I suppose there are books which have a more darkly comic theme than ‘Mrs Palrey at the Claremont’ – Martin Amis’ ‘LondonFields’, for instance, and a few others, including a book I really enjoyed when I was twenty, ‘Safe Behind Bars’ by Andrew Hall; generally, though, I would calll it humour of the darkest type.
Oddly enough, it was recommended to me by an older relative, then in her eighties. She said then that it was funny. I thought parts of it were, and parts of it made painful reading. She is now in her nineties, and when I mentioned re-reading it, she claimed she only recommended it to me, ‘Because you like reading grim things like that.’
As a matter of fact, my grandmother and mother knew Elizabeth Taylor: I am not doing a bit of name dropping, but stating that because the impression I had of her from their accounts – producing a version of ‘Six Men of Dorset’, tempting the child actors in the opening scene (my mother was one) with new potatoes in a potato eating scene, seems to have been of a cheerful, exuberant person.
Perhaps that follows; maybe we can only face writing about the grimmer aspects of life, when we are by nature optimistic. The topic of ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ is about the upper middle class Mrs Palrey, recently widowed, and eager to avoid living with her insensitive daughter in Sctoland, who goes to live at the Claremont Hotel in the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, as one of the regular boarders who receive reduced rates. These are generally old people who are spending their declining years in affluent surroundings. The blurb of my Virago Modern Classics version sums it up well: ‘Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight of their twin enemies; boredom and the Grim Reaper’.
It is hard to tell how old they are, because with the developments in medicine, life expectancy has increased massively since this era. They are perhaps in their late seventies, which would have been regarded as very old back in 1971 when the book was published. Mrs Palfrey, whose husband was in the colonial service, has spent some happy years of retirement in Rottingdean, a coastal village in Sussex.
They lived in a rented house, so perhaps house prices were as comparatively expensive there then as they are now. Mrs Palfrey’s strict code of behaviour includes the injunction ‘never touch capital’ , so perhaps actually buying the house when coming back to the UK after a life spent in the colonies was seen by herself and her husband as that. I mention this, as perhaps Mrs Palfrey might never have thought of moving out, had they owned the house, and so come to her melancholy feeling of rootlessness in London. But perhaps she would, for Mrs Palfrey now finds domestic chores and the administrative tasks of running house to be beyond her.
Interestingly, there is a pub there called ‘Ye Olde Black Horse’ rather appropriate ot Mrs Palfrey; perhaps that inspired Elizabeth Taylor to write of her. One of her fellow lodgers later thinks of Mrs Palfrey as ‘a dark horse’…
Remembering this life later, Mrs Palrey thinks: ‘After their hard, often uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous married life, that retirement – the furnished house in Rottingdean – had, simply, been bliss.’
She is a sympathetic character, and I found the depiction of her former happiness truly tragic. The most tragic thing is that she remembers taking it for granted.
‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put pieces of coal on the fire, building what he called ‘a good toast fire’. ‘
Mrs Palrey is no delicate flower -in fact, she is described as looking, in evening dress, like a man in drag- but suffering from heart problems, varicose veins and increasing stiffness, she becomes alarmngly aware of her failing health and increasing loneliness, for she makes no real friends among her fellow residents at the Claremont.
Mrs Palrey is no delicate flower -in fact, she is described as looking, in evening dress, like a man in drag- but suffering from heart problems, varicose veins and increasing stiffness, she becomes alarmngly aware of her failing health and increasing loneliness, for she makes no real friends among her fellow residents at the Claremont.
There was at this time an exclusive club called the Claremont not so far away in Mayfair, where Lord Lucan used to gamble every day before he fled the country in 1974 as the prime suspect in the attempted murder of his wife. Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor was thinking of this upper class estabishment when she named her hotel, though one of the guests at her Claremont, Lady Swayle, who only visits London once a year, describes it as ‘cheap and cheerful’ and no doubt to her, it is.
These days you would need to be a multi-millionare to live in a hotel in South Kensington, but obviously at the time of the story, presumably around 1968 – the union jack shopping bags and student demonstratons I remember from my childhood are mentioned – it was just affordable for those with a middling sort of income. In fact, Ludovic Meyers, the writer who rescues and befriends Mrs Palfrey when she falls in the street, has inherited a sum of money from his recently deceased grandmother and is able to afford to live a spartan existence in a basement flat somewhere in South Kensington. To save on heating in the winter, he goes to write every day in the then open Harrods banking hall.
What he is writing before he comes to Mrs Palfrey’s rescue when she slips and falls outside his basment flat is far from clear – though he does seem to be fascinated by the twilight years – but afterwards it is ‘We’re Not Allowed To Die Here’.
Jolly stuff. Actually, like Elizabeth Taylor herself as recalled by my older relatives, the writer himself is seemingly an optimist by nature with an acute sense of humour.
