Jenny is a beautiful woman and Bob falls for her good looks. He arranges to meet her, by the pub, outside the tube station, anywhere she likes; he makes so many appointments, and she misses nearly every one. There is always some excuse, which he accepts too easily. He is too frightened to ask the direct question, of finding out the real reasons for her tardiness, although each time he resolves to do so; to demand his rights to respect; to show her how much she hurts him. But when they meet her prettiness overwhelms him; and he is afraid of what his anger will cause: Jenny is a cat too quick with her claws; and she will leave him effortlessly, like a fag butt on the table. During their one argument she walks out of the pub without a single thought of him; she will not think of the pain she is causing... Only herself is what she sees. Everyone else is an extension of her own desires. Bob doesn’t understand this, and he is terrified of losing her, so that each time they meet he suppresses his anxiety, and smothers his resentment; cheeriness is the one emotion he tries to show, for it is the only way he thinks he can keep her. Love that old dissembler, and con artist.
Not that Jenny tells any serious lies or feigns interest. She is simply indifferent to him. Of course she tells small lies, and she will meet him when she needs money; the only reason she wants him; if only he would see it. But never do we think she is playing some elaborate game with Bob. It is obvious that she has no feelings for this man. Yes, she says she is fond of him. But only when he asks her; and then only after he’s repeatedly expressed his love; forcing her to respond to his appeals. Love! That is all we hear him say, he is obsessed with that word; attached to his lips like a lollipop to a child’s mouth. The word so true and banal; and so comic through its relentless repetition. Love! You want to convey so much that is inside you, yet there is only this little word to help you. All that ocean of fine and coarse feeling, with its layers upon layers of turbulence, its vast fauna of nuance and subtlety, and yet all you can say, and you keep on saying it, is love! A word she’s heard too many times before; and which has lost all meaning; it is a fag packet without any cigarettes.
Like all simple words love can mean many things.[i] For Jenny its expression is only a reflex; like thanks to the barman who takes your glass. Her personality and her trade encourages a sensuous passivity: she has grown up to please herself and other people; mostly men, who have always found her attractive; except for walking the streets there is little she must do for them to satisfy her. Thus if a man wants her to say that she loves him it is natural for her to say so; to gratify his craving; and give her the approbation she needs. The word is little more than the slipping off of her skirt and knickers to fulfil a customer’s more basic demands. It has no meaning, for it is uttered without thought or emotion; like a smile to a passing waiter. She takes his arm, kisses him, is very sentimental; promises never to let him down; or miss another appointment. Is this all make believe? Do you shout when someone hits you? Laugh when you find something funny? Most of what we do is reflex, conditioned by the moment; a physical response to the immediate act or situation. For some people life is all moment; and they have no feelings beyond it. Jenny seems to be one of these. She is all immediate satisfaction; comfortably in bed cuddling up with just her senses. Thus she feels warm and happy when her partner brings out these feelings; and quickly forgets them when they are not around, engulfed by some other attraction; a man, a friend, a pretty dress in a shop window. It would take an exceptional person to shake up this order of things. Bob is not the one to do so. He has no power over her. His personality is not strong enough to exist beyond their short meetings together. For Jenny he simply disappears when he is not there.
He cannot accept such an obvious truth. Bob is in love, and is completely within Jenny’s power. He wants her so much! All the hours of his day are consumed by thoughts of her… Surely, it is impossible that she does not feel the same. Impossible that she should have no feeling at all for him. When we are in love it is not possible to conceive of such an outlandish truth: that a person who has become your entire world has not a single thought for you; that you are no more in her mind than the barmaid in the Duke of Wellington or the usherette in the Odeon… So insignificant! When they are so important to you; your whole life dependent upon them. Bob can make no impression, beyond his immediate presence; which quickly vanishes; at once in fact, as soon as she meets another man. So deeply in love he has become hardly human, so weak is he; so dependent on his sense’s satisfaction; desperate for any scrap of her existence; a voice on the phone, a hand on his arm, her false promises of future happiness. Anything will do. And Jenny? Nothing about him matters. He could disappear tomorrow and she would no longer think about him. It is a terrible truth. One could write a shelf full of novels to obscure it. This is something Bob would do, if he had the talent. Instead he constructs his simple fantasies of marriage and a different line of work for his beloved. For his pretensions reflect his stature: he is a small and common man, with little skill or eccentricity; no social status whatsoever. He is ordinary. Average. Two terrible words, they confront rejected lovers each morning in the mirror.
He believes himself impure, not good enough for this beautiful woman, almost virginal in her innocence – her looks must make her so, he believes. In truth his only corruption is imagining perfidies as the reasons for her inconstancy (all true, it so happens). The lover has to represent the ideal. All our thoughts and senses are concentrated on one object and so inevitably we magnify its size and quality. Our love is now the only thing in our lives, and it becomes overwhelmingly the biggest thing in it; and we glorify it, immeasurably. We create an ideal we can never attain, and so we feel small and weak, perpetually guilty before an enormous Virgin we have created; adding to its lustre day after day; each moment increasing its importance, a habit we can no longer break. It is a terrible state to be in. So vulnerable; with all one’s senses open, the mind at the mercy of each stray emotion: a rubber dingy on a heavy swell; a storm forever on the horizon. We have put our life into another’s hands; we trust them implicitly. Bob is too vulnerable to be in love with a prostitute who has no feelings for the opposite sex.
