on 14 April 2006
Bombed out of her London flat, Miss Roach, thirty-nine and alone, takes up residence at the Rosamund Tea Rooms at Thames Lockdon. Here we encounter an array of lost, rootless, lonely people, the flotsam and jetsam of the War - the slaves of solitude.
The story unfolds through the eyes of the shy, self-effacing Miss Roach, a woman whose natural decency stands in stark contrast to the casual cruelty of the people around her; her fragile sense of self-worth, constantly undermined by her back-stabbing friend, the odious Vicki Kugelmann, the drunken ineptitude of her American lover, Lieutenant Pike, but most of all, her humiliation at the hands of one of Hamilton's most grotesque fictional monsters, the repellent Mr Thwaites - bully, narcissist, and Fascist sympathiser.
Despite the apparent tragedy of Miss Roach's situation, the pathos is relieved by Hamilton's unique black humour and his ability to write perfect, utterly convincing dialogue, infused with waspish comedy. Ever-present is the War itself, robbing the characters of their little comforts, dictating their everyday lives. An underrated, enjoyable, entertaining read. Great to see this wartime classic back in print again!
on 16 August 1999
Congratulations to Michael Holroyd for using his influence to secure the re-issue of The Slaves of Solitude (and Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky). Hamilton's wartime England, viewed this time, not through the bottom of a glass, but through the eyes of a brave and decent woman who has been bullied all her life, is in my opinion his most moving work. A triumph from a writer who was himself sliding desparately downhill.
on 14 November 2000
Along with Hangover Square and One Thousand Streets Under the Sky, this is a tremendous novel. Hamilton writes beautifully about a cast of dreadfuls- the parochial bores, the bitchy backstabbing friends, and above all the boozers.
It is rare to read a book set in the 1940s which still seems so contemporary. The humour is biting and the depths and subtletys of character equal to Greene, Waugh and their ilk. Hamilton's writing brings to mind the Martin Amis school of tales from the London gutter, but his characters are achingly alive and never seem cartoonish.
Read all three...
on 21 July 1999
This is without a doubt one of the greatest novels written about England in the Second World War - so why had I never read it until now? It's funny, cruel, compassionate, all the things that make Hangover Square, Hamilton's other major novel, such a joy. The characters - pitiful creatures in a suburban boarding house who bitch and drink their way through the War - are painfully vivid. The descriptions of sexual frustration, alcoholism and despair are spot on, and hilariously funny. I could rave on for the full 1000 words but I will say just one thing: READ THIS BOOK NOW.
on 6 January 2010
I was pressed hard by a friend to read the work of Patrick Hamilton, but that friend's fondness for all things dire and desperate had me worried. I'm so glad I read "The Slaves of Solitude" first; "Hangover Square" may be Hamilton's greater, darker work, but I prefer this slim novel. It has an emotional power, an outspreading empathy, a generosity of spirit, that I think George Eliot would recognise as having roots in her tradition, and which eclipse the more recognisably Dickensian black humour and characterisation.
Miss Roach, aimless spinster of a certain age, is suffering out the war in the quiet way that nobody ever talks about. Turfed out of a Blitz-hit London riddled with shortages, bans and insecurity, Miss Roach is in lodgings with a motley crew of similar people; elderly or middle aged, thrown together and merely existing in a grey suburban hell up the Thames. Dreary, dull, boring, and hopeless, Miss Roach's life is made almost unbearable by the torments of her fellow-lodger, the dreadful bully Mr Thwaites "by my Troth". Enter two characters who provide a change of scene and considerable excitement: an American lieutenant and one Vicki Krugelmann. I won't spoil enjoyment of the book by trying to describe all these people in detail: Hamilton, writing from Miss Roach's perspective, does it masterfully: this is what the book is all about.
The ending had me absolutely bawling: quiet, painful, sweet, unbearably sad and true, and not without hope. Just like poor Miss Roach. I can't recommend this book highly enough. A "shamefully neglected" author indeed.
on 20 January 2011
For a long time, this was my favourite novel, and I still think the 'dark comedy' in it wonderful, as is Hamilton's perception and espousal of human values and his witty exposure of the terrible tendencies towards facism in unremarkable bullies.
