the general bearing of a ‘merry sparrow taking the sun’. Also crucial to the establishment – in terms of standing if not ownership – are Mr and Mrs Spicer, long-term friends of Miss Hatt’s from her school days. Mr Spicer is ‘In Tea’, although quite what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, The Spicers like to think of themselves as a respectable middle-aged couple, a notion typified by the following passage on their fondness for walking, particularly on a Sunday morning.
Mr and Mrs Spicer alone remained out of doors, thereby observing one of their most time-sanctioned and inviolable practices – the Sunday morning walk – and regarding themselves as in no small measure an ornament to the neighbourhood in their capacity of a Quiet Middle-aged Couple. For Mr and Mrs Spicer very much liked to advertise themselves as a quiet middle-aged couple – as though quietness was a fine point in their favour, and the world couldn’t keep its middle-aged couples quiet as a rule. (pp. 87-88)
However, initial appearance may be deceptive, and Mr Spicer may not be quite as honourable as his wife thinks. In reality, Mr S has a penchant for attempting to pick up young ladies during his solitary outings to Hyde Park Corner, a practice that lands him in trouble a little later in the book.
Paying guests at the house include twice-widowed Mrs Nixon and her young daughter, Elsie, and recent additions, Major Wildman and his young son, Henry – commonly known as Master Wildman. Finally, the cast is completed by two servants: the cook, Edith and the maid, Audrey, neither of whom quite live up to Miss Hatt’s somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic staff. Nevertheless, Edith – a blotchy woman with the demeanour of a ‘Dickens character’ – proves herself to be an efficient cook, while Audrey seems pleasant enough, to begin with at least.
The first section of the novel deals with the years immediately leading up to the Great War, a time when the traditional customs of Edwardian society were starting to crumble. Hamilton excels at capturing the sense of ennui in Craven House, the interminable mealtimes and stilted conversations in the drawing-room, especially as the guests attempt to get to know the new arrivals. In this scene, the residents are taking tea on a Sunday afternoon.
‘Oh – ah – yes. Possibly,’ said the Major, and the company’s blushes were rescued half in cheek, by the clanging of the gong for tea, which was followed by the appearance of an Audrey labouring under a large tray; which was followed by the appearance of a dumb waiter containing the thinnest bread and butter conceivable, swiss roll and plum cake; which was followed by much fuss and bother, uncanny feats of balancing (Mr Spicer sliding across the floor, tea-cup in hand, as though it were an egg-and-spoon race), and the extreme little-gentlemanliness of Master Wildman, who handed things round; (p.90-91)
It is the small details Hamilton focuses on here, the petty grievances and tensions that ensue when individuals with different habits come together under one roof. The Major, used to having hot water to hand at any time of day or night, takes it upon himself to have a bath early in the evening, a slot usually reserved for Mrs Nixon – a move that creates some commotion in the house.
Perhaps the two residents who get on best are the playful Master Wildman and the obedient Elsie Nixon, a charming, amiable girl who finds a friend in her young companion. The pair play cards together during the evenings to pass away the time. One day, they even manage to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Mrs Nixon to visit the shops for an hour or two, an episode that lands Elsie in considerable trouble on her return. The relationship between these two children is very touchingly portrayed.
The Great War is touched on very briefly, mostly to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the time. Only Mr Spicer is directly involved in the war effort, and even his particular contribution is less than spectacular following a rather short spell of action in France.
Mr Spicer’s services to his country were, we are inclined to believe, something in the nature of a burden to both parties concerned. (p. 166)
Hamilton saves some of his best set-pieces for the novel’s final act, an extended section in which we return to Craven House six years after the end of the war. By this time, Master Wildman is in his early twenties, with Elsie Nixon following just a few years behind, worshipping her dear friend from close quarters. While Elsie longs to spread her wings a little in the hope that Master Wildman will fall for her, the dictatorial Mrs Nixon is having none of it, determined as she is to maintain a fierce hold over Elsie and everything she does.
‘Can I have my hair bobbed, Mother?’ asks Elsie. ‘No, you can not, Miss,’ says Mrs Nixon. ‘We’ll have none of these modern airs here.’ (p. 179)
Mrs Nixon is, needless to say, hale and hearty, and exuding a glad confidence in complete domination of her daughter or any other rebellious event or person likely to tackle her. (p. 180)
By this point, a new paying guest has also taken up residence at Craven House, the somewhat eccentric yet charming Mrs Hoare, an elderly lady who ‘employs flattery with a trowel’. One of Mrs Hoare’s most delightful habits involves her referring to various items by their initial letters, a practice that causes more than a little confusion and amusement amongst the residents. For instance, ‘Ell’ for Love, ‘Bee’ for Bed and ‘Doubleyou’ for Master Wildman. Elsie is very fond of Mrs Hoare – as is Master Wildman, although he cannot help but poke fun at her too, albeit in a rather gentle way.
As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the simmering tensions apparent within the house culminate in a couple of dramatic outbursts. One involving the Spicers when Mrs S discovers precisely what her husband has been getting up to while her back has been turned; the other concerning Miss Hatt, who seems close to a breakdown after fifteen years in charge of the establishment. There is also a wonderful contretemps between Miss Hatt and Audrey (the maid) when the latter has the audacity to answer back to her employer following a rebuke over her tardiness. Naturally, Miss Hatt is stunned by the outrage, so much so that she decides ‘Audrey Must Go’. In spite of these dramas, there is a happy ending of sorts for two of the house’s inhabitants, a nice touch amid the darkness of the environment.
Viewed in its entirety, Craven House is perhaps best suited to Hamilton enthusiasts. The novel itself is rather baggy, and some of the characters a little underdeveloped – Miss Hatt, Mrs Spicer and Mrs Nixon, in particular. At times, the prose is somewhat protracted and overwrought, a point that Hamilton himself was conscious of when he looked back at the work a little later in his career.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the early genesis of some of this author’s favourite themes here – particularly his preoccupation with the boarding house milieu and his interest in individuals who seem to carry an inner sense of loneliness and self-doubt. In some ways, Craven House could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for one of Hamilton’s later books, the utterly brilliant The Slaves of Solitude, one of the highlights of my reading year back in 2014.
Craven House is published by Abacus; personal copy.