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City of Wars: the Representation of Wartime London in Two Novels of the 1940s: James Hanley’s No Directions and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude

Jean-Christophe Murat
p. 329-340


Cette étude analyse la représentation de la ville anglaise en guerre—ou plus exactement de Londres et de sa banlieue—dans deux romans britanniques des années quarante : No Directions de James Hanley (1943), et The Slaves of Solitude de Patrick Hamilton (1947). Aucun de ces deux textes ne doit être considéré comme un documentaire sur l’existence urbaine pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. No Directions entretient des liens assez forts avec la rhétorique et les images—alors à très la mode—des Poètes de la Nouvelle Apocalypse (New Apocalyptic poetry) ; l’expérimentation formelle et linguistique y est donc omniprésente, frisant même l’artificiel par endroits. En apparence, The Slaves of Solitude est un roman plus conventionnel ; pourtant sa langue et son univers sont profondément polyphoniques. No Directions fut écrit et publié alors que la guerre n’était pas encore terminée, ce qui crée un véritable suspense quant à l’issue du conflit et aux orientations de la société anglaise. Le roman de Hamilton, au contraire, est postérieur à 1945, ce qui permet sans doute à l’auteur de faire preuve d’un sens de l’humour et de l’ironie assez déroutant. Dans les deux romans, la guerre est vécue non par des militaires mais par des civils et des non-combattants : No Directions représente le point de vue des occupants d’un immeuble d’habitation de Chelsea, à Londres, au cours d’un raid aérien nocturne. The Slaves of Solitude choisit de décentrer l’action vers la banlieue lointaine—et fictive—de Thames Lockdon, qui accueille des Londoniens évacués par les bombardements. Alors que le roman de Hanley est un récit de l’expérience directe de la guerre (la terreur des attaques aériennes, les va-et-vient entre la cave et les appartements...), la terne pension où cohabitent les personnages de The Slaves est le théâtre d’une bien plus insidieuse guerre des mots, par laquelle Miss Roach, la protagoniste, se livre à un examen impitoyable—mais pas toujours lucide—des enjeux de la fidélité et de la trahison (des amis, puis de la nation).

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1In the preface to the American edition of The Demon Lover, a collection of short stories published between 1941 and 1944, Elizabeth Bowen warns her readers that these "are all wartime, none of them war, stories" (Bowen 48). Bowen then elaborates on her terminological distinction as follows:

[t]here are no accounts of war action even as I knew it—for instance, air raids.... These are, more, studies of climate, war-climate, and of the strange growths it raised. I see war (or should I say feel war?) more as a territory than as a page of history: of its impersonal active historic side I have, I find, not written. (Bowen 48)

  • 1 Dino Buzzati’s famous novel The Tartar Steppe (Il Deserto dei Tartari, 1940) seems to challenge Bow (...)

2By this measure, a war storyor a war novel presumably—requires a set of narrative constituents that a wartime story can perfectly do without, such as military action conducted by soldier characters, and various degrees of derring-do (sorties into enemy territory, assaults against enemy positions, acts of sabotage or heroic rescue and so on). More interestingly perhaps, the wartime story is depicted as a deeply atmospheric kind of narrative; "action" is superseded by a study of the conflicting moods that grip people who must, more often than not, be content to endure the hardships and shortages they are submitted to.1

3Before showing to what extent Bowen’s distinction can apply to the texts I have selected for this paper, let me point out that, in choosing to discuss two British novels of the 1940s, I am well aware that I took the risk of addressing an audience with little first-hand knowledge of the corpus. The lack of directions emphasised by the title of James Hanley’s novel—No Directions, 1943—has long been signalling a lack of directions as to how to read the prose fiction of that decade, so much so that Hanley and Patrick Hamilton, like many writers of their generation, have themselves become the slaves of a persistent literary solitude. In Hamilton’s case this oblivion seems to me wholly undeserved. Hamilton is first and foremost a major novelist of the city, as his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1929-1935), followed by Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947), amply demonstrate. His narratives weave a poetics of lonely selves watching from without the hustle and bustle of small or large urban communities. Sometimes, as in Hangover Square, the London scene serves as a dystopian backdrop for the tragedy of a solitary man whose worsening schizophrenia ends in murder and suicide. James Hanley, on the other hand, is not remembered as a city novelist. Born in Dublin and raised in the Irish community of Liverpool, he became a sailor at the age of thirteen, spending the years of World War One in the Canadian Navy, then enlisted into the merchant navy for another few years, before turning to journalism and literature. He therefore established his reputation as a sea, not a city, novelist, as is evidenced by such narratives as Drift (1930), The Ocean (1941) or Sailor’s Song (1943). Two questions may be asked at this point: why choose No Directions as a typical novelistic depiction of the city at war? How does the sea, which Hanley knows so intimately, impact upon the representation of the city in this novel?