In this story - set during the dark days of World War Two- I believe, during the build up to the Normandy Landings and the turnabout of the war - we follow the adventures of Miss Roach as she defies supporters of facism in a Berkshire boarding house.
Miss Roach is lonely, but fiercly proud and indpendent. She has the misfortune to be unmarried at a time when that was a social disgrace, though she belongs to the generation where the majority of young men were killed off by World War One.
When the story opens she is working in London but bombed out of her rooms, has been staying at the ludicrously named 'Rosemund Tea Rooms'. There she has been selected as a special target by the elderly bully, the secret Hitler-admirer Mr Thwaites, who detests her quiet indpendence and support of democratic values.
When Miss Roach befriends Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman inexplicably stranded in wartime Henley (called Thames Ditton in the novel)she soon reveals herself as vain and vulgar, an eager accomplice of Mr Thwaites in his daily torture of Miss Roach. Man obsessed, she promptly sets to work to steal away Miss Roach's solitary admirer, the generous but 'inconsequent' and drunken American Lieutenant Pike...
In his own life, Hamilton's sexist views largly reflected the times, but his portrait of Miss Roach is a masterpiece of understated sensitivity, as is his
wonderful portrayal of all the characters in the book. His set pieces of comedy are delightful (the one where Mr Thwaites becomes ridiculously drunk is one of my favourites) and his use of 'Comic Capitals' (one of his favourite devices to emphasies a banal phrase) never overdone.
Without writing a 'spoiler' the end sentence sums up the reader's mood of compassion at the end of the story, and is justly famous: - '...God help us, God help all of us, each one, every one, all of us.'
The Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943 in a suburban boarding house, in `Thames Lockdon' (loosely modelled on Henley-on-Thames) There is a seedy, penny pinching respectability, a po-faced rather right-wing sense of little-England righteousness which stalks the pages and the mean, soulless little rooms of the `Rosamund Tea Rooms'. Rosamund is no longer a tea-room. The economies of war have turned the tea rooms into a boarding house, where those of more than slender means have found possibly their final resting places - several of the residents are quiet elderly spinsters or widows.
The central character is Enid Roach - how she hates both her names, and the spiteful sobriquet of Roachy, or even worse, Cockroach, which were hers as a not successful teacher. Miss Roach is teetering on the edge of 40. She is a refugee from London, where she still works as a publisher's assistant, though to be honest, more of her work involves accounts and clerical duties than reading manuscripts. Bombing flattened her rented accommodation in London; hence she has shored up here, commuting daily.
She is far less grey and nondescript and irretrievably spinster than she thinks. Various onlookers (some of them the elderly ladies and gentlemen in the boarding house) like her ability to be more free-thinking and less petty and insular than many. For example, she leans towards sympathy with Russia, and does not automatically assume that every German is a Nazi. She also has a certain something `a rather nice face' which makes some men see her as not quite past interest.
Unfortunately, the boarding house also contains a horribly blustering and opinionated bully in the person of Mr Thwaites, who embodies everything about little-England righteousness, and an unerring instinct to attack the tender and kind, who don't have the killer instinct to lash back. His victim, on a daily basis in the nasty boarding house dining room, is Enid.
Two other major movers of the novel's dynamic are a kindly, heavy-drinking American, one of the `over paid, over-sexed, over-here's, Lieutenant Pike, who has some designs on Enid, and a further nemesis, in the hands of Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman who has lived in England for well over a decade, and has been taken under Enid's kindly wing, in part because of her degree of being ostracised for being German, but, also for representing, like the Lieutenant, a wider world.
Hamilton captures, beautifully, the narrow world, the thinking processes, the pettiness and the glories of his characters. Although in many ways this is a dark, sad book, echoing Enid's sad cry:
`at last she put out the light, and turned over, and adjusted the pillow, and hopefully composed her mind for sleep - God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us'
it is also horribly, viciously comic in its exposure of the nasty, small-minded petty tyranny of the Mr Thwaites of the world, who imagine their spiteful drivel and their pompous utterances against their fellows is `bluff humour' instead of the wearing, pointless savageness of its true nature:
`You know', said Mrs Barratt, I don't think you really like the Russians, Mr Thwaites. I don't think you realise what they're doing for us.' ....