We learn about Mrs Palfrey’s fellow permanent residents. There is Mr Osborne, who tells dirty jokes to the Italian waiter and the doorman Summers, and is a dirty old man, though one who wants a replacement wife to regard as ‘above all that’. There is Mrs Arbuthnot, debilitated by arthritis, who is the first to make a friendly overture to Mrs Palfrey, but who, as her arthritis becomes worse, takes to taunting her about the lack of visits from Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond, whom Mrs Palfrey is disappointed to find is not tempted to visit her at the hotel by the good dinners. There is the scatty, hopelessy out of touch Mrs Post, and the jolly, drunken Mrs Burton, whom I rather liked.
Later on, Mrs Arbuthnot has to move into a home, and is replaced by a Colonel Mildmay, a polite, distant man who intends to make countless visits to the nearby museums. Mrs Palfrey herself replaced one Mrs Benson, who went into hospital, never to come out…
Another, younger widow briefly joins them, Mrs de Salis, whom I rather liked. The author comments that ‘Like quite a few show-off people, she sometimes kept her word’ and she does about the party she promises the Claremont residents, when she moves into a flat of her own.
This dreadful party is a highlight – or lowlight, depending on how you look at it – of the grmily comic atmosphere in the book. There is a retired actress who once played Mrs Darling in ‘Peter Pan’ called Fay Sylvester; there is Mrs de Salis’ adorable Willie, now middle aged; there is ‘plenty of plonk for everyone’, there is Mrs de Salis’ sister known as ‘Aunt Bunty’ (wonderful name; I think Elizabeth Taylor has as much as a weakness for ridiculous names as I do), and after the guests have gone, Mrs de Salis says, ‘I was only trying to be kind, as is my wont. I did the best I could, as that ghastly old bishop no doubt said to the actress…’
Mrs Palfrey’s humiliation over the none appearance of her grandson Desmond, about which the increasingly agonised Mrs Arbuthnot taunts her, leads to her initiating a deception. This is the first real lie she has ever told in a straightforward, naively honourable life spent as a colonial administrator’s wife (memsahib?)
In one of her lonely walks about the bleak West London landscape, leaning on her walking stick, escaping from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Claremont, and looking for signs of spring, she slips, and the aspring writer Ludovic Meyers comes to her aid.
Mrs Palfrey decides to thank him by offering him a dinner at the Claremont, and on impulse, passes him off as her grandson, come to visit her at last. This, naturally, leads to complications…
I did find Ludovic a dull character, somehow not fully realised. I’m not sure exactly how this was because we are given access to his thoughts and vulnerabilitis. For instance, he has a selfish and feckless mother who treats him unfeelingly, and his distant and unimpressed girlfriend Rosie (and extraordinary old fashioned name in that era) does too. Despite having worked in the theatre before becoming a solitary writer, he has few friends.
Mrs Palfrey certanly thinks he is charming, and I supose that the reader is meant to as well, but I have come across several characters called Ludovic who are meant to be beguiling in books, and never thought any of them were. His name, anyway, is presumably meant to be as ridiculous as poor Mrs Palfrey’s:
‘”My name’s Ludovic: Ludo.”
“You have to be joking”…’ ever thought any of them was.
That isn’t Mrs Palfrey, of course; she would never be so rude; that is Rosie, who seems to spend most of her life putting everyone down, from customers in a boutique where she works as one of her jobs, to visitors to an art gallery where she later works at another.
‘Ludo’: remember that game, anyone? Is it even about any more?
Though Ludovic is meant to be interesting, as a struggling writer s, he is somehow not fully realised and never came properly to life for me. This was true even in his hopeless infatuation.
Perhaps Mrs Palfrey dotes on him because he is the one bright spot in her life, and because he represents the sort of grandson she would like to have had.
As for her real grandson, selfish and unfeeling, neglecting to visit her until forced to do so, Desmond when he does eventually turn up suffers the humiliation he deserves, I suppose. Yet I felt that Mrs Palfrey had always found him a disappointment, and when you don’t think much of people, they have an uncanny way of discernng it, however much you may try and hide it…
Her fellow ‘guests’ are all depicted with unsparingly keen vision, but also, thankfully, with compassion. Without being informed by compassion, this book would be almost unbearable to read.
In old age, there is loss of so many things. If people live to be very old, it is a commonplace that they lose all of their own generation, while the world in which they felt comfortable, that of their youth and early maturity, has long since vanished. Faculties disappear.
The awful thing is, this slow decline begins decades earlier. As a trade union representative in my twenties, I could remember all my appointments without keeping a diary, and a string of phone numbers. These days I need that appointments diary. The other day, I sent a card on impulse to that very old relative who recommend this book to me, and realised that I couldn’t remember the post code…
Grim humour written with unsparing clarity of vision by a brilliant writer, ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ is for those who can endure it. I will definitely be reading some more of Elizabeth Taylor. I liked her short story ‘Poor Girl’ when I read it decades ago, but somehow never got round to sampling more of her work.
In an earlier post, I discussed how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – suely largely based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.
She used this character type possibly for times, if I count the returned sailor ‘Poor Peter’ in ‘Cranford’ ( I have yet to read that).
This reuse of a character type, is in fact, is contrary to the cliam which WA Craik makes of the author n her 1970 work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel’, that this author never revisits character types or situations. This is so untrue, that I was startled by it. It seems to show a startling lack of perception on the part of that biographer.