Bob knows Jenny’s profession, and at some level is attracted by it. He can save her! He is also attracted by their different status, it encourages his sense of superiority; he is excited by it too – his love is consciously a transgression and an exercise of elevated morality. Although none of this would have happened without her beauty. He is lost to her looks. In another layer of his personality he does not believe he can redeem her; for he cannot accept that a young woman so beautiful can be so corrupted; can sell herself to any man for cash. He is attracted by her social innocence, which is really ignorance; being slightly more educated he believes he can teach her to think and talk better; he believes he can civilise her. Just change the surroundings and she will change too, he thinks to himself. Such fantasies depend on his distance from her world. They only work if he knows nothing about her. Close up he is repelled: the horrible café where the lowlifes meet; the shabby room she shares with her colleagues Prunella and Sammy; and their crude talk about taking other men’s money; the drink and bad language... It is an ugly place; with its own pretensions and make believe; but all done in bolder, harsher, colours than Bob could ever conceive. It is far cruder than Bob imagines possible: removing money from a punter’s pocket after you’ve shagged him is an occasion for a laugh and a joke for Jenny and her friends. It is no moral stain:
“A lot of things happen,” she said, when you get a man in a generous mood.”
“And I happened to make this one,” said Jenny, again smiling, “a bit more generous than he meant to be.”
And they all three laughed.
Jenny does not hide her work or her life from him; although there are reticences, moments when it lingers in the background; is spoken of indirectly. The one time he calls her a prostitute she leaves him alone in the pub. For in the complicated codes of this relationship (between a straight man and a bent woman) Jenny can describe herself accurately but not Bob; for the difference in their status gives the same description a different meaning for each of them. For Jenny the word merely describes the facts of her life; her memories lingering on the interesting and exceptional moments; those incidents that made her happy. Bob can only see the word; and cannot get past its connotations – mostly physical and moral, so that his use of it can only imply a judgement. For Jenny the word prostitute is simply a description of her life; like porter or clerk would be for someone else. The word simply a label no longer read because seen so often. Of course she knows it signifies a form of moral degradation, but all this is less significant than the facts of her life as she actually lives it: jars are less important than the condiments they contain. For Bob the word prostitute sums up a person entirely; for him the word itself has its own reality; and exists independently of Jenny, which it in turn defines. Instinctively both know this, and so the word although charged with meaning can be used easily by Jenny and not at all by Bob. It is sign of her freedom and his servitude, and her use of it only reinforces the imbalance of power between them.
She is so beautiful, “the prettiest little girl in the West End”, her friend Prunella says. Yet under that rich fair hair, inside those blue eyes, the so kissable lips, she is the ugliest character Bob will ever encounter. She has no feeling for him. And she only will only meet up when she needs money; and although she recognises his poverty, and warns him of it, even the most corrupt have a conscience, nevertheless she takes all of it, for a few hours of company and a goodbye kiss. Merciless! Though very little of it is planned. Bob is a human being reduced to an instrument; to a cash point machine for a flighty woman – she spends her money as soon as she earns it; a lot of it goes on drink, we assume from the little we learn about her. Bob cannot help but notice these things, especially when they have been together for the few hours she allows – a sentimental afternoon on Hampstead Heath is the single exception. But he cannot change his behaviour; his half-digested knowledge too weak to combat his desires.
He is often worn out after each meeting. Mostly it is the emotional tension. Walking along a linguistic tightrope, afraid to say the wrong word, but convinced his fall is coming, as it does, inevitably, as he looks constantly for those signs of her love – “you do love me, don’t you Jenny?” But he is also bored by her endless inanities, which reduces the conversation to a ping-pong match of short meaningless phrases. (One of the many weaknesses of the book is that these are reproduced at length.)[ii] Her words wear him out! But so perhaps does her person, for up close he cannot ignore her essence, and finds it hard to maintain his fantasies (they require even more work to keep afloat when he is with her). He cannot fail to see how she uses men solely for her own pecuniary advantage; and how many men she has known who are wealthier and better educated rather he. Why would a poor woman who only wants money want an ordinary man, without ready cash or charisma? It is not a question Bob ever asks himself; letting his feeble imagination conjure up weak dreams and dull hopes.