Mr Thwaites was momentarily taken aback by this unexpected resistance, and there was a pause in which his eyes went glassy.
`Ah' he said at last. `Don't I?....Don't I...Well, perhaps I don't...Maybe I thinks more than I says. Maybe I has my private views....'
Oh God, thought Miss Roach, now he was beginning his ghastly I-with-the-third-person business. As if bracing herself for a blow (as she looked at the tablecloth), she waited for more, and more came.
`I Keeps my Counsel.' said Mr Thwaites, in his slow treacly voice. `Like the Wise Old Owl, I Sits and Keeps my Counsel.'
Hamilton is clear where his loyalties lie, and where he wants ours to lie. `Thwaiteness' is not the glittering crime-against-humanity which fills the news, which `the silent majority' may look at, and tut at, in horror, but it is instead, a relentless small spitefulness and viciousness, on a daily basis, which arises out of those small lives, as much as, on the other side, daily small kindnesses may arise from the lives of the nameless.
This excellent novel is set within the confines of a boarding house in the fictional location of Thames Lockdon; said to be on the river and some miles beyond Maidenhead. It is December 1943 and Miss Enid Roach, a spinster in her late thirties, has been living in the Rosamund Tea Rooms for a year after being bombed out of her flat in London. Miss Roach is a gentle, kind woman, whose initial thankfulness at finding a safe place to live has turned into a living 'hell'.
Patrick Hamilton does a wonderful job of showing us how besieged Miss Roach has become. Surrounded by notes pinned up in the boarding house about the lights and the water and the use of electricity, by notices outside with more orders and warnings, by the darkness of the blackout and the lack of anything in the shops, by restrictions and crowds and war, she is suffering the effects of years of wartime Britain. Small things make life worthwhile - her job in the city, which gets her out of the house, and 'her' American, Lieutenant Dayton Pike, who brings a little excitement into her life. However, the war outside the boarding house is brought inside, by both Miss Roach's 'friend' the odious German girl Vicki and by the almost comic bully, Mr Thwaites, who makes her mealtimes a misery. As Christmas approaches, and the residents of the Rosamund Tea Rooms battle their little failures and isolation, there is a 'war to the death' between Miss Roach and Vicki.
The author creates a perfect little world in the inhabitants of the boarding house. Mealtimes are almost painful to read about, with Mr Thwaites holding court (who has not met a Mr Thwaites in their life?!) and Vicki's spiteful behaviour. The verbal attacks in the dining room, the actor who longs for another chance, the elderly ladies who do their best to protect Miss Roach, vicous innuendo and the level of drunken behaviour by Lieutenant Pike, all combine in a novel that leaves you feeling profoundly moved by the last page. I have never read anything by Patrick Hamilton before, but I am glad I have discovered his work.
This is a classic , a great World War Two novel in which not a shot is fired. It shows what the 'home front' was really like without any sentimentality but goes beyond that. The characters - the nice Miss Roach, the monstrous Mr Thwaites, and others - are brilliantly drawn. Not a book that you'll forget.
It is good to see that Patrick Hamilton is once more in favour. By chance I read this novel immediately before Pat Barker's "Toby's Room". Pat Barker is another writer I rate highly but here I think she has to give way to the more penetrating and engaging story unfolded in "The Slaves of Solitude". Where PB's novel is set amongst the rural upper-middle class before and during the First World War, Hamilton's is concerned with the London lower middle class clientele of a guest house during WW2. We are always at a distance here from the worst of the suffering the war brought, whereas PB confronts us with the horrors of the trenches as admittedly many have done before her - in prose and in verse. Nonetheless, suffering there is. Miss Roach, the charmingly self-effacing heroine of the novel - and I think "heroine" is the right word - for all her modest claims and antipathy to being at the centre of a drama. She is also the lens through which we feel the palpable reality of London during the air raids and deprivations. Her strength lies in her simple kindness and moral decency - values no longer so dearly cherished. Her nemesis, the sly, persecuting Thwaites is himself a masterpiece of characterisation, escaping his own inadequacies in tormenting others - the focus of his venom Miss Roach. He is no fool, but has built a fortress for himself behind which all guns are blazing to keep at bay his own terror. A wonderfully subtle and compassionate book with a heroine and guide who triggers our own better instincts.