Friday, 2 March 2012

Just One Drink...

How much does the author understand?  In the first book of the trilogy we live inside the narrow mind of the hero, Bob; an ordinary guy, with no special talents; a bit of a bore, if truth be told.  The little that we see of Jenny is mediated through his actions and opinions, many of which are hopes and dreams, and little fantasies; of a respectable life together, comfortably asleep between the well-ironed sheets, homely under a crocheted blanket, of wild flowers and a blue border...  In the second book, The Siege of Pleasure, we see the world from her point of view.

He was in a wretched state of depression, and could eat nothing.  She could see that he repented last night’s dissipation, and she had suffered too much in that way herself not to feel sorry for him.  He gulped and gasped at the hot tea, and looked ahead of him.

“You’re feeling sorry now,” she said, smiling.  “Aren’t you?”

She always rather enjoyed this moment of the morning, after she had spent a night with a man.  Being able to lie on in bed, without regrets of any sort, while he, full of remorse and with passion spent, had to rush off back to his work, filled her with an indolently indulgent, one might almost say a maternal feeling towards him.

This is near the end of the novel, and suggests how little Hamilton understands his central character.  If he had greater insight, and could see her more clearly, this scene would be at the beginning of the book; the start of an exploration into the range of emotions so brilliantly expressed here.  The indolence, a feeling of exception, the enjoyment of luxury; the riches of her senses and all that free time - Jenny has the life of a wealthy lady, and yet she is poor…  What a paradox to investigate!  There is her power, of course, how nice it must be to have so much control.  And the talented use of her body, in which she takes obvious delight – she is a skilled professional, and there are times when she enjoys her work.  She also has a certain sympathy, an animal response to another’s vulnerability; and for a few moments the whore, looking to squeeze every john, becomes a kindly person sorry for a fellow human being…  Her work done, lying down in self-made luxury, she scans the horizon from atop her high tower: servant turned master, she can look down at the man who has bought her; and see how small she has made him.  It is perhaps the moment in the day that she can exercise her stupendous superiority; when men become silly children, forced to run back to school and home.  How much we would like to see inside her….

Yet this world, suggested by these few paragraphs, is not explored; for the rest of the book is concerned with how Jenny became a whore; it is not interested in how she experiences life in the here and now. Like the earlier Bob, Hamilton can catch brief glimpses of her nature (the author himself was infatuated with a prostitute), but he does not have the confidence or the skill to write an extended study of such a personality; of a beautiful streetwalker in her prime.  What a novel this could have been!   But Hamilton is not Zola, and Jenny is far from Nana…  For this is a story about a respectable girl.

Afraid of his limitations the author runs away from the difficulties, to the very beginning of her fall, when Jenny was just an ordinary girl, who never went into pubs or kissed strange gentleman.  He goes back to a time when even a car ride was a novel experience, and she was going out with a dull but decent chap; destined for a quiet marriage with three children. 

The book has comedy, and overturns some stereotypes: it is the richer middle classes that are seen as the corrupting influence; their fast cars and drunkenness alien to the Puritanism of Jenny and her class.  This seems right, capturing as it does the earnest moralism of many of the working poor, particularly acute for those living just above the barest poverty, or during the uncertainties of the interwar years.[i]  Jenny is an innocent who is led astray by just one night, or perhaps even more extreme, just one glass of port: it produces a liking for drink, and a weakening of her will; so that she falls for the attraction of a handsome but dissipated man, who appears to have independent wealth.  Of course, as the author knows only too well, it is not that one glass of alcohol that leads to her ruin.  Her beauty and poverty, and a certainty passivity, she is too willing to please, there is a sort of yielding quality to her character, are the main reasons why she eventually gives in to the attractions of a permanent holiday…

There is also something attractive about a lack of routine and rigid habit.  Hamilton cleverly locates her fall on the first day of her new job.  The conflicted emotions of starting in a novel position - the excitement and dread, the unease, and the realisation of the boredom and routine to come, she is a domestic servant for two old women – all soften her up, so that a comfortable car ride appears a glittering alternative, and the easy way out of that difficult first day...

This new job produces a break in the pattern of her life, it has temporarily broken her settled and restraining routines, and creates a small space, a gap, if you like, into which she can fall.  A couple of loud, drunken men, of a different class, and alien experiences, one of whom offers the prospect of mannequin work, is just enough to push her off her respectable world; although it had to occur at this particular time.  A week later it would have been too late. 

And we see her fall, little step by little step; it is the story of a well brought up girl defeated by circumstance.  It is a kind of thriller, and reminds me of Hitchcock’s Rope, written by the same author, of course.  It is just a little too neat and contrived.  The possibility of a rich narrative sacrificed to a single idea: the fall of a poor but respectable girl into the sensual life; which, we are led to assume, inevitably results in prostitution.[ii]  It is a large assumption, and suggests something of Hamilton’s deficiencies: he has a somewhat mechanical idea of people’s motivations; which may in turn reflect his class; his own poor understanding of the people he is writing about – in his eyes they may lack the full human capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.  They are like dolls to be picked up and played around with by their local environment: it is other people who determine their behaviour; although in an aside he glosses it, writing that ultimate responsibility rests with her personality, for the reasons I give above.  So we see each little detail of her decline: the first drink, her first car ride, the offer of an exciting job; the charming words, the power of peer pressure, and class too, we see that, oh yes, we see that too, especially close to the end. 

The rich ‘gentleman’ doesn’t mind being late for work, he can have a bath, take his time, he can be as long as he likes over his toilette – other people have to wait for him.  If he wants the day off he can have it; just like that.  He is secure in this life; and this luxury and his insouciance have a kind of authority; which at first irritates but eventually captivates Jenny.  He overburdens her with his class. 

He makes Jenny badly late for work.  Once past that all-important deadline how much easier it is to justify a holiday.  On time and outside the owner’s door the pressure would be too intense to resist.  But over an hour late and now it becomes harder to go to work; to explain and apologise, to submit to a bad impression, the anger and incredulity of your masters; and your own feelings of guilt; acknowledging your weakness, admitting your mistakes… you will feel bad about yourself, possibly for days to come.  And all those excuses you must create.  Yet you have a hangover, and this gentleman is so confident in his easy ways; and he has promised you something that is hard to resist: a carefree and glamorous life; to be a mannequin! 

A working man, aware always of the fragility of his life, of the pressing need for work and the power of his bosses, would have been more sympathetic to her predicament, would have understood her need to get out of his house quickly.  He would have tried to accommodate her; and saved her in his own way.  Instead she ends up in a bar to drink off the previous night’s headache.  The gentleman has opened the door to another world.  A world where you can lie in bed during the day, and let others do the work.




[i] See Bryan Magee’s description of Hoxton in my I’m Lazy for a good account of this environment.
[ii] It also has something of an anecdotal quality.  Was this the story that his lover gave him about her fall…  just a little too neat, and too worked over….improved and refined with the telling?

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