4Neither No Directions nor The Slaves of Solitude should be regarded as documentary accounts of life during World War Two. No Directions is strongly indebted to the then fashionable rhetoric and imagery of Apocalyptic poetry; it is therefore a period piece in that respect, emphasising linguistic and formal experimentation to the point of artificiality. The Slaves of Solitude is on the surface a more conventional text—there are no verbal flourishes, little formal audacity—but its language is more genuinely, and more deeply, polyphonic; that polyphony fully conveys the intensity and complexity of the war in people’s minds.

In the heart of things?

5No Directions was written and published while the war was still going on, thereby allowing a certain suspense to be maintained as to its outcome. It is a short novel of about 140 pages, marked by a strong unity of place—a block of flats in Chelsea, London—and of time—all the events take place within a single night. In terms of plot, it is far more difficult to circumscribe, owing to Hanley’s constant use of late-modernist mannerisms, and to the fact that narrated time matches narrative time. The opening pages are a case in point:

[a]fter the deluge of sound ceased, after the wind passed, the sailor fell, was sick.
They were in a desert of air.
'Goddam! Get me out of this', the sailor shouted.
'Stand up', the little man said; he began to pull. Crunching sounds came up.
'It’s ice', the sailor said. 'Get me out of this'. Falling again, hands became feelers, pawed about. 'I know ice', he said, 'always something moving under ice, I know'.
'Glass, you crazy bastard', the little man said, the cheap raincoat dripped water, his tin helmet kept falling over his forehead.... The moon came from behind a sheaf of slow-moving cloud. The sailor sprawled, the little man stood erect, his neck felt cold against the wet collar of his coat. He was watching a black shape, it seemed to be pushing itself up and up, to toppling height, but the moon passed behind cloud, they were in darkness again....
'Be a good chap, pull yourself together. We all lose our bearings at times, course we do. But I’m not going to stand over you all night. Now! Up you come'....
The sailor struck a match, it immediately went out. He struck another, it shook between big, clumsy fingers, it burned.
'Hell!' he said, 'oh, hell, where the devil am I?'
He struck another match, he was in a long dark corridor. High, green painted walls, exuding damp, showing a film of damp, much broken plaster, a tiny pattering sound, a draught. Rain came in through a hole in the wall. He bent down, put his hand on the floor, felt there. Striking a match again he saw faded, dirty linoleum, patches of white where a hallstand had once stood. (Hanley 9-12)

6The first scene illustrates the novel’s programmatic title almost to a fault. The loss of bearings that explicitly affects the drunken sailor upon entering a strange blacked-out building at night is matched by the reader’s initial puzzlement at having to grope his or her way through an unlit text. Hanley’s first-hand experience in the Canadian Navy, then in the merchant navy, produces a strange hybrid of a narrative, set at once in the heart of the British metropolis during the Blitz, and far out at sea, somewhere in the Arctic Ocean where the drunken sailor’s most traumatic memories rest.

7Except for two of them, all the characters of this novel live in the same tenement building in Chelsea. Most of the chapters take place inside the house, whose staircase and corridors are plunged in total darkness. Only "natural" light is used, such as moonlight. Any infringement of safety regulations is severely rebuked, as when the sailor and Celia (the two outsiders), having carelessly turned on the light in the corridor, are immediately ordered to put it out (Hanley 38). As a consequence of the Blitz, nearly all the conventionally "domestic" scenes are stripped of their cosy attributes—decent standards of living, let alone creature comforts, have given way to a world in which empty flats can be broken into, or in which the shaky doors of those that are still inhabited no longer afford suitable protection from intruders:

'Last night', the old man said, 'we were asleep. We heard terrible noises, I woke up. The door was like you see it now. Won’t open, won’t shut, it’s getting on Emily’s nerves—'
And almost in anguish the other exclaimed, 'Won’t shut, look! Look!'(Hanley 15)

8Symptomatically for a novel in which the constant danger comes from the sky, the characters of No Directions spend an inordinate amount of time going up and down the stairs. Mr Jones, the air-raid warden, never stops going from floor to floor, visiting the residents, warning them of the imminent air strike, urging them to come down to the cellar...