Having read some biographies of Elizbeth Gaskell, I am always struck by the fact that she never properly got over the…
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I wrote a longish post about research for historical novels and changing opinions on ‘facts’ in history, and guess what – my PC has eaten it. It is ‘irretrievable’. Ironically, part of the post metioned the frustration of wasting hours carrying out fruitless research on topics where nobody can give you anything but the vaguest of answers. Well, I wasted a number writing that post, that is for sure.
Seeing that I have resolved to write a blog post every ten days or so in 2020, I am going to cheat and reblog this post that I have already reblogged once, as it still seems to get a fair amount of reads. It is about the male equivalent of the Mary- Sue.
I’ve been looking for discussions about the male equivalent of characters defined as Mary-Sue’s online, and what interests me is how few posts there are about Gary-Stus and Marty-Stus,and how few male characters are defined in this way.
In fact, I read a blog which, while admitting that there are few Gary Stu discussions compared to all those Mary-Sue accusations flying about, didn’t explore this, going on instead to list various heroines perceived by the author as Mary Sues. I was surprised to find Elizabeth Bennet on this blogger’s list; but more on that later.
Goodreads has a ‘Listopia’ list of Gary-Stus. As I am not a great reader of current fantasy, and most of the male leads named came from this genre, I didn’t know enough about the characters to comment. Even I, however, knew the male leads from the top two. First on the list was Edward Cullen from ‘Twilight’ by Stephanie Myer, and second was Jace from ‘City of Bones’ by Cassandra Clare.
Well, I think I said in my last post that the fact that many readers define the heroes and heroines of these books as Marty-Stus or Gary-Stus seems to have done little to detract from their bestselling status and continuing popularity.
I did let out a hoot of laughter at seeing that Frances Hodgeson-Burnett’s tiresome ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ featured on this list, that infamous young Cedric of the sailor suits and suave compliments.
I added the hero of Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’ to this list. Lord Orville is, surely, the original Marty-Stu, perfectly matched to the heroine who competes with Pamela for the title of the original Mary-Sue.
Lord Orville is handsome, witty, suave, gallant, and unlike his roguish rival, Sir Clement Willoughby, tenderly respectful of the heroine’s innocence (this is off topic; but did Jane Austen borrow Clement Willoughby’s name for her own rogue in ‘Sense and Sensibility’?).
I also added the secondary hero of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ to the list. Charley Kinraid ‘the boldest Specksioneeer on the Greenland Seas’ is handsome, fearless, irresistible to women, can drink endlessly and never fall down, is a brilliant raconteur, beguiling and the life and soul of the party. Just about the only person who doesn’t admire him in the book is his jealous rival Phillip Hepburn.
Not only that, but he has so much good luck that he is virtually indestructable. He survives two serious gunshot attacks without seemingly lasting ill effects. A woman is rumoured to have died of a broken heart after he finished with her.
The only bad luck he has is falling victim to a press gang, and the Royal Navy officers quickly take to him and realizing his exceptional abilities, promote him so that within a few years, he is able to marry an heiress. Then, further promoted to Captain, he is able to send out press gangs of his own…
As the term ‘Mary-Sue’ (later mutated to ‘Marty-Stu’ or ‘Gary-Sue’ to accommodate male characters) originated in fantasy fan fiction, I suppose it isn’t surprising that most of these online discussions are about this genre.
I did find a very witty catalogue of types of Marty-Stu on this link. Unfortunately, it’s about those on television rather than in books. It is excellent, and the types are easily recognizable in novels as well as television series and films:
This biting paragraph is particularly apt:
‘Dark Hole Stu: His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities, with dialogue that only acts as set-ups for his response. He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him – this usually translates to unambiguous praise and exposition about how great he is. Most people don’t oppose him and anybody who does will quickly realise their fault in doing so or just prove easy to overcome. ..’
Nevertheless, looking about for Marty-Stu or Gary-Stu discussions, I am a bit perturbed. There was seemingly so much more talk of Mary-Sues on the web compared to that centering on their male equivalents.
This seems accurately to reflect the different standards and expectations applied to male and female characters. There does appear to be a good deal less resentment of male characters presented as admirable, handsome, unflappable, invincible in fights, and invariably attractive to most women.
A male character is permitted to have glaring character flaws and still be presented as generally heroic. He is also allowed to be sexually adventurous and even promiscuous; a female character so free with her favours would be defined as ‘slutty’ and lose the sympathy of many female, as well as male, readers.
In fact, being emotionally challenged is often seen as a desirable attribute in these stereoptypical male leads. It is only rarely one with female leads. This has led me to wonder how readers would react, say, to a female version of the Byronic male?
This strikes me at least as being unfair.
I also note, that for some reviewers, the term ‘Mary- Sue’ is applied rather loosely, being leveled at almost any female character whom they for whatever reason, resent.
This leads me back to the term being applied by one blogger to Elizabeth Bennett. She doesn’t seem to me at all to qualify.
