Patrick Hamilton’s relationship with London is complicated, as the above quote from his 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude demonstrates. Hangover Square (1941), subtitled A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court established this ambivalence as a trademark of Hamilton’s punch black humour. In this, Hamilton’s most acclaimed novel, the approach to the heaving urban machine, the ‘crouching monster’, is something which compels a reader to confront the position of the individual as one at the mercy of social and cultural mechanisms encircling him. Optimists don’t tend to find much to agree with in Hangover Square.
The novel is set in the period just before the Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war in September 1939. Hamilton takes a set of some of the most well to-do Londoners, following their transition to habitual alcoholism into a shiftless and meretricious existence which dilutes their concern for anyone apart from themselves beyond any level of empathetic recognition. Though Hangover Square is a wordplay on Mayfair’s Hanover Square, the novel rarely ventures into Mayfair itself. This oblique reference may simply be convenient just for the sake of the pun; however, it is the connection between privilege and ultimate moral degradation which Hanover Square really seeks to explore
‘To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas-fire in Earl’s Court.’
The novel’s protagonist, George Harvey Bone, spends his days drinking steadily in these Earls Court pubs, listening to the opinions of Nazi sympathiser Peter and the aspiring actress Netta Longdon, for whom he lusts after without any hope of reciprocation.
Bone’s walks through the area are almost always faithful to the actual geography of the location. Earl’s Court’s pubs are plotted out with precision and a close match for their main drinking hole in the novel – The Black Hart – might be The Earl’s Court Tavern, just two minutes walk from the tube station.
At many points in the novel Bone threatens to abandon his destructive habits and escape Earl’s Court; at each juncture he is foiled by his feeble inner resolve to actually make something of his life and instead reverts to the safe, but self-destructive norm. It is his drive to possess Netta which bends his will to such catastrophic consequences for himself and those around him. Maidenhead of all places momentarily becomes a symbol for Bone’s sanctuary, yet however he tries he cannot ever manage to recover any happiness he hope he might.
Bone’s existence is certainly not far from Hamilton’s own. He was ultimately killed by drink and though he never lived in Earl’s Court for long, it was there that he stumbled into the path of an incoming car in 1932, leaving him permanently disfigured. It was this accident that drove him to his alcoholism, he later suggested. In 2005, BBC released a documentary about Hamilton, Words, Whiskey and Women, which in its own right could be an alternative subtitle for Hangover Square. The documentary suggests that his attitude towards his characters was driven from a resentment of his own privileged upbringing, that he actively sought humiliation and wretchedness because he thought he ought to, for his art.