The book is too crude in it characterisations; too repetitive, and lacks real depth; although it records the surface of things well – it captures London pub life of the 1920s. It has all the faults of love. In a brilliant piece on the rise of the hug in western society (shorthand for the rise of emotional expressiveness) Adam Curtis notes how emotions are blunt things. He is partly right. The physical expression of strong emotions is usually formulaic and repetitive, and appears similar, if not identical, across the species.[iii] Something to be wary of, you would have thought, for civilised human beings. Yet for decades the fashionable demand has been to let our emotions out, so we can be our real selves by exposing, we are told, the core of our being. An exhortation that actually removes our uniqueness and sophistication; erases our human individuality; and takes away the very tools we need to capture the complexity of what is actually happening to us. The crude performance of emotions, their public expression, is a universe away from their sophisticated antics inside our minds and bodies – a Proustian novel of thought and feeling.
Hamilton has captured something of the nature of unrequited love; the sense of perpetual failure, the endless waiting, the ennui, the desperate hope, and the fleeting moments of certainty; also the fantasies, and the self-delusion. But he is not a skilled stylist or a particularly accomplished writer; he is not Rosamond Lehmann, who through her very brilliance makes love affairs interesting; although at the same time showing us all too clearly their pain and emotional wreckage. Hamilton, the weaker novelist, shows us how dull these affairs really are: his novels are a public health warning about love. Much of the novel feels more like a documentary recording of a real infatuation than a piece of art; properly shaped and formed, and providing us with fresh insights. It is all a little too on the surface; too simple; with crude distinctions and heavy handed manipulation of the plot – the last page summary is extraordinarily poor, a throwback to the certainties of the 19th century novel, when the narrative had to be folded up and neatly packed away.
It is only at the end, when Jenny doesn’t show up for their Brighton holiday, that Bob eventually has an epiphany; and sees her truly for what she is. Of course, he has had inklings before, but then he deluded himself; convinced himself that there are reasons for her behaviour; and that deep down she loved him. A better novel would have revealed more complexity, more shades of nuance and different layers of meaning; it would see Jenny much more clearly; and it would have mixed up moments of fantasy with clear-sighted reality: he would have recognised that he is in love with someone who doesn’t love him. There are moments when Bob is close to this, but too often Jenny is a simple construction, a fantasy that he creates; and which she herself demolishes when she doesn’t turn up for that last meeting. The novel thus misses perhaps the hardest truth of unrequited passion: the half-acknowledged realisation that you are the only person in the relationship that cares. That those overwhelmingly powerful feelings exist for you alone; and are merely spectator sport or worse, a game, for the object of your devotion. Even during the times of most desperate hope and obsession there will be moments when this insight appears, deepening the pain, but also intensifying the passion; for there is nothing like hope in a hopeless situation to increase your desire; your will to possess the loved one. In a doomed love affair it is the hope that kills. Hamilton is not skilful enough to portray this. He is no Dostoevsky or Joseph Roth; who sums up the whole of Midnight Bell in just a few paragraphs:
She needed more and more money. After a few weeks it became clear that she was just as mercenary as she was beautiful. Oh, not that she had tried secretly to put money by, in the way which characterizes so many middle-class women. No! She really spent it. She spent it!
She was like most women of her kind. She did not want to “use up” anything. But something in her wished to make use of opportunities, of all opportunities. Weak she was, and immeasurably vain. With women vanity is not only a passive weakness, it is also an extremely active passion, such as only games are with men. Again and again they keep giving birth to his passion; they incite it and at the same time are incited by it. Lutetia’s passion dragged me with it. Until then I had never dreamed how much a single woman could spend – and that always in the belief that it is only what is “absolutely necessary.” Until then I had never dreamed how powerless a loving man is against the foolishness of a woman. And at that time I was striving to be a loving man; which amounted to the same thing as being really in love. It was just the foolish and unnecessary things that she did which appeared to me both necessary and natural. And I will admit that her foolishness flattered me and at the same time confirmed my sham princely existence – for I needed such confirmation. I needed all this outward confirmation: clothes for me and Lutetia, the servility of the tailors who measured me in the hotel with careful fingers as though I were a fragile idol… the menial look in the porter’s eyes, the obsequious bowing of the waiters and servants, of whom I saw little more than their faultlessly shaved necks. And money – money needed, too. (Confession of a Murderer)
The novel’s problem is that the main character doesn’t understand Jenny. The book thus lacks tension, and much concrete reality: Jenny is all make believe. Is Bob really that stupid? Maybe he is; and that is exactly what Hamilton wants to capture: the long-winded, narrow, blinded and highly repetitive and formulaic thoughts and utterances of a man in love. If this was his intention he has succeeded; but rather too well. The novel reads like a newspaper column about an odd incident: a decent, ordinary, and good-looking, chap who fell obsessively in love with a prostitute, and allowed her to steal all his money. He gave it away for free! Love, it seems, makes you daft.
[i] It can mean what appears to be its opposite, hate for example.
[ii] Another is Jenny's (very) mild lingo is assiduously translated into Bob’s (that is our) idiom. I suspect it signifies the main character’s irony, but is too obvious and goes on for too long.
[iii] This may be one of the reasons why we feel weak and ordinary, incapable and unworthy, when in love. Because our performance is indeed weak and ordinary; using the gestures of a Neanderthal to express the sophistication of 21st century man.