Yes, she is lucky to attract the hero’s admiration, but she does that through wit rather than her looks, which as everyone knows, originally elicited that ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ remark from him. It is true that her mother doesn’t appreciate her, and a virtual requirement for Mary-Sues is not to be appreciated by her family – but she is her father’s favourite daughter.
Apart from wit and dancing, she has no particular skills apart from perception. In the book (as distinct from the film versions) she is depicted as a mediocre singer and pianist; her sister Mary in fact described as more skilled, but with an affected style, so that people find her performances tiresome.
I suspect that the blogger disliked the character of Elizabeth Bennett, but not because she is a Mary-Sue. Possibly, the blogger disliked her because she is generally such a favourite among Jane Austen lovers that the chorus of praise from them becomes boring.
Therefore, it would be good if readers applied that suggestion I found on a fan fiction website about Mary-Sues: ‘Would I find these characteristics so annoying if she was male?’
Finally, a highly perceptive remark from a male poster called Tim Kitchin on Gary Stu’s:
‘Jason Bourne, Tintin, James Bond, Ethan Hunt would all ‘fit the description’. The absurdity of these Gary Stus doesn’t go unremarked by fans, but it doesn’t seem to evoke the same cultural baggage and resentment as many Mary Sue characters – for one thing because the intrinsic role-conflict (for which read ‘socially conditioned expectation’) inside male character leads is less complex…and for another because we are so used to them..
A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.
Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.
In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.
Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.
Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.
With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.
There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.
Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.
P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.
I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.
I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides. Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.
Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.
They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.
Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.
Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.
To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.
The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.
She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.
The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.
He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.
Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.
So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.
Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’
Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’
I was delighted to discover recently that the works of Patrick Hamilton, one of my long favourite writers, have come back into fashion. In fact, my favourite work by him ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ – generally regarded as one of his masterpieces – is currently ranking at 70,000 in the Kindle store.
How far this is due to an revival of interest in fiction related to World War II, and the recent (‘socially distanced’) celebration of VE Day, I don’t know. Anwyway, I was very pleased. I feared that his style, relying as it does on eleborate detail and the gradual building of tension, might seem too old fashioned for modern readers ever to develop a taste for it.
He infuenced my own style of writing, particularly in his darkly comic approach. I have imitated him in sometimes using the facetious use of capitals to emphasize certain phrases. I am sure other writers have used versions of it .
I remember reading ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ (not quite such early reading for me as ‘The Queen of Spades’ or ‘Carmela’ but in my teens, anyway) and being delighted by the dark humour that pervades that story.
Patrick Hamilton’s own life was to some extent tragic, though he achieved so much as a writer.
Born into an upper middle class background with an overbearing father who took out his frustrated authoritarian tendencies on his wife and family, Patrick and his beloved brother Bruce retained scars from their childhood all their lives. Patrick slipped early into alcoholism, tormented by and a horror of life, which he feared was meaningless.
His success came early, in his twenties, and he went on to write the fascinating trilogy depicting isolation in the London of the late nineteen twenties ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’.
His masterpieces, however, are ‘Hangover Square’ (from the preface to which I learned the poem ‘The Light of Other Days’) and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’.
Looking for a creed in which to believe, he became a communist. Bitterly disillusioned by the degeneration of the buoyant hopes of a better world that supported so many through terrible war against Nazism into a society based on consumerism, he became a sad and backward looking figure. For the last few years of his life he was hardly able to write at all.
That wonderful sense of the darkly comic aspects of life, of the delightful absurdities to be encountered every day, of the pathos and bathos of life are unique.
I’d like to quote from ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ here, where the dreadful boarding house bully, Mr Thwaites, is ridiculously drunk following Christmas dinner in the local pub.
‘”Methinks it Behoveth me’, said Mr Thwaites, ‘To taketh me unto my mansion. Doth it not? Peradventure? Perchance?”
“Yes,” said the Lieutenant. “Come along the. Get a move on.”…
“Come along Mr Thwaites.” said Vicki (the vulgar, Hitler admierer who coquettishly who encourages his advances).
“Ah, the Beauteous Dame.” said Mr Thwaites. “The beauteous damsel that keepeth me on tenterhooks.”
“Come on then,” said the Lieutenant. “Take my arm.”
“Hooks. Tenter One.” said Mr Thwaites. “See Inventory.”
“Aw, come on, will you?” said the Lieutenant.
“Damsel, Beauteous, One.” said Mr Thwaites.”Hooks, Tenter, Two. Yea, Verily.”…
“April, too.” said Mr Thawaites. “Thirty days hath November.”
At this he lurched forward, and the Lieutenant caught him…”‘
This book, which deals with a microcosm of the menace of fascism during the huge theatre of World War Two, tells the story of the lonely Miss Roach, an unmarried woman in early middle age living in an era when to be a ‘spinster’ was regarded as a grim and lonely fate. Miss Roach is in her late thirties, and many of the young men in her generation were killed of in World War I. The story is set in late 1943 in World War II, and again men of her own age and younger are being killed off.