9As I suggested above, No Directions is also, in its own bizarre way, a city novel of the sea. The constant presence of Johns, the drunken sailor, is a textual reminder that James Hanley is first and foremost a sea writer, and that his perception of the urban space is suffused with the aquatic environment:

[w]e were up, out slithering, falling, getting up, falling down again, Spike always shoving her over, towards a bay whiter than any snow is, we could see it. 'See him?' Spike shouted from the bridge, sure we saw him. 'A black sod,' Spike shouted, spitting ice bits, not breath, 'up there, see?' Sure we knew, we saw the sod, blacker than hell, circling over, circling round, going high, higher, coming down, down fast.... I was going up the mast. Spike was shoving her along, near the top. 'Ah, this buggering cold', I said, and then I was up where he [Brown] was.... 'Aye, aye, where the hell are you, Brown?' I saw him then. I knew he wouldn’t say aye, aye, wouldn’t spit any more.... I just looked at him, made you think of Christ, two pieces of wood. I slid down. 'This bloody, bloody war,' I said. (Hanley 54-55)

  • 2 For an extensive study of how left-wing and rightwing writers of the 1930s perceived the masses in (...)
  • 3 "She was laughing, green dream gone, Clem gone, rain had ceased, wind died down, the last bus was q (...)

10Johns, who has turned into a World War Two "Ancient Mariner", is recounting to Celia how his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Arctic Sea, and how the fate of his shipmate Spike, who froze to death on top of the mast, gave rise to his own phobia about ice. At first glance the link between this episode—at one remove from the main story—and the representation of the city seems rather loose. Yet the depiction of the urban space and the sea space share a crucial feature: the choice of a democratic perspective, i.e. of a perspective that never distances itself from the characters by adopting the worn-out device of the "bird’s-eye view".2 Johns is in the eye of the storm; his stance is not the suave mari magno attitude of a poet standing on a beach and finding sudden inspiration in the spectacle of a boat tossed by gigantic waves. Similarly, even though the narrative keeps taking the reader up and down the building staircase, we never get the opportunity to observe the residents from above. This remark is what precisely invalidates the superficial stylistic resemblances between the novels of James Hanley and those of Henry Green. Some of the mannerisms may be similar3—omission of definite articles, use of parataxis are among their most outstanding features. Yet in some cases, Green almost an exact contemporary of Hanley’s, unashamedly espouses the "superior", detached viewpoint of the leisured class, as in Party Going (1939), where a fog-bound party of rich ladies and gentlemen is kept waiting in a London station, and spends the time watching the crowds of workers going home:

[f]og was down to ground level outside London, no cars could penetrate there so that if you had been seven thousand feet up and could have seen through you would have been amused at blocked main roads in solid lines and, on the pavements within two miles of this station, crawling worms on cither sides. (Green 15)

11Green’s upper- and upper middle-class party-goers are amused at observing the worm-like, socially inferior figures getting off the trains and groping their way through the pea-souper. No such thing ever happens in No Directions, where communal experience—the experience of fear in particular—is always lived at ground, or even underground level:

[a] journey downstairs to the cellar, where you sat in the dark with others, you were old, of a time when things were normal and doors closed in a natural way, as they were meant to do. Sitting in the cellar where people talked, but you didn’t understand very much, the tempo of everything was new, even the language they used was new, you didn’t seem to have the right key to it.
'Oh dear, dear! Do come', he said, '
do come', hopelessness stealing over thim, now that he felt that vice-like grip on the knob. And, endeavouring to be as calm as possible, 'come along now, dear, it’s only a few flights down. Do come, Emily!'...
'We’re here, we’re all right, Mr Jones', the old man said, a fatherly tone in this voice, like Richard was their son. (Hanley 101-102)

  • 4 "You didn’t expect this, you couldn’t in all reason expect it, not with those effing bastards, thos (...)

