If you have never heard of Patrick Hamilton, you are not alone. Described by the [London] Daily Telegraph as "a criminally neglected British author," Hamilton wrote nine novels from the 1920s through the early 1950s , along with the famous dramas of Rope and Gaslight. Almost Dickensian in his sympathetic attention to London's poor and struggling classes, Hamilton may finally be gaining the widespread public recognition he so richly deserves. A writer of enormous gifts, Hamilton's sense of time, place, and voice bring backstreet London in the 1930s alive with sense impressions. At the same time, he creates characters the reader instinctively cares about, even when they are being foolish. Three overlapping novellas filled with dark humor focus on three different characters associated with a pub called "The Midnight Bell," providing a close look at ordinary people living at the margins of society and doing the best they can in often fraught circumstances.
Bob, the bartender, is a young man for whom "Dreams were his life." Naively, he hopes to become a great writer, though he has not produced any work. Having inherited forty-seven pounds upon the death of his mother, he has scrimped from his small salary and tips so that he now has eighty pounds, a sum which symbolizes security for him. The arrival of Jenny Maples, a gorgeous, young prostitute whose pathetic story of needing money inspires his sense of protectiveness provides the turning point of this story. As she plays on his weaknesses, including his penchant for drink, he falls in love with her.
"The Siege of Pleasure" is Jenny's story, detailing her descent into prostitution. Though she has come to London to work--and finds a job as maid to a pair of hilarious old women and their deaf brother, which gives some much-needed comic relief--she soon becomes interested in being a "mannequin." The "victim" of a "glass of port" while out with friends, Jenny wakes up the next morning in a strange bed--her very gradual intoxication and equally gradual loss of control depicted with agonizing slowness.
"Plains of Cement" concentrates on the homely but loving Ella, the barmaid at The Midnight Bell, a woman in her late twenties who is a "little mother" to the late-at-night patrons. Hopelessly in love with Bob, who is not attracted to her, Ella soon finds herself being courted by Mr. Eccles, a much older man with a healthy bank account. Mr. Eccles, both peevish and demanding, soon attempts to take over her life, "superadding Religion to all the other mental thumbscrews and tortures," he has applied. As Ella tries find an escape, her plight elicits the greatest of empathy from the reader.
With its ironic title, suggesting that the lives of the denizens of The Midnight Bell are as far "under water" as Captain Nemo was in the Nautilus, this novel explores three desperate characters with sensitivity, care, and genuine emotion. The overarching problems of alcohol in two of the sections parallel the alcoholism of the author, and the development of the characters and the author's ability to involve the reader are enough to overcome the superficially trite plot lines. A rediscovered classic of the 1930s. Mary Whipple
The Slaves of Solitude (New York Review Books Classics)
Craven House. Patrick Hamilton