Bombed out of her London flat, she still works in the capital but commutes from Berkshire and a genteel boarding house in ‘Thames Lockdon’ (based on Henley-on-Thames). In this boarding house, known by the absurd name of ‘The Rosamund Tea Rooms’, she has become the target of an idiotic but sinister elderly man named Thwaites, whose hobbies are bullying and boring people with his snobbish and absurd views.
Miss Roach does a seemingly lonely German woman friend a favour in introducing her into the Rosamnund Tea Rooms. As a German, Vicki Kugelmannn has been singled out for social ostracism in the town, and is exploited at her curerent lodgings. She is also single, about Miss Roach’s age, and Miss Roach hopes to find a good friend in her and possibly even a source of moral support against the overbearing Mr Thwaites.
However, Vicki soon reveals that far from being grateful to Miss Roach, she is eager to steal from her a generous but drunken American lieutenant who has been taking Miss Roach out. Now, despite her ver ordinary appearance, Vicki is shown as being insanely vain, and to regard herself as a sort of femme fatale. Worse, she gangs up with Mr Thawaites against Miss Roach, and both of them gradually reveal their Nazi symapthies…
A psychological thriller, the novel depicts a struggle against the power of evil which reflects world events.
Intriguingly, the novel ends with what I consider a truly inspired phrase from this most irreligious of writers: ‘God help us, God help all of us, Every one, all of us.’
“If this ain’t a Bow Street Runner or some other thief taker, then I’m a Dutchwoman,” Kate told Suki, as they watched the short, stocky, dapper man came up to the Inn door. “Good morning, Sir. What will you have?”
They knew he was staying with their rivals in The King’s Justice up the road. The landlord there prided himself on running a respectable house. The tenants of The Huntsman knew he was jealous, because he didn’t have such open-handed customers. The man was even applying for a licence to have his premises made into a gaol, possible future lodgings for some of the regulars at The Huntsman.
The customer glanced about with hard pale grey eyes, fixing them on the baby, who let out a wail.
Kate picked him up. “Serve the gentleman, Suki.”
“A tankard of porter. A fine infant; is he your only one?”
“Seeing as I was only married fifteen months come Saturday, yes, Sir.” The man wetted his moustache. “Has Reynaud Ravensdale been in lately?”
“Ravensdale?” Kate laughed. “You can’t mean that Lord? The gentleman has high notions of our patrons, Suki. Yes, Sir, him and the Prince of Wales, they came in together.”
The man’s eyes hardened still more. “Exercise your wit, Mistress, if you will, but Lord or no, now he’s an outlaw, and lower than the merest farm hand, a wanted murderer with a price on his head for highway robbery. I hear tell he’s been seen hereabouts.”
“By who?” Kate looked outraged. “That old harridan over the way, I’ll be bound. There’s so many sightings of that Ravensdale in different places, he must have a better horse than Turpin’s Black Bess to get about the way he does, is all I can say. What did they say he looked like?”
The man took some swallows of his drink before he pulled out a printed bill. “Here’s the official description, and not so helpful, with him having medium colouring, and no distinguishing features, save it does say, ‘noticeable eyes’ whatever that means. Tall, it says, and spare though strongly made, and he has a fair trick in disguise. When he stayed with you, I think his hair was dyed and unpowdered and it was described as brown.”
“Could be anyone,” Kate gazed at him with her jaw slightly dropped. “Does he have the trick of adding pock marks to his face, makes him look fair ugly? Remember, Suki? There was a man stayed who looked like that, brown hair and so on, said he was going Reading way.”
“Or maybe,” Suki looked struck, “It could’ve been that stout man that would never take off his coat? He could have stuffed in pillows underneath his waistcoat. I remember thinking his thinnish face went ill with his body. I mind he rode a dun coloured horse and went up north.”
The man snorted: “Do you take me for a fool? Have a care, mistress; the magistrates don’t like to renew licences for those who harbour known highway robbers. Where’s the master of the house?”
“This is a respectable house, and I’ll give my mind to anyone who says different,” Kate said angrily, while Suki tossed the bright blue ribbons Flashy Jack had given her in defiance. “The master’s away on business; he ain’t due back till tomorrow at the earliest.” Kate looked squarely into those judgmental eyes, which seemed to know the purpose of that trip.
The baby let out a furious wail.
“Now see what you’ve done! They understand more than you think, and he don’t like you coming in here making out we ain’t fit to run a decent establishment.”
Suki clicked her tongue.
The man actually looked abashed, before draining his porter with a business-like slurp. “I play my part in keeping the world safe from marauding thieves and murderers like His Lordship Reynaud Ravensdale, and if you’ve nought to hide you won’t mind my questions, nor your baby neither.”
They all turned about at a crash. The one time librarian at Wisteria House tottered into the yard to collapse on the bench.
The thief taker nodded to the women. “I may call in again.”
“Do, Sir, and we promise to keep a sharp look out for His Lordship.”
The man paused in the door, saying to Suki, “Look out for his fellow robber John Gilroy too: tall, fair hair, quite the swell and a ladies’ man. He’d have an eye for a pretty wench like you, miss; you and half the girls in London if I hear right.”
