28 July 2020

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

The months of summer are flying by, aren't they.  Our flowerbeds went from being coaxed along with compost, to crying out for weeding and staking within a couple of very hot weeks.  Watching three pots of tomatoes grow larger every day has been fun; there's a beefsteak tomato on one vine that's looking like a Fall Fair prizewinner, if only there could be a Fall Fair.

Have I ever mentioned my lemon tree, set outside during a late snowfall because it had a stubborn case of spider mites?  Ignored and bound for a bag of garden waste, not only is it now sprouting loads of new leaves -  it's lush and vibrant! 

I'm still away from the library on Declared Emergency Leave due to the pandemic.  The silver lining has been spending as much time in the garden as I want to, properly tending to each plant, bed or pot.  Enjoying the jasmine and honeysuckle while I'm watering.  A large clump of black-eyed Susan beside the patio have started to blossom.  They're the showstopper once the hydrangeas look tired; a sign we're approaching the midway point of summer.  But let's not think  about that quite yet.....on to Craven House.

 'A sweep was crying in a strained and inconsolable manner from some street far away; little boys and girls were making their way, less unwillingly than with vagrant buoyancy, to school; a maid dashed out to post a letter, and remained talking to a lady at the top of her basement steps.  In addition to which the sound of the Southam Green High Road, a quarter of a mile distant, and the sound of all London behind it, beat faintly yet incessantly, like the roar of a waveless sea, upon the inured ears of the inhabitants.  Such noises, nevertheless, were unable to disturb the lazy peace manifest in Keymar Gardens.  They served, rather, to emphasise the hush.'

Miss Bertha Hatt generates a respectable income by opening her home to several paying guests .  Mr and Mrs Spicer have been friends of Miss Hatt long before they became lodgers, Mrs Nixon and her daughter Elsie are more recent guests.  A widower, Major Wildman, and his young son take up two rooms.  Eventually Mrs Hoare arrives, also in need of a room and almost never failed to make me laugh every time she appeared.  Two ironically named servants - Miss Custard and Miss Potter - round out the cast very nicely with Mac, the sixty-eight year old parrot of doubtful gender as the cherry on top.

The story begins in 1911 and moves through the following fifteen years with much of the focus on Master Wildman and Elsie.  Very little is mentioned about The Great War.  The scope of this book centres around the house on Southam Green High Road and the people in it.  As you would expect from a novel written in the 1920s there's a veneer of formality in the way everyone conducts themselves in front of one another.  But oh the dramatic effect of someone being summoned to their room and the moments leading up to a door being opened, then quietly shut.  You can feel the tension rise with each tread of the stairs as someone makes their way to what we know to be an imminent confrontation.  And despite the air of privacy that is rigidly implied, there are two instances when a member of the household knocks on the door of a room in order to save someone from certain harm.  All very tactfully executed to save the blushes of those concerned, of course. 

Only twenty-one years old when he wrote Craven House, Patrick Hamilton showed incredible insight into the world of infidelity and brutishly cruel parenting.   Unfortunately, Mr Spicer's fondness for drinking far too much is a trait Hamilton would eventually succumb to.  But on a more cheerful topic,  when Miss Hatt says she would go herself and bring back the fish I can't help but think Hamilton must have read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, published only the year before. 

The novel I was expecting involved spinsters of varying characteristics, the waft of lavender, and tea with biscuits served morning, noon and night with a thick layer of gossip.  For the life of me I have no idea where such a notion came from, but this book is most definitely not that.  Craven House is a slightly kinder and gentler version of The Slaves of Solitude, published twenty-one years later.   Which, I have to say was too bold on the verbal venom and reeked of rum for my liking but I must go back and read it again with a braver resolve. 

The brilliant way in which Patrick Hamilton wrote scenes with palpable atmosphere, vivid imagery and knowing glances, it's easy to understand how his work led to his becoming a successful playwright.  Sadly, difficult marriages, being horribly injured when struck by a car, and becoming disillusioned by politics became intertwined with an alcohol addiction.  He died in 1962 ,at only fifty-eight of cirrhosis of the liver.


  1. This is one of his that I haven't read, although I have read 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and The Slaves of Solitude. Sounds very good and less sad and sombre than his later works.

    1. Well worth the price, LyzzyBee, and highly recommended as a cosy read during these days of Covid. I wouldn't expect any writer to stick to one style of writing for the length of their career, but the contrast from beginning to end of Hamilton's makes me feel a bit sad for his mindset. Always brilliant as a writer though so I'll need to track down a copy of 20,000 Streets.