First-Class Fellow Traveller

Terry Eagleton

  • Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French
    Faber, 327 pp, £20.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 571 14353 9

Stalinist, alcoholic, sexually ambivalent, Patrick Hamilton had all the prerequisites of a successful Thirties writer. That his success was uneven would seem simply another sign of the times, the mark of an epoch grimly wedded to failure. His work was praised by Greene, Priestley, Lessing, Powell; but if he survives today it is for a couple of memorably macabre dramas – Rope and Gaslight – which Hamilton himself scorned as callow sensationalism. Rope, a savage homo-erotic farce by Orton out of Wilde, made his name and fortune, and was filmed without cuts by Hitchcock in a celebrated cinematic experiment. Gaslight, first performed in 1939, is a spooky tale of patriarchal paranoia which the sexual politicians of our time have yet to catch up with. But though several of Hamilton’s sub-Dickensian novels sold widely at the time, only a meagre clutch them (Hangover Square, Slaves of Solitude, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse) have survived in contemporary editions; and by the Fifties their author was hurtling towards spiritual skid row, plagued by the dipsomania which killed him in 1962.

Hamilton was born in Hassocks in 1904 into a typically reputable middle-class family. His father was an alcoholic and an atrocious novelist; his brother Bruce raised the familial tone by being merely a hard boozer and a third-rate writer; his mother committed suicide. Patrick himself broke with bourgeois respectability, plunging defiantly into Soho squalor and Fitzrovian frowziness; but he also spent much of his life slowly turning into his father. Hamilton senior had tried to reclaim a prostitute, who later threw herself in front of a train; Patrick was similarly fascinated by whores, though it is doubtful that he ever reaped an adequate return for his money. By the mid-Forties he was chalking up three bottles of whisky a day, which as Sean French points out would be the financial equivalent of a modern-day cocaine habit. The roaring success of Gaslight helped to fund his addiction, so that the play made him and marred him at a stroke. A postcard to his brother from Ireland meticulously charts his progressive stages of leglessness, from ‘plain’ and ‘fighting’ to ‘blind’ and ‘dead’. The most efficient way to finish a novel, he persuaded himself, was to stay in bed all day and drink a lot of whisky, which may provide a clue to his dwindling output.

Whether Hamilton ever successfully made love to a woman is a matter for scholarly debate. It would seem that women needed to have an ‘L’ in their first names for him to find them attractive, but even then there was no assurance of sexual success. He fell in love with a prostitute called Lily and married a woman called Lois, but his true soul-mate, apart from his friend Laura, was probably Lalla. Only his relationship with her seemed to rival in erotic intensity his binges with brother Bruce. A near-fatal road accident, scrupulously reconstructed by French, left his face unpleasantly scarred and put him out of action on the very brink of literary breakthrough. In the dustjacket photograph on this book he looks like a hirsute Philip Larkin, the scar carefully touched out, a reminder in his suit, collar and tie of the days when the Left dressed just like the Right. When his fame seemed finally sealed with the filming of Rope, Hitchcock brutally removed the screenplay from his hands, substituting, in Hamilton’s own dispassionate judgment, some ‘sordid and practically meaningless balls’. The shock of viewing the movie, however, sent him straight out (so he said) to achieve sexual consummation with a woman, probably for the first time in his life. But perfection of the life continued to elude him. Even a parrot he bought proved a poor talker, though it just about managed to croak ‘Pretty Pollitt’ in honour of the General Secretary of the British Communist Party. When he came to portray himself in his fiction, it was as the psychopath Ernst Gorse; and his final years were dogged by severe clinical depression, for which he was subjected to ECT.

In the light of all this, it is hard to believe that Hamilton at his best is an engagingly comic writer. His fiction, not least the substantial trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is a darkly satiric anatomy of petty-bourgeois London, thronged with victimised servant girls and minor public-school cads, obsessed with vengeance, evil and persecution. At its worst, his prose pulls off the improbable trick of being archly mannered and drably utilitarian in equal measure, laced with a kind of camp whimsy and self-conscious jocoseness. The satiric anatomy, for Hamilton if not for his latest biographer, was thoroughly political in intent. He encountered Marxism in the early Thirties, knocked around with Claud Cockburn, and discovered in Stalin the benevolent daddy he never had at Hassocks. French dismisses his politics as a private quirk; but though his Marxism was certainly idiosyncratic – what other Communist cheered on the invasion of Suez? – it was a good deal more central to his literary vision than his biographer’s resolute depoliticising of him allows. If there are indeed any iron laws of history, one of them is surely that in any major crisis of the capitalist system, a sector of the liberal middle class will shift to the left, and then shift smartly back again once the crisis has blown over. In the literary sphere, it is usually those who revert to the political centre ground who are remembered; who now reads Christopher Caudwell, that astonishingly original intellect of the Thirties, as opposed to the comfortably pragmatist Wystan Auden? Hamilton retained some bizarre version of his leftist faith until the end; and one reason, no doubt, for that is that it was closely interwoven with his sexual pathology.