He must have been disappointed at her indifferent shrug. Kate snorted: “Be serious, Sir! As if we don’t get young men in here all the time, making up to her, and half of them called Jack or John.”
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Kenrick fingered his teeth. “As for your complaints about the slaves, these later efforts should make more satisfactory domestics, also adding to the numbers of my private guard. Besides, you also are yourself remiss. You promised me that late hypocrite’s notes. I have yet to see them, though you squander time on ineffectual journeys to Plas Planwyddan.”
“I am setting them in order, in the little spare time I have: hence my complaints.”
He ran his cold glance over her. “Then do not dally.” Her lips thinned again as he went on, shifting uncomfortably. “It must be some hours before I recover those chest wounds. Dare I risk a last sup of your blood for a tonic?”
She touched her own teeth. “You said that of the last you took. You forget, Mr Kenrick, you supped heavily from me on your return. I believe I turn too far for you to take from me. Still, if you care to risk it…”
“Let me smell you.” Lunging, he brought his nose close to her throat, and now entirely vulpine, sniffed, his glassy eyes as bright as silver coins. Even as she flinched back, he pulled away, grimacing. “Faugh! You stink of the kitchen.”
“Naturally, when I have been working there, as you have failed to give me an adequate cook. That girl has much to learn, and the creature Galahad is only good for a kitchen scrub. The others areonly fit for the outdoors.”
Kenrick’s voice rose high, “I asked that lout Williams to use those vulgar looks to draw in some healthy wench to set my teeth a-tingle, but he had the insolence to deny me, protesting that he is too much occupied in training the knights. He added that a surfeit of blood is not good in the early stages of return – much he knows of it. I must expect a protracted convalescence, since that hulking lout still complains of pains in his innards, nigh on a week after his return.
“I suspect he malingers. His scrub is yet human. Doubtless he lingers like a gourmet, relishing every mouthful, while refusing to share her. Why he is so selfish about that slut, when that Frenchman must already have sunk his fangs into her, I cannot fathom. The fellow has become arrogant. I see how things must go in a household without a master.”
“Also, one without a mistress,” she said.
“Humph! I must try you; your blood may yet be good for a last tonic.” Kenrick broke off to wipe away the saliva that had gathered at his lips.
Guinevere Gwynne’s face hardened as she lengthened that fine, long neck above her swelling bosom. “Bite, then.”
“I suppose I must endure the odour –” he pressed his mouth to her creamy skin, and then wrenched away again, shuddering in revulsion. “Ugh! You even taste of grease!”
“That is fat from the roasting fowl merely. I felt the sting when it spat as I bent over it earlier. That will not trouble a hot blooded man vampire.”
“It troubles me, Madam,” Kenrick drew out a handkerchief to wipe his lips. “You stink like to a greasy kitchen wench.”
“Maybe even as that little girl, your late wife’s favourite Katarina. did once, before Dubois took her away],” mused Guinevere Gwynne. “As I say, what can you expect, if I must perform as cook?”
“It is not good enough,” said Kenrick with dignity. “You degenerate into a slattern, Madam. I really cannot have a housekeeper who smells. I see I must ready the remaining slaves to take on this work.”
“For now, I must return to my work in the kitchens. Later this evening, I may find time to set the late Professor’s notes in order.”
As she tuned away, a knock sounded at the door. She opened it to two of Kenrick’s latest knights.
“Master Arthur said we must report to the Great Master,” droned the taller, who looked like a grotesque version of Reynaud Ravensdale.
“Come in if you must,” Kenrick snapped, “Why do you intrude?”
Guinevere Gwynne drew away as they passed.
In the first, Kenrick had clearly tried to reproduce the Grecian proportions of the original, but his skill had fallen short. The figure was athletic, with perfectly proportioned head and columnar neck. But while it had a recognisably Grecian profile, its nose coming straight down from its forehead, its mouth had a twisted look, while its eyes were so wide set that they gave an impression of a divergent squint, and its heavy eyelids and thick eyelashes had been overdone to the point where they drooped as if it was half asleep. Its skin, like Lancelot’s, was far more human than that of the others. The bright chestnut waves made a thatch so coarse that it stood up in wild disorder.
Its associate was less flamboyant. It was a version of Galahad, short and squat, with oversized hands. Its coarse hair was seemingly made of twine, and it had elementary features and a lipless mouth resembling a letter box. Its glassy eyes were prominent and lashless, while its large jaw and chin gave it a pugilistic look.
Both were dressed in tattered, ill fitting livery. Perhaps it was that same livery once worn by the sullen manservant who used to startle visitors by shouting up from the basement. Their clothing was disordered, and their skin oozed the inevitable green life fluid from cuts to face and hands. They bowed low as their master glared at them.
“Why does Arthur send you? Does it concern our enemy?”
“Great Master, Lancelot sent us out to get the eggs and potatoes from the farm down in the village. As we passed the inn, a group of men in uniform surrounded us, shouting,‘ In the King’s Name!’ They said we were vagabonds, they knew our sort, and we must join the Royal Navy to fight the French.”
