Here, another book from 1947, rescued from near-obscurity by NYRB Classics: The Slaves of Solitude, a novel by Patrick Hamilton — radically different from the gorgeous-horrific Nightmare Alley: in time frame, in mood, in central character. But just as good, just as satisfying. Apples and oranges!
Set in a boarding-house in the outskirts of London during the Second World War, this comedy of manners manages to be exasperating, entertaining, frustrating, and all-around good fun. Hamilton presents us a microcosm, a Petri dish, through the Rosamund Tea Rooms.
The war is a fact of life, but in The Slaves of Solitude, it’s a mere backdrop. The Rosamund Tea Rooms was hidden away in the country, dodging the war, in its petty boarding-house lassitude almost insensible of it. What filters in to the tenants are bits of news, the appearance of soldiers on leave, and the inconvenience of rations. All the tenants were driven to this boarding-house because of the war — and yet the war seems to cease to exist once inside these walls.
A condition of dullness, torpidity, inactivity, and silence is the default mode for our tenants. The communal meals are to blame, as they set in stone not only the atmosphere of the boarding-house and the moods of the people within it. In this dining-room, this still, grey, winter-gripped dining-room, identities are established, not only in interactions but the very characters of the persons involved. That chilling room, that mortuary of desire and passion, is governed by bullying and bitchery. While the rest either cower in fear, or struck mute with embarrassment or shame or rage or exasperation. It’s all gloom and doom in the Rosamund Tea Rooms.
They didn’t talk, they didn’t laugh, they didn’t seem to enjoy their food, they didn’t seem to go out, they didn’t seem to have any interests, they didn’t seem to like each other much, they didn’t even seem to hate each other, they didn’t seem to do anything. All they seemed to do was to crawl in one by one, murmur a little to the waitress, mutter little requests to pass the salt, shift in their chairs, occasionally modestly cough or blow their noses, sit, eat, wait, eat, sit, and at last crawl out again, one by one, without a word, to heaven knew where to do heaven knew what.
The dementedly annoying, ridiculously antagonistic, odious Mr. Thwaites is behind this horror. Mr. Thwaites, with that steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the dreams of others. This man has to be read to be believed, and [barely] tolerated. He Troths, uses this grating Ye Olde English witticism-laden diction that just goads and baits and pesters — Hamilton is awesome with this character. Mr. Thwaites’ talent for passive-aggressive torture, casts another web of Unbearable in the boarding-house.
And his favorite victim is Miss Roach. Poor Miss Roach, her plain fear, fear of life, of herself, of Mr. Thwaites, of the times and the things into which she has been born, and which boomed about her and encircled her everywhere.
Let us not forget about Miss Roach. She is, after all, the heroine of this novel. Thirty-nine, having sought asylum in the Rosamund Tea Rooms when she was bombed out of her London apartment a year ago, Miss Roach is, among others, the long-suffering victim of Mr. Thwaites.
The jacket copy describes Miss Roach as “savvy, sensible, and all-too-meek.” And I would have to agree. She’s too polite to put Mr. Thwaites in his place, and her rationalizations about his behavior, and hers, her resolution to tolerate that twit and other twits — all entertaining, admirable yet funny, and gahdamned noble from where I was standing. Miss Roach is too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and so sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.
She possesses a quiet dignity as well, one laced with self-deprecation, one that can be easily mistaken for passivity, even timidity and impotence. It’s her façade’s default mode, because she’s rather riotously funny and feisty in her head.
This “passivity” even applies to the “romance” she has with “her” American Lieutenant Pike [excuse the onslaught of quotation marks — Miss Roach has a fondness for them], whose kisses she disliked . . . at first, but after a while she found that she disliked [them] a good deal less. Okay then. And even when Lieutenant Pike behaves like an asshat, Miss Roach is astute enough to realize that inconsequential is this American’s default mode:
. . . she was by now resigned to being perplexed by the Lieutenant — whose appearance and disappearances, whose enthusiasms and fluctuations, whose bland mental reconciliation of almost explicit offers of marriage with almost complete withdrawal of his person from the recipient, whose burning faith in the Laundry business, and whose business, and whose habit of drinking much too much, could be withstood and surmounted by resignation alone.
