The Siege of Pleasure by Patrick Hamilton

Tags:  general-fiction, favorite-fiction,

The Siege of Pleasure, the second book in Patrick Hamilton’s 1930’s London trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, picks up just days after the end of book one. Jenny Maple is walking the streets around the London Pavilion looking for a trick while trying to avoid a plainclothes cop who has recently arrested one of her friends.

A seedy-looking middle-aged man has his eye on her, but can’t quite pluck up the courage to approach. Desperate to get off the street, into a warm hotel and away from the threat of arrest, Jenny approaches him. The man is physically unattractive, sneaky, furtive, nervous and evasive. She takes the lead in negotiating a price for the night, and then they’re off–first to a pub, and then to a hotel.

They flirt and joke to break the ice.

“You’re a bad little girl, ain’t you?” he said waggishly. “How did you get that way?”

“Oo,” she said, in the same burlesquing spirit. “I Took the Wrong Turning, my dear. I Took to Drink.”

“You did–eh?”

“That’s right, my dear,” she went on in the same way, “All through a Glass of Port.”

She was speaking without the slightest seriousness at the moment, but a little later, thinking of odd things as she humored him and his kisses and the taxi curved and sped through the mauve-lit London streets, she wondered whether she had accidentally hit on truth.

This is Jenny’s Proustian moment. A simple bantering joke triggers richly-detailed memories of a past world. The twenty-one-year-old prostitute recalls the turning point at age eighteen that led her to this life.

After drifting from home to home and losing her job as a “factory girl,” Jenny is renting a room above a pet shop in Camden Town. She has just landed a job as servant to an elderly trio in Chiswick whose daily routine has fossilized into deathly tedium. Hamilton’s wit is at its best in describing the ancient inmates of this household that would bore any eighteen-year-old to death:

Robert, Marion, and Bella took a large lunch in the middle of the day. Afterwards they all felt dazed and rather ill. Robert then retired to his “study,” wherein he studied exclusively slumber, with whose every department he was majestically acquainted; Marion went to her bedroom; and Bella went down in an armchair before the fire.

The two ladies generally read for some time, finally letting fall both their literature and their lower jaws, and swimming off into a fuddled coma until tea time.

While they doze, Jenny shops, scrubs, makes beds, empties wash basins… Not a very exciting life for a young girl.

One night she meets up with a friend, the flirtatious, boy-crazy Violet. Two men on the street strike up a conversation. The four of them go to a pub. Jenny, who has never drank before, has a glass of port. And then another. And another. The young girl to whom the book of love was closed, who had never felt much strong emotion one way or another, feels for the first time, under the influence of alcohol, warmth and joy and exaltation.

The older of the two men eggs her on, feeding her as many drinks as he can get into her. She’s too drunk and too inexperienced to know how intoxicated she really is. This seedy character, thirty years old to her eighteen, begins to seduce her with talk of a better job and a better life. Why waste her days in servitude when she could be a model, working half the hours for five times the pay? He’ll set her up with a job himself. He’s rich, he’s connected (so he says, so she believes). He’ll open all the doors for her.

While drunken Jenny is carried away with the grand visions he spins in her young inebriated mind, the reader sees clearly who this man is. He “shook with a sudden wheezing laughter, and drew hideous and hypnotic attention to the gaps and calamities of his teeth.”

Many forces come together in this turning point in Jenny’s life, which unfolds over the course of an evening and the following day. Hamilton relates it all in unsentimental prose that has the rawness of a throbbing hangover.

Jenny has no firm ground to stand on. No family, no money, few prospects. She is naturally pretty, attracting men’s attention whether she wants to or not. She is a pleaser, trying always to live up to the initial lovely impression she involuntarily makes on both men and women. And in her late mother’s dire warnings about drink, there are hints of alcoholism in the family tree.

From her very first drink, it’s clear that liquor affects her differently than the others.

A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation wrapped her comfortable around–together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news–a delicious short cut to that inconstant elation which was so arduously won by virtue from the everyday world. It engendered the desire to celebrate nothing for no reason.

Many addicts tell the story of how, on their first exposure to alcohol, they drink to blacking out. This is Jenny’s story, and Hamilton, himself an alcoholic, is well qualified to tell it.

Jenny awakes the next morning in a strange house. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s hung over, late for work, in danger of losing the job she had just started two days earlier. She’s physically ill, mentally panicked, emotionally drained, hopeless and scared.

The “gentleman” in whose home she awakes is a veteran of late nights and desperate mornings. As Jenny tries to figure out how to salvage her job and get back on track, her “friend” sees how the hangover has sapped her physical, mental, and emotional energy. Her will is weak and faltering. She won’t make it through the day.

The veteran drinker takes her to a pub, buys her a whiskey to take the edge off her sickness. Desperate for relief, she drinks and–

There it went again. It seemed to trickle down and heat and awaken every little cell and channel with its brisk medicining. It was like what she had felt last night–a little nicer if anything… It was a wonderful reviver, no doubt about that. Nothing he could say, no mental comforting could so brace her as this inward corporal reassurance, this physical information, of good things descending on her.

Thus begins the cycle of the addict. She returns to the cause of her troubles for temporary relief, reinforcing dependence and digging her hole ever deeper.

Hamilton is not sentimental about Jenny, but he is clear-eyed and empathetic. Addiction is an annihilating disease. As my friend, herself a junkie, once put it, addicts have no self when they’re using. The person that was there is so deeply buried, they almost don’t exist.

This is the Jenny we got to know in book one of the trilogy, The Midnight Bell: short on feeling, emotionally unreachable, her mind too worn out to think. This is who she is at the end of The Siege of Pleasure, though by now she’s starting to get more jaded.

The tragedy of addiction is the loss of the person who once was. You see her here–young, inexperienced, lacking self-awareness, falling in with the wrong people at a vulnerable moment, taking the wrong turn on the cusp of a not-too-promising life.

Book One: The Midnight Bell

Book Three: The Plains of Cement