Kenrick drew himself up. “A press gang, I take it, though it’s far inland for them. I’ve heard tell two brothers from hereabouts do that work, and like enough have been sent after Arthur by one of those cowardly yokels. The insolence to mistake my liveried servants for vagabonds! Naturally, you escaped them?”
“We said that the Great Master would not permit it.” They said, “Shite upon your Great Master’ and seized us.”
It stared at a snorting noise from Guinevere Gwynne, then resumed, “I threw one over the hedge. They were angry, setting on us with clubs. We seized these, but tore our skin. Then they set up an outcry, saying much of, ‘Damn my eyes’ and ‘’ Ware that blood, Fred; they have the pox as like as not,’ while trying to rub our gore from their own skins.
“Then they ran from us, with the one who had gone over the hedge coming up fast behind. We chased them, and the locals hooted and clapped their hands. But some made an outcry in the Welsh tongue, and one spoke in English, ‘Kenrick’s monsters have scared them away; it is not good enough.”
“In future, you must be on your guard: prevent them at all costs from ambushing Master Arthur as an ex-sailor. Now be on your way.”
When the creatures had left, Kenrick turned a cold glance on Guinevere Gwynne, who laughed helplessly.
The book is still on offer on Amazon here here
I wrote earlier of how dark comedy can be just the thing in hard times, and recommended some works by current Indie authors.
Here is some dark comedy of my own in the form of two extracts from the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois‘. In this, the vampire Kenrick makes an attemtped return to this world, along with his handsome confidential manservant Arthur Williams and a troop of monster men trained to follow his bidding.
Naturally, there is a violent clash with Émile, who joins forces with his cousin and fellow ex-highwayman Reynaud Ravensdale and his now wife the former highwaywoman Isabella. But Émile’s own wife Sophie has her own ideas about how to combat the menace…
A stooped, brawny, leathery looking creature with hair like string had appeared by the side of the lane. It stood glowering from eyes which might have been a pair of marbles pushed into its lumpy face. It wore tattered breeches and shirt, and addressed them in a grating drone: “Filthy robbers’ lackeys.”
Longface was lost for words. How had talk of Lord Ravensdale and Émile Dubois’ villainies reached the ears this outcast? He spoke with lordly disdain. “What, you poor lubbard?”
The man – if this was human –seemed eager to explain: “Your masters were smugglers and highwaymen. The Great Kenrick says they belong on Tyburn, and you lackeys as well.” It moved to the middle of the road, slightly crouched.
Longface raged. “You lubbard: Judge Jenkins cleared His Lordship and me. Mind what you say of your betters.”
“Master Kenrick says it was corruption.” The being was contemptuous.
“Kenrick’s dead, fellow; don’t you know that?” Longface spoke pityingly, but he suddenly he felt a chill, as if a cloud had passed over the sun.
“He’s too clever for that, though I like Arthur best, when he smiles.” Suddenly, it clapped a hand to its lipless mouth, its voice rising to an anxious gibber. “Arthur will be angry I talked. If I drive you away, maybe he won’t.” It moved forward in a threatening crouch.
Longface brandished his whip, while Guto roused from astonishment to bunch his fists: “Get away with you!”
The being blundered into the bushes at the side of the lane to force its way through. Longface saw a thorny bush catch and tear one of the exposed arms, and green droplets appear on the leathery skin.
Guto shook his head as if to clear it of the grotesque image, and then stared down the lane, to where the donkey was tethered. “Diawl: There’s the donkey cart down there, by the Kenrick place!” …
…Longface settled with dignity at the desk in the library. He saw that it was his duty to warn Lord Ravensdale (his former robber chief) about these dangerous goings-on, particularly as his cousin Monsieur had mixed with this mad inventor before. That, of course, would have the young hotheads rushing up looking for trouble, but there was nothing he could do about that, except give them the benefit of his wisdom.
He was proud of his lucid and diplomatic letter.
‘My Lord Ravensdale and Your Honour Monsieur Dubois, It is with regret that I set pen to paper as has no wish to be worrying of Your Honours, but things is come to a pretty pass here, with a green simpleton walking about the mountain as bold as brass as can’t be human as with my own eyes I’ve seen green blood coming from it.
It is fair insulting in free talk of Your Honours as belonging on Tyburn when Judge Jenkins un-outlawed us all after that time when, though loath to blow my own trumpet, I did save your life.
The green simpleton do maintain that Kenrick ain’t dead, and him a bitter enemy of Monsieur, who has been most obliging in appointing me here.
It’s a fact that insolent ex-sailor ain’t dead neither as I’ve seen him, and after the flighty French wench we call Ellie who we had to take from that place and won’t let us see her neck, so I must ask her aunt to deal with her to maintain propriety as they say. So I must pick up my pen and trust to Your Honours’ discretion as one who has ever been willing to give you the benefit of my wisdom.
Unluckily for him, this note, along with a handful of others, fell from the postboy’s sack into the mud when he took up another’s challenge to a game of pitch and toss at the roadside against an outbuilding wall.