12One might be tempted at this stage to consider that James Hanley uses his novel as a mouthpiece of the comforting—but now much-questioned—"people’s war" mythology: ordinary, decent English citizens force themselves to put a brave face on events outside their control; the city of London appears as the locus of national unity against the forces of evil. The clear-cut dichotomy between "us" and "them"4 nevertheless fails to account for a further, more niggling divide; the one between combatants, whose heroism alone can lead the allied nations to victory, and noncombatants, whose only weapons are patience and resignation. This predicament is very well expressed by Mr Robinson, the airman who was invalided out earlier in the war:

'Hell, how the place does stink, doesn’t it, ducks. Wish I was up there, shooting those bastards down. You feel helpless like this', in a very low voice, 'like this chap here, little mouse, you hate yourself. You know where you should be, ripping clouds up, getting after the swine'. (Hanley 133)

13The general frustration caused by a feeling of uselessness among the residents of the tenement building—they are either too old and out of touch like the Frazers, too young like the infant crying in the cellar, or disabled like the airman—now explains the imaginary transformations undergone by London in the minds of the various characters:

[s]he squeezed her way through the black door. She was out. 'Oh', she said, 'how good the air is'.
To her full height she stood, motionless, breathing night air.... As when one moves seawards to bathe, apprehending the sea’s touch, so adding conscious weight to prisoning clothes, she had come down, she was on night’s shore, she had the touch of air, the feel of it. As one strips for the sea, the unsure foot testing the extreme edge, so she was stripped, so things were falling from her, now, as she stood still in the black desert, at extreme edge of a reeling sea. (Hanley 56)

  • 5 See for example this poem by J.F. Hendry: "Walls and buildings stand here still, like shells. / Hol (...)

14Sixty-five years on, a twenty-first century reader may reasonably argue that Hanley’s style in this passage smacks of New-Apocalyptic lyricism at its worst, with its high-flown, melodramatic similes, and reads like a period piece.5 Yet what matters here is not so much the literary "quality" of the writing as the symptomatic use of compensatory geographical transpositions, whereby the drabness and impotence of London life acquires the redeeming quality of heroism by proxy. The comparison of wartime England to a desert is a phenomenon which Adam Piette regards as a recurrent topos of the British—civilian and military—imagination in World War Two; a comparison that may be justified by the fact that the North African landscape "had become the principal context for British war-making, and, as such, was made to bear the pathetic fallacy of the English soldier’s projection of his own war mind" (Piette 9). But one could add that it was also made to bear the pathetic fallacy of the English civilian’s projection of his/her own war mind, and perhaps of his/her own guilt at being a mere civilian at such a momentous period of time. Small wonder, then, that in the non-combatants’ imagination the blitzed capital of Britain should turn into "a negative landscape that rejects all homely feeling" (Piette 9):

'Are you all right, dear?' Emily said, holding Mr Frazer’s hand, and he said, 'Oh—' and he said, 'Yes', his heart heaving, it might leap into the throat, because they were over, those people, because something had fallen near, had exploded. They were clung together, they were in the wilderness. (Hanley 105; italics mine)

The city and the town

  • 6 In one of the paratexts however, Hamilton informs us that Thames Lockdon "bears a rough geographica (...)

15Unlike No Directions. Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is a post-war novel, i.e. a post-war reconstruction of recent events whose "happy" conclusion probably affords Hamilton the possibility to display a considerable amount of humour (it is in fact a very funny book in its own quirky way!). In both novels, the war is experienced not by soldiers but by civilians and non-combatants, even though, as we have just seen, the presence of military men plays a significant role in each narrative (the sailor in No Directions, and the American lieutenant in The Slaves of Solitude). Whereas No Directions chooses the limited point of view of the occupants of a tenement building in Chelsea during an air raid at night, The Slaves of Solitude is ostensibly removed from the danger of Central London, set as it is in the rather distant—and fictitious6—suburb of Thames Lockdon, where blitzed Londoners, mostly single men and women, have found refuge. Despite these contextual differences, the two novels also bear strong similarities to each other. Each concentrates on a specific, closely circumscribed place—the Chelsea block of flats in No Directions, the Rosamund Tea Rooms (a shabby boarding-house) in The Slaves. Although the characters are not strictly speaking prisoners of these places (they may come and go about the city or about the town as they please, weather allowing), they are always pulled back inside. As in No Directions, The Slaves depicts a small community of people, but instead of picturing a disparate set of city-dwellers brought together by the same historical circumstances, it bases its plot upon a world of middle-aged and elderly bachelors or spinsters observing each other with mounting dislike, or conversely with mounting compassion:

