‘Slaves of Solitude is Hamilton’s attempt to make a connection between large historical forces, the evil that we read about in the newspapers, and the squabbles and petty struggles that make up quotidian individual existence.’
-Sean French, Patrick Hamilton: A Life, p.187.
Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude uses narrative perspective to emphasise a scepticism towards English patriotism. The novel’s third person narrator is heavily subjective and slips into free indirect discourse to reveal Miss Roach’s inner thoughts and concerns. After an evening with the American Lieutenant and Vicki, the narrator shows how Miss Roach reflects on how she was called ‘an English Miss’. (1) The narrator informs readers that ‘[s]he had awakened at half-past three, and so she had been torturing herself for over an hour now.’ (p.128) It continues: ‘Why should she torture herself? Why should she let this filthy woman torture her? She mustn’t call her a filthy woman. She wasn’t filthy. But then, again, she was! (p.128). Despite the third person narrator, the repetition of ‘filthy’ and the contradictions in the passage show the extent of the narrator’s penetrative powers. It mirrors Miss Roach’s thought patterns and opinions of Vicki, revealing the extent to which she is troubled by Vicki’s behaviour. Later in the passage Miss Roach’s thoughts are articulated through free indirect discourse: ‘No – it wasn’t fair – it wasn’t fair ! […] Did Vicki, by the way, think that she – Vicki – wasn’t plain and middle aged?’ (p.130) The multiple exclamations and the use of italicisation show how the novel gives voice to Miss Roach’s frustrations. The narrator continues mirroring Miss Roach’s thoughts when it lists Vicki’s wrongdoings:
‘offending the friend she sought to make by the clumsiness of her idiom and manner of thought, […] her reluctance to pay for drinks, […] turning up late without making proper apologies, […] going to Mrs Payne behind Miss Roach’s back, and so on and so forth?’ (p.132)
The continuous and uninterrupted listing again suggests the narrator to be in tune with Miss Roach’s rambling thoughts. The narrative, in this chapter, is both broken up by pauses and questions, yet at points it progresses quickly and uncontrollably. Miss Roach cannot be rid of her thoughts and frustrations about Vicki even when ‘she [becomes] aware of a great purring [of planes] in the sky above and all around’ (p.133). Introducing the sound of planes in the background draws attention to the fact that Miss Roach is more concerned with her personal war with Vicki than with the World War happening outside. The extent of the narrator’s subjectivity is what breaks down the assumption that Miss Roach’s main concern is the War; she has concerns much closer to home and the War remains a remote issue.
This deconstruction of a universal English pride in fighting against the collective German enemy continues when the narrator connects the language of battle and war with episodes in Miss Roach’s life. Towards the beginning of the novel Miss Roach goes for a drink with the Lieutenant and feels ‘pleasure at having the monotony of her evening blown to smithereens’ (p.28). The narrator notes how this would cause a ‘minor tumult […] in particular, in the breast of Mr Thwaites who was no doubt at this moment […] booming away in the lounge’ (p.28). The language of war and, in particularly, of the destruction of the Blitz, is used to describe how her first evening with the Lieutenant breaks her routine of eating at the boarding house. The narrator portrays Miss Roach’s encounter with the Lieutenant to be just as, if not more, dramatic as the War. Similarly, the narrator sympathises with Miss Roach when describing Mr Thwaites voice as ‘booming’, rendering him as destructive and threatening like the enemy bombs. The novel argues that individual conflicts, like the one between Miss Roach and Mr Thwaites, are more of an immediate concern for people than the remote War. Sean French argues that this novel is ‘Hamilton’s attempt to make a connection between large historical forces, the evil that we read about in the newspapers, and the squabbles and petty struggles that make up quotidian individual existence’. (2) However, Hamilton does more than merely connect the two. He places the emphasis on the individual and deconstructs the idea put forward by the government propaganda of a ‘united England’ with a shared experience of war.
The way in which Hamilton’s Slaves is divided into both chapters and numbered sections within chapters works to reveal an apprehension about a united England. The way in which the chapters are constructed stresses the importance of internal thought and experience rather than plot. The first chapter ends with Miss Roach in the ‘Odeon Cinema’ (p.27) and chapter two begins again with Miss Roach ‘sat in the white darkness of the Odeon Cinema at Thames Lockdown’ (p.27). The chapters link to one another, giving the impression that little progress has been made in terms of plot. However, ‘it was Saturday […] [a]nd three weeks has passed since she has rushed out from Mr Thwaites and hidden herself in here’ (p.27). Despite this jump in time, the chapter then continues by filling in the time in between both trips to the cinema. The narrator flashes back, talking in detail about when Miss Roach and the Lieutenant went to ‘the River Sun and took a seat at a table in a corner near the fire’ (p.29), her ‘panic’ at ‘the idea of being made to drink anymore’ (p.31), her ‘renewed freshness and eagerness’ (p.41) after ‘the kisses in the darkness by the river’ (p.41) and the Lieutenant’s ‘bombshell’ (p.42) of a marriage proposal to which she reflects and continually asks questions such as, ‘was it a joke – a sort of leg-pull?’ (p.43) The chapter addresses Miss Roach’s thoughts, opinions and contemplations before returning to the ‘white darkness’ (p.44) of the cinema. This lack of chronological movement shows, like the penetrating narrative voice, how the novel places an emphasis on the individual drama of thought and internal realities. It reveals that the plot consists of the characters’ wandering psychologies and again, reveals the scepticism about war being a primary concern for all of society.
Featured Image- First edition of the novel.
1, Patrick Hamilton, Slaves of Solitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 129. All further references to this text are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay. The novel will be referred to as the shortened title Slaves.
2, Sean French, Patrick Hamilton: A Life (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p.187.
Written by Estelle Luck.
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