It was only one that he missed seeing. Days later, the farmer spotted it and took it to the post office, and it arrived torn and illegible ten days late at Dubois Court.
Blissfully ignorant of this, Longface began to make up an envelope. “Them females. When I saw them shameless hen robins at it as a lad, I learnt all I needed about their flighty ways.”
For those interested in buying the whole novel, it is on offer at Amazon Here
Here’s an interview with one Émile Dubios…
Laura Lee: Come in. Sit down. Would you like something to drink?
Émile Dubois: Thank you, Madame. The red wine for a certainty. Georges – my right hand man, you know, though some might spread the rumour that he was my companion in crime – organized this interview. You do things very differently to how we went on in the late eighteenth century – and I speak not only of your strange inventions.
Laura Lee: Which is the first region your eyes would wander to if you were to ever see (gf/bf/wife/husband) naked?
Émile Dubois: I confess myself astonished, Madame, by the familiarity of that question, and from a lady, too. Bien sûr, the secrets of the bedchamber –
Georges (springing out from behind a curtain). Hoighty Toighty, Monsieur, as my Agnes would say. I can answer that one; he has ever been enslaved by his wife’s derrière and for sure, it is ample enough to attract attention.
Émile Dubois: (leaping up) Tais toi, you insolent lout, how dare you speak so of my angel?
Georges: I am fond indeed of Madame Dubois too, but facts is facts.
Laura Lee: Have you ever been caught naked by someone?
Émile Dubois: I do not clearly remember, Madame –
Georges: Of course he has. Biggest rake in all London society at one time.
Laura Lee: What is the one word in your vocabulary that you use excessively?
Émile Dubois: You will not be surprised to learn that I use three most often: ‘Tais toi Georges’.
Laura Lee: Personally, do you think size matters in reality?
Georges (sniggers vulgarly): Size of what?
Émile Dubois: If you refer to height and width of the whole body, Madame – and I can scarce credit you refer to anything else, liberal as your age is – then for a man in a mill – that is the term for a fist fight of our age, for sure size does matter. If you speak of the ladies, then our age appreciated female curves as you will see from the paintings. As for a man’s most intimate proportions – I am silent on that point, however nature has endowed me.
Laura Lee: Who is the biggest jerk/bitch you’ve ever come across in your life and why?
Émile Dubois: As a gentleman, Madame, I would not refer to a member of your sex by such a term, whatever the provocation, even That Jade Mistress Ceridwen Kenrick.
Georges: You can answer about old Kenrick, though.
Émile Dubois: For sure Goronwy Kenrick qualified as this ‘Jerk’ of whom you speak. A most rebarbative man. He set his siren wife upon me with her hypnotic powers so as to draw me into his schemes for time travel. He tried to sink his disgusting fangs into ma chere Sophie and forced me into co-operating with him by threatening to attack the human members of my household. Besides that, he tortured me by showing me visions of the tragedy that had overtaken my younger siblings. I have never wanted to kill anyone so much.
Georges: Tais toi, Monsieur! Madame will believe the rumours about our violent past to be true.
Émile Dubois: Impossible – the blather about our being Gentlemen of the Road was mere idle chatter.
Laura Lee: Have you ever accidentally and yet intentionally kissed someone or tried kissing someone?
Émile Dubois: Under a trance, yes. Ceridwen Kenrick made me do so. Her beauty was possibly an excuse, but ma pauvre Sophie took a dim view of the business.
Laura Lee: What is your favorite color of socks to wear?
Émile Dubois: Madame, in my age we do not wear these how you say, socks. Stockings, yes.
Laura Lee: Women/Men or Cars?
Émile Dubois: Ah, those horseless carriages that create such disruption? Horses are by far a better mode of transport and a good form of exercise, enfin. As for which of the three I find most interesting, as a young man about town, I was fascinated by your sex for a certainty.
Laura Lee: If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
Émile Dubois: You have stabbed yourself in the foot, perhaps? Your pardon, Madame; in our age we do not go in for what you call introspection. Life is much more comfortable so, especially for a scoundrel such as myself.
Laura Lee: When was the last time you felt possessive?
Émile Dubois: You saw it in me, minutes since, when Georges had the audacity to speak of my wife’s wonderful derrière.l
Laura Lee: What is the most embarrassing moment you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
Georges: (guffaws) I will respond to that on Monsieur’s behalf – it was when, against all advice, he would go to Kenrick’s evil household in search of diversion with Madame Kenrick from his obsession with Sophie. Of course, he was bitten – and in the Most Compromising Circumstances, what we call en flagrant délit, at that. He had to fight his way out of the house besides, and came back in a fever to spew upon the most magnificent pair of boots that ever I owned.
Émile Dubois: (wearily) Georges, would it cause you great anguish firstly, never again to mention those boots and secondly, not to reveal any more of my most humiliating secrets to Madame?
Laura Lee: Thanks for your time today!
Émile Dubois: (rising and bending over her hand to kiss it). Your servant, Madame.
Georges: Had he ever truly been a servant, he would not say he was yours with such a flourish.