[w]hen she had been bombed out of her room in Kensington, escaping with her life (for she was in the West End at the time) but with only a few of her small possessions, she [Miss Roach] had come down to Thames Lockdon and the Rosamund Tea Rooms at the invitation of her aunt, who had let her sleep in her room. Since then her aunt had moved on to Guildford to friends, and she had been given this room of her own at the top.
Thames Lockdon had been 'heaven', then, with its dark, still nights, over which the sirens occasionally came yelling triumphantly forth, only to be gradually snubbed by the profound silence of the firmament, undisturbed even by the distant sound of guns and bombs, which followed.... And the town was 'pretty' and the food 'very good', and the people 'very nice'—even Mr Thwaites had seemed 'very nice'.
But now, after more than a year of it, Mr Thwaites was president in hell. (Hamilton 8-9)

  • 7 "[R]ows of houses shoot out every day like a polypus" (Horace Walpole, 1776, quoted in Briggs 12).

16As Marina MacKay puts it in the introduction to her study Modernism and World War Two, "[a]s a conflict in which the civilian experience was paramount, its literature urges a reshaping of what counts as the literature of war in order to include authors who were not combatants and texts that are not 'about' war in any straightforwardly mimetic way" (MacKay 6). This judgement bears out Elizabeth Bowen’s remark in Collected Impressions. Hamilton’s novel represents just this kind of late—wartime—modernism, and utilises the apparent contrast between the city and the town to demonstrate how the traditional distinction between the war front and the home front has become more inappropriate than ever. The geography of Britain at war rests upon a deceptively simple dichotomy—London has been turned into target number one for all the German bomber squadrons venturing into British territory; the many destructions and casualties of the Blitz have caused a massive civilian exodus towards the safe countryside and the relatively spared outer suburbs of the capital. By this measure, Thames Lockdon, "a terminus" (Hamilton 1), should leave the war and its attendant horrors behind the scenes. Hamilton seems to play the game for a short while, resorting rather self-consciously to the worn-out metaphor7 of the "crouching monster" (Hamilton 1), i.e. to the notion that the city is a self-developing organism whose uncontrollable, endless growth must be regarded as inevitable. But if this cultural reference is a little tongue-in-cheek, it also reveals the limits of the city-country, or city-town divide whose validity Miss Roach once relied upon when she arrived in Thames Lockdon. Living in this small, quiet suburban town is a far more horrible experience than living in blitzed London. But why is Mr Thwaites "president in hell"? Why did the initially blissful picture of boarding-house life turn into such a nightmare? On the surface, there is not the faintest connection between Miss Roach’s daily victimisation by Mr Thwaites, then by Vicki Kugelmann, and the war that rages over and around Britain. On closer analysis though, we gradually realise that as a false town-versus-city novel, The Slaves of Solitude teaches a "uniquely modern lesson about the amorphousness of the war experience" (MacKay 8).

17There are no battle scenes in this novel—at least not in the conventional sense of the word. What is constantly visible instead, but in the most oblique, insidious way, is the urban guerilla warfare that opposes Mr Thwaites, the boarding-house bully, and Miss Roach, the meek, mild-mannered spinster:

[s]oon after Mr Thwaites had started upon his soup—which he always sprinkled, first of all with lumps of bread, and then with pepper, with a vigour and single-mindedness which displeased Miss Roach—he opened the conversation.
'Well', he said. '
Your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual', and oh God, thought Miss Roach, not that again, not that again.
Miss Roach’s 'friends'—according to Mr Thwaites—were the Russian people, and Mr Thwaites did not like or approve of these people at all. Indeed, it would not be exaggerating to say that the resistance and victories of the Russian people in the last year had practically ruined this man’s peace of mind—a state of affairs which was aggravated bitterly by the fact that he was unable to vent his mind upon the matter in public.
Mr Thwaites had since 1939 slowly learned to swallow the disgrace of Hitler, of whom he had been from the beginning, and still secretly remained, a hot disciple. (Hamilton 13)

18Whereas James Hanley’s No Directions represents London at war as a place given over to extreme confusion and chaos, Patrick Hamilton’s far more restrained novel suggests that living in a wartime English town requires learning how to interpret the ambiguous attitudes and to break the coded messages of would-be traitors.

