As I said a few days ago I have been suffering from an annoying case of reader's block and, as I also said, I put it down to withdrawal symptoms after I finished Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude. The review of that book is going to appear in a few days as I did it as a read-along with Simon and others, but meanwhile I headed off to my local library and there I was pleased and surprised to find this, which is Hamilton's second novel, written when he was all of twenty-two.
I wasn't sure, at first, if I was going to take to it. It's set, as is the later novel, in a seedy boarding house, though in this case one that disguises itself as a private house that just happens to taking 'paying guests'. But the mood and tone are much lighter, or rather the comedy and seriousness are blended in a different way, and that took a bit of getting used to. Once I did, though, I was well and truly hooked, and raced through the novel in joy and delight, longing to see how it would all end.
Craven House, in a shabbily genteel part of London, is owned by a shabbily genteel spinster by the name of Miss Hatt who, as the novel begins, has taken on some new 'guests', the retired Major Wildman and his small son. Master Wildman -- for so he is referred to throughout the novel -- is eight years old, and is to become the book's central character. The story begins in 1911, but takes a leap forward about halfway through and ends up in the early 1920s. So we follow Master Wildman through his schooldays, the death of his father, his first job in the City, his ambitions to become a playwright, his passion for the cold but beautiful Miss Cotterall, and his friendship with little Elsie, who also lives at Craven House. Elsie, indeed, is almost as central to the story. Shy and quiet, she is kept that way by her mother Mrs Nixon who frequently attacks her with a stick in the privacy of their rooms. But, as Elsie grows up, she begins to develop a little more courage, and this will have far-reaching results.
The story is a delight and its twists and turns never predictable. The characters are wonderfully funny and diverse -- dreadful Mr Spicer, who goes out for long 'walks' which take him into pubs and into the company of prostitutes, both of which habits he naturally conceals from his foolish, dull wife -- the servants, Ethel and Audrey, who giggle in the basement but are in danger of 'getting out of hand' -- elderly Mrs Hoare, who is too discreet even to speak whole words, preferring instead to use initials ('"Perhaps a little A", says Mrs Hoare, "about the Aitch" (Angry about the Hair)').
Patrick Hamilton's prose is wonderful -- witty at times, always brilliantly observed. I want to quote huge chunks of it but I'll try to restrain myself with an example or two:
It was a grey, roaring day in July, with the wind as high as though the gods had come to earth, and it was, perhaps, the most beautiful day in all the year. For anything more beautiful than that besieging wind, brushing up the leaves to unearthly silvers and dead bight greys, and swirling every tree into a maddened and suffering tangle, with a whisper and hiss and toss -- or anything more lovely than those strange, short calms, when one dead leaf against a dead sky would flutter to the ground, and an invisible rain would start patting on the ivy, and pitting the dust hurriedly against the distant but fast-returning roar -- would have to be found in a stranger and more bewailing earth than this.
Craven House was published almost exactly twenty years before The Slaves of Solitude, and it was fascinating to compare the two, both of which certainly have some elements of autobiography. More Patrick Hamilton is winging its way to me and I am really looking forward to exploring his work further. But meanwhile I can't resist another quotation, which actually made me laugh out loud this morning as I was reading it in bed:
Whereas the first signs of a failing brain in the average human are believed to manifest themselves in the form of odd straws, or irrelevant flowers sticking out from their persons; and whereas this is in fact a mainly false belief, there is no doubt that, when suspicions of this sort come to centre round an old lady, the trouble first sets in around the Hat. A cherry too much, a rose too dangling, an apple too great, a bunch of grapes to the bad, and before you know where you are, you have a thick-veiled, white-booted, painted, muttering old nodder, charging along the streets, mixing with the crowd, and waiting with eternal nods at street corners, to the bewildered horror of the public at large.
Wonderful stuff and I am tempted to read the whole thing again, not something I do very often.