This, too, French largely puts aside, apart from recording his miserable failures with women. But that dismal trail of frustrations, near-misses and madonna-whore splittings points fairly clearly to repressed homosexuality, which French disposes of in a single cursory sentence. The epicene sons of the Thirties were locked in Oedipal combat with their excessively virile fathers, a politically belated progeny haunted by the guilt of having missed their military initiation in the Great War. Hamilton was, so to speak, a sexual non-combatant, which was at once rebellion and confession of failure, a politically charged impotence which could dissent but not, as yet, subvert. Homosexuality was the badge of the upper class and the sign of a revolt against it; and it is small wonder that someone locked for a lifetime in this impossible contradiction should end up with cirrhosis of the liver. French plays down these sexual politics in the spirit of Hamilton’s brother Bruce, who remarked with either faux or foolish naivety that Rope, that riot of homoerotic perversity, might even be mistaken as a homosexual work. It was left to Hitchcock’s film to brazenly bring out the unthinkable truth. Hamilton was one of the many first-class fellow travellers of Thirties Britain who found an imaginary solution to their sexual-political dilemmas in the egregiously non-erotic figure of Joseph Stalin; but while French registers this clearly enough, he fails to consider that such politics, whatever their dubious personal genesis, may still have some substance to them. Hamilton’s shrewd later description of Gaslight as ‘anti-capitalist’ was not just the perfunctory jargon of an inadequately Oedipalised Stalinophile; and his work, whatever its sporadic misogyny, is of interest to feminists in ways French simply ignores.

Patrick Hamilton: A Life betrays scant sense of Thirties history, Marxism and sexual politics, a set of omissions equivalent to writing a life of Wordsworth without mentioning the Lake District. But it is an admirably thorough, doggedly researched, robustly written volume, driven by the biographer’s compulsive desire for completeness. A little too driven, perhaps: do we really need plot summaries of Hamilton père’s abysmal novels, or résumés of brother Bruce’s bone-headed efforts? And what of the fact that another biography of Hamilton, mentioned here in a single correctly courteous aside, appeared a couple of years ago? There would seem no end to the peculiar English mania for the Individual Life, behind which lies a whole burden of ideological history. If the French cult of the death of the author is a mite hyperbolic, the English are pruriently obsessed with how often some two-bit sonneteer changed his socks. Patrick Hamilton was far from a two-bit author, and we are indebted to Sean French for restoring to our attention a half-forgotten writer who hovers somewhere around the top of Division Two and may be due for promotion. But the biographical genre rarely creates space for coruscating literary criticism, and this book is no exception. French dutifully summarises each of his author’s works, with a sprinkling of evaluative comments; but he is capable of subtler critical insight than this, and there is no attempt to weigh the oeuvre in its literary or historical context.

We may finish the book feeling that we should have known about Hamilton already, but it still isn’t clear why. And the cult of the Individual Life is, of course, ultimately self-defeating. For one thing, most individual existences are routine and unremarkable; and there is a subdued comic contrast between French’s busily energetic labours and the sheer dingy averageness of the career he charts. If Hamilton was abnormal, he was abnormal in all the conventional ways. Biographies cannot help reminding us, in the very act of distilling the uniqueness of their subjects, of just what tediously generic creatures they are. The structure of biography is biology: even the most wayward of geniuses have to get themselves born and educated, fight with their parents, fall in love and die. The remorseless linearity of the biographical form represents one of the last pockets of realism untouched by Modernism, and the triumph of the ideology of the ego over Tristram Shandy. Hamilton himself was sniffy about literary experiment, though never a card-carrying socialist realist; indeed the British Thirties Left was never especially Zhdanovite, and Hamilton mixes a good deal of fantasy into his naturalistic forms. The plays for which he has been remembered are audacious adventures in the Gothic mode, and an impressive drama for which he hasn’t been remembered – The Duke in Darkness – is set in 16th-century France. Inside the seedy text of Hamilton’s life, there is a fantastic subtext struggling to get out; and though this book gives us a wealth of realist detail, it doesn’t really succeed in capturing the turbulent unconscious of its protagonist.