"The Dementia Region"

19These two British novels of the 1940s offer a representation of wartime urban or suburban life. Both texts emphasise that the various discomforts and shortages the war entails go hand in hand with a compensatory overflow of alcohol, words and sounds. No Directions clearly suggests that binge drinking (the sailor’s incessant intake of whisky), nonsensical noises and communication breakdown have become the very fabric of the blitzed city:

[a] long sound, deep, you could measure the length, depth of this. You knew it would come, but it was not music, nor any bird’s cry, nor that of stone. You waited, you knew this sound would spread, rise and fall, make ever widening circles, you knew this mentor of your time, of a city’s time.... All the songs in hell sung, all the sounds known, but you could not name this sound. A lawless sound, outside all music. (Hanley 71)

20This dreadful sound is the half-real, half-phantasmagorical drone of the German bomber squadron that is expected any minute, with a mission to smash buildings to pieces and kill people. The Slaves of Solitude, on the other hand, is far less concerned with the insane sound of flying machines than with the decoding of enemy language, through the pervasive influence of heavy drinking, which disrupts social life and turns the English pub (a conventional locus of community life) into a Babel of impersonations and pastiches masquerading as the language of the allies. The surface cheerfulness of the pub conceals the malevolent activities of fifth-columnists in thin disguise:

Vicki said, 'Why, yes. I’d really like a nice cocktail. Only you silly English don’t know how to make a proper cocktail, do you?'... This was the first time that Vicki had alluded to the English in this way, and Miss Roach was not at all certain that she liked it.... She found something peculiarly ugly and suspect in this disparagement of the English on Vicki’s lips in the world of the present moment. If she didn’t like the English, who did she like? The Germans? And if the Germans, what sort of Germans? The Nazi Germans?...
'Can I make a cocktail?' said Vicki, conscious of having made a success, and so enlarging upon it, 'or can I make a cocktail? Uh-huh! Oh, boy! Wizard!'
('Uh-huh!' 'Oh hoy!' 'Wizard!') The mere mention of 'cocktails', in 1943, was frightful enough, but with the addition of 'Uh-huh', 'Oh boy', and 'Wizard' a depth was reached of which Miss Roach had not even thought Vicki capable. (Hamilton 114-15)

21Miss Roach assigns to herself the task of working out the actual significance of the hostile messages sent by the major impersonators, Mr Thwaites, then Vicki Kugelmann once the latter decides to side with the old man:

'A fine morning, in Troth... In veritable Troth—a Beauteous Morning...' And he went on with his porridge.
When Mr Thwaites started this Troth language it generally meant that he was in a good temper....
'And what of my Lady of the Roach?' asked Mr Thwaites. 'How doth
she disport herself this morning?... She goeth, perchance, unto the coffee-house', said Mr Thwaites, 'there to partake of the noxious brown fluid with her continental friends?'
Ah—here we were, thought Miss Roach. He had to get nasty sooner or later. This was a reference to Vicki Kugelmann, and her habit of having a cup of coffee with her on a Saturday morning.
'How do you mean?' she said, 'my continental friends?'
'Why', said Mr Thwaites, 'dost thou not forgather, of a Saturday morning, with a certain dame of Teutonic origin?' (Hamilton 66)

22There is considerable irony in the fact that Mr Thwaites, the secret admirer of Hitler and of the Nazi regime, should tax Miss Roach with arranging suspicious rendez-vous with a woman who could well be a German spy. Miss Roach’s "un-English" ways are further evidenced by her coffee-drinking, a dangerous threat to the more homely, more sensible habit of drinking tea.

23Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman who has been living in England for decades, speaks English almost like a native but her increasing contempt for Miss Roach, her former friend, and her alliance with Mr Thwaites have made her an obvious traitor to the British nation at war:

[w]hat about the early Vicki—the timid, the ingratiating one? Did not that original character represent one of the most famous and readily identifiable aspects of the German character—or at least the German fascist character? Was not the period when Vicki was sucking up to her, trying to get into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, posing as a delightful friend—was not this period the Ribbentrop one, nauseatingly Ribbentroppish through and through?... Was not the woman who, six or seven hours ago, was screaming about being 'sporty' and supporting a drunken American in this ambition to bathe—was not this woman one who would, geographically situated otherwise, have been yelling orgiastically in stadiums, supporting S.S. men in their ambitions, presenting bouquets to her Fuhrer? My God—couldn’t you just see her!... Miss Roach had reached the point (she saw) at which she was inventing conversations with Vicki, inventing Vicki’s answers, and then getting white with anger at these invented answers. This was the point at which she must stop, or go clean off her head.
The planes were still purring in the sky, miles and miles high, it seemed, and miles and miles around... (Hamilton 132-33, 136)

24This, however, is only Miss Roach’s view of the situation. The most acute symptom of her paranoia is expressed by the open invitation to read the plane-encircled suburbs as a metaphor of a mind obsessed by treason. One gets very close here to John Ruskin’s definition of the pathetic fallacy, whereby the attribution of human feelings to the inanimate reveals "the extraordinary, or false appearances [of things], when we are under the influence of emotion of contemplative fancy" (Ruskin 473). Like some mid-twentieth-century Ruskin, Hamilton pretends to restore things back to their right proportions at the end of the narrative; but his sense of irony is too strong to allow himself to be ruled by a conventional happy end:

She saw Vicki in her right proportions. A wretched woman that—more wretched than evil.... No—on second thoughts Vicki was possibly as evil as she was wretched. It was hard to say.
She probably wasn’t really the concentration-camp, stadium-yelling, rich, fruity, German Nazi which Miss Roach had at times thought her (and yet she also very possibly was!), and Miss Roach now found it easy to forgive her. (Hamilton 239)

25Undecidability is the hallmark of civilian life in the English towns of World War Two.

26A comparative analysis of the representation of London at war in these two novels of the 1940s reveals that, even though the two texts initially—and implicitly—make their own Elizabeth Bowen’s definition of the "wartime story", they soon transform the capital or its suburbs into a battlefield of sorts. In No Directions the long-expected air raid is to be understood as an actual event, which claims the life of sailor Johns, crushed to death in the cellar of the building. His demise begs the issue of whether the sacrificial figure of the city at war ought to be a conscripted soldier rather than a civilian. A facile answer would be that the dividing line between combatants and non-combatants is no longer relevant in this conflict, which is why London offers a particularly suitable setting for the literary representation of World War Two. But this hypothesis does not explain away the tragic irony behind the fate of a man who meets his death in Chelsea after escaping destruction on his ship in the Arctic Ocean. Neither does it account for the ambiguity of some civilians’ response to the raid:

[h]e [Clem] ran up some steps, he reached a roof, he leaned against the iron railings and he watched, he felt tremble under him, the city rocked with outrageous power. A life lived to see this. A great wall collapsing, a door hurling in the air like a demented sail, caught in a wind deluge, a falling girder.... He stared entranced at the blazing sky. All that light, a sea, an ocean of light, from what vast reservoir had it flooded up, this drenching light, blazing red, and suddenly to his left a falling green, cataracts of light, red, and yellow and green, this riot of colour shouted at you.
'God!' he said, 'it’s magnificent, it’s—' (Hanley, 135)

27There is something unpleasant about Clem’s aesthetic response, in that his misplaced experience of the Romantic sublime has something of the "fiddling-while-Rome-burns" attitude.