Another factor to this “tempest in a tea-room” is Vicki Kugelmann [that snake], who is German by birth but has lived in London for close to 15 years. The friendship between the two women began when Miss Roach “rescued” Vicki from a racist crowd, but this friendship transforms when Vicki shows her true colors. At first, it’s little hints about an illustrious life she’s supposedly having—in a nudge-nudge I have a better life than you, Miss Roach wink-wink kind of way. She builds herself a femme fatale image, with Miss Roach as central spectator. These revelations stun, befuddle, Miss Roach, but [it] was not a question of envy: it was a question of fear of having been mistaken in a specific type of person. And then Vicki resorts to sly insinuations. She moves in to Rosamund Tea Rooms too, and even tries to snatch Lieutenant Pike.
Vicki launches a campaign of Extreme Bitchery to subvert Miss Roach at every turn. This includes teaming up with the odious Mr. Thwaites. She displays a series of affectations — exaggerated femininity complete with eyelash-batting and squealing, peculiar diction. It doesn’t seem all that bad with my description — but when you’re in Miss Roach’s head it’s sheer hell. It’s like being scrubbed raw by sandpaper and repeatedly dunked in a barrel of saltwater and then lemon juice.
Miss Roach and Vicki Kugelmann engage in a feud unparalleled in boarding-house, or indeed feminine, history. There is no open antagonism. Vicki is too cunning for that [as is Mr. Thwaites, you see], and Miss Roach is too dignified to engage in a brawl. These two women battle it out in impressive feats of passive-aggressive bitchery[Vicki], a closing-in-of-the-bully-ranks [still Vicki], a solid campaign to besmirch the other’s reputation [also Vicki]. Huh. Miss Roach? She allows her patience to stretch as far as it can go. And her mind, it seethes, it schemes.
Hamilton is so deep into the character of Miss Roach that everything happens to her, happens to us. And affects us even more intensely. Mr. Thwaites starts Trothing insults to Miss Roach and we cringe and grit our teeth and wish fervently for the ceiling to crash down on the toad. Lieutenant Pike proposes marriage, drinks too much, then disappears only to reappear oh-so-blithely — we shrug and sigh and we scratch our heads. Vicki and her Bitchery, coy or otherwise, her Mean Girl tactics and her taunting, her fakeness, her gaaah — we want to reach into the pages and claw at her.
This doesn’t mean that these characters are only alive in our heads because of Miss Roach’s repression or even her eventual proactive-ness. [Was that a spoiler alert? Then again, I’d been enthusiastic this long — do you think I’d like a novel where the heroine continues to suffer?] It’s Miss Roach’s character that intensifies those of the horrid people around her. Regardless of her flaws — her too-polite-for-her-own-good nature, her crazy-admirable patience, her tendency to seem like a doormat — we are always rooting for Miss Roach because we are always in her mind, and we enjoy being there. We know how she suffers, we know how she rages. We know how she scrutinizes details of people’s actions and we feel as strongly when she comes to an epiphany.
Of course, when we are at the absolute wit’s end, when we are virtually yelling at Miss Roach to snap already, dammit, her patience blessedly, finally fizzles. You could not believe my joy.
Now Miss Roach was not going to stand for this. She had made up her mind she was not going to stand for this. She could stand, and had stood, practically everything from this woman, but somehow this was the one thing she did not mean to stand.
I’ll allow future readers of the novel to share that joy; I’ll put a cork in the book-dorkery. Rest assured, those twits will get what’s coming to them.
But what I can’t shut up about is how Miss Roach conducts herself while aforementioned twits get their comeuppance. Hamilton said it best: Miss Roach, a modest woman, had modest notions of revenge. This is, in no way, an understatement. I, personally, wouldn’t even be the least bit content with extreme violence, cerebral assassination, and even petty pranks. If I were Miss Roach, after all that’s been done to me — the bullying, the bitchiness, the blah excuse for love — I would be demanding blood. Blood, I tell you.
But I am not Miss Roach. This wouldn’t be the great novel I’ve been dorking out about if Miss Roach was anything other than Miss Roach.
Hee. I know I’ve done it again — talked a novel to death. There are two kinds of good books, I’m wont to generalize: Those that stun you into absolute ninny-muteness, and those that provoke you unto making a fool of yourself in the vain hope that you can give justice to even just one aspect of the piece.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, then you know what kind of book The Slaves of Solitude is.