Patrick Hamilton is a new author for me. The Slaves of Solitude, published in 1947, is a novel about wartime in which war is deep background. The setting is Thames Lockden, a small town in the Home Counties, which Hamilton based on Henley-upon-Thames. It tells the story of Miss Roach – Enid, though hardly anyone knows this is her first name – and her life at a boarding house, The Rosamund Tea Rooms.
This is a war novel with a difference, focussing on the people at home, not fighting but getting on with their lives in a world turned upside down, managing on a day-to-day basis, life is dreary and bare. Miss Roach, former schoolmistress, is single, 39, and fiercely independent. She has been bombed out of her London flat and has fled from the bombing. Life is dark. ‘The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other. This was war late in 1943.’
Hamilton is a wonderful observer of human behaviour, he shows the nasty politeness between the residents at The Rosamund Tea Rooms, the bullying, the toadying, the power struggles and how the quiet ones are trampled over by the arrogant bullies. It is fascinating to see how the war makes things which seemed impossible before the war, possible. Miss Roach is a quiet, gentle woman, who over-thinks situations and constantly revisits things that happened and what she might have said. She is bullied at her shared dining room table by the odious Mr Thwaites who dislikes her democratic values, mistreated by ‘her’ American, the inept Lieutenant Pike, and stabbed in the back by her supposed ‘friend’ Vicki Kugelmann. Mr Thwaites is a clever portrayal of a man secure in the knowledge that he is always right and everyone else is wrong and inferior, reinforcing this position by snide comments to Miss Roach which, not wanting a confrontation, she sidesteps. The appearance in her life of the Lieutenant briefly gives Miss Roach’s confidence a boost, until she realizes that his compliments are always spoken in moments of drunkenness. She so longs to believe his protestations but is wary of his inconsequence so, when Vicki sets her sights on the Lieutenant, Miss Roach doesn’t know whether to be jealous or relieved.
Hamilton is a fine writer. He writes about the detail of everyday boring life and enlivens it with observations of human behaviour which are spot-on. The ending is satisfying and realistic.
Read more about Patrick Hamilton in this article from the Daily Telegraph.
‘The Slaves of Solitude’ by Patrick Hamilton [UK: Abacus]
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