28The Slaves of Solitude never depicts the war in any "straightforwardly mimetic way", as MacKay puts it. The only casualty is Mr Thwaites, who dies in hospital of peritonitis. In Thames Lockdon the war of words dies away after Mr Thwaites’s demise, Vicki’s final disgrace and Miss Roach’s triumphant vindication. Yet this happy sequence of events only goes to show that London, where Miss Roach finally returns, is the place where everyone must, sooner or later, come to terms with the war:

[s]he was glad to be back, in spite of the danger of bombs. You had to square up to the war.... The Rosamund Tea Rooms was hidden away in the country, dodging the war, in its petty boarding-house lassitude almost insensible of it, more absorbed in the local library. And this was not a war to be taken in a local-library way. (Hamilton 237)

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Bowen, Elizabeth, "Preface to the American Edition of The Demon Lover" (1945), Collected Impressions, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1950.

Briggs, Asa, Victorian Cities, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1987 (1963).

Capet, Α., M. Chariot & I. Hill, Civilians in War. Key Documents 1939-1945, Paris: Ophrys / Ploton, 1996.

Cunningham, Valentine, British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989 (1988).

Green, Henry, Party Going, London: The Hogarth Press, 1962 (1939).

Hamilton, Patrick, Hangover Square, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974 (1941).

Hamilton, Patrick, The Slaves of Solitude, London: Sphere Books, Cardinal, 1991 (1947).

Hanley, James, No Directions, London: André Deutsch Ltd, 1990 (1943).

Hewison, Robert, Under Siege. Literary Life in London 1939-1945, London: Methuen, 1988(1977).

Höglund, Johan, "Apocalyptic London: The Construction and Destruction of the Heart of the Empire", Phillips, L. ed., Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 5 (2), September 2007.

MacKay, Marina, Modernism and World War II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Phillips, Lawrence, London Narratives: Post-War Fiction and the City, New York & London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.

Piette, Adam, Imagination at War. British Fiction and Poetry 1939-1945, London: Macmillan, 1995.

Prose, Francine, "Giddy and Malevolent: Review of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky Trilogy, The Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton", The New York Review of Books, LV (9), 29 May 2008, 30-32.

Ruskin, John, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy", Modern Painters III, New York: Norton, 1977 (1856).

Skelton, Robin ed., Poetry of the Forties, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

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1 Dino Buzzati’s famous novel The Tartar Steppe (Il Deserto dei Tartari, 1940) seems to challenge Bowen’s definition of the "wartime story", since the protagonist is a soldier. Yet the story of officer Giovanni Drogo, and of his life spent guarding an old border fortress against a barbarian invasion, has very little to do with military heroism. Like Bowen’s short stories, it is much more “a territory than a page of history”. Ironically enough, the long-awaited invasion will come shortly after Drogo, too old and sick to remain at his post, has been invalided out.

2 For an extensive study of how left-wing and rightwing writers of the 1930s perceived the masses in democratic and totalitarian—Soviet and Nazi—societies, see Cunningham 266-295.

3 "She was laughing, green dream gone, Clem gone, rain had ceased, wind died down, the last bus was quiet in a garage, men washing her down. There was silence, high up, higher than the roof, high as heaven, there was silence". (Hanley 48). "Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.... No one paid attention, all were intent and everyone hurried, nobody looked back" (Green 7).

4 "You didn’t expect this, you couldn’t in all reason expect it, not with those effing bastards, those stinkers swinging a terror cradle over your city" (Hanley 107).

5 See for example this poem by J.F. Hendry: "Walls and buildings stand here still, like shells. / Hold them to the ear. There are no echoes even / Of the seas that once were. That tide is out / Beyond the valleys and hills. / Days dawn and die while the city assumes a distance of stars. / It is the absence of the heart / In the ebbing seas of heaven, / An ebbing beyond laughter and too tense for tears" ("London Before Invasion: 1940", Skelton 93).

6 In one of the paratexts however, Hamilton informs us that Thames Lockdon "bears a rough geographical and external resemblance to Henley-on-Thames".

7 "[R]ows of houses shoot out every day like a polypus" (Horace Walpole, 1776, quoted in Briggs 12).

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Bibliographical reference

Jean-Christophe Murat, « City of Wars: the Representation of Wartime London in Two Novels of the 1940s: James Hanley’s No Directions and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 329-340.

Electronic reference

Jean-Christophe Murat, « City of Wars: the Representation of Wartime London in Two Novels of the 1940s: James Hanley’s No Directions and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 17 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Jean-Christophe Murat

Université Aix-Marseille 1

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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