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Sometimes a book review pops into my reader that makes me go off and buy the book almost immediately. One such review was by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal last year – and the book she wrote about; Craven House by Patrick Hamilton. You can read Jacqui’s review here.

Craven House is set in a boarding house – and it was that alone that attracted me – I love boarding houses, hotels, hostels or B&Bs in literature.

Craven House was Patrick Hamilton’s second novel – written when he was just twenty-two (his first novel, published a year earlier). It’s not a perfect novel, we couldn’t expect it to be. However, in Hamilton’s characters and evocative sense of place there is still a lot to like. Sometimes, novels with little plot can be slow burns, I didn’t find that here, Hamilton’s style is playful, a little cynical and rather nostalgic, which is odd perhaps for a twenty-two-year-old. There are some wonderful set pieces, and several delightful laugh out loud moments. I enjoyed it all enormously.

The novel opens in about 1911 – Miss Hatt’s Craven House stands in Keymer Gardens, West London. In the opening pages Hamilton evokes the period beautifully, gas lamp lighters, the call of newspaper boys, the distant sound of trains and factory hooters. Evening is falling, and the little rooms in the houses of Keymer Gardens are lighting up.

There is very little in the way of plot – but what Hamilton does well is to introduce a fairly disparate group of characters revealing them gradually – through their interactions and dialogue.

“The undressing of Mr and Mrs Spicer bears all the naturally furtive embarrassment of two strangers compelled as part of a compact resulting from a limited amount of words breathed over them seven years ago, to undress in the same room and in front of each other’s eyes for life – an embarrassment rendered less poignant by time and its own inevitability.”

This is a world of shared dinners, polite conversation in the drawing room, private whispered arguments behind bedroom doors and little wrangles over bath water. It is a world inhabited by those reduced to living in a boarding house – desperately trying to keep up the standards to which they have been born. So, everyone dresses for dinner, – everyone knows their place – and standards are smilingly maintained. Miss Hatt is capable and pleasant, priding herself in providing a nice home for her residents.

As the novel opens Miss Hatt is preparing for the arrival of the Major and his young son, who will be taking up residence in two of her empty rooms. Major Wildman is around sixty – his son, generally referred to as Master Wildman, is eight.

Already installed in the house are Mr and Mrs Spicer; who have been friends of Miss Hatt’s since school days, and Mrs Nixon; twice widowed and her young daughter Elsie. Below stairs there are two domestic servants Audrey and Edith, a couple of colourful characters, drawn with warm and wry affection.

Elsie and the Major’s son hit it off rather well – and slowly there develops a rather

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touching relationship between these two boarding house children. The Major is a hot water hogger, which causes some irritation. Mrs Nixon, we soon learn is a bit of tartar, she is very strict with poor Elsie – and more than once Master Wildman jumps in to cheer up his little friend. As the years pass, we see Elsie is horribly bullied by her mother, and Master Wildman does not like it. There’s the disappointment over a promised treat, years later a ruined evening dress. Mrs Nixon is a jealous, tyrant where her daughter is concerned.

The years pass, Master Wildman is a school boy when the Great War glances lightly off the lives of the residents of Craven House. Only Mr Spicer is drawn into the war – and his service is limited to some training, some work on the home front and a very short spell in France. After the war, a Mrs Hoare comes to Craven House – a woman with the habit of speaking of people or things by their initial sounds – a habit that causes much amusement, and gentle teasing by the younger residents of the house. Later still a Russian lady arrives to stay, and the attempts at conversation with her over the dinner table are hilarious. Hamilton’s dialogue is really good – and he has sharp eye for the absurd.

“ In after life it would be the mornings that he would remember best – the rainy mornings, when you stood at the front door and listened to the hissing and trickling noises, while Miss Hatt fetched Mr Spicer’s old umbrella and told you to wait a bit because it might clear, and then told you to dash – and the dashing itself – and the subsequent dank smell of your own clothes in the beetly, darkened school boot-room. The bitterly cold mornings, silver bright, with the rough feel of the Major’s old Army scarf, and the pavement nearly to be slidden upon, and the absolute perishment of Miss Staines. The undecided mornings, which were dejecting, muddy, and yesterday’s wet-mackintosh mornings…”

Over the course of fifteen years, we witness the highs and lows of the residents of Craven House. Beneath the surface of this polite residence there are unspoken strains. It would seem that Mr Spicer is not quite the respectable husband he appears, taking long walks across London, visiting public houses and trying to pick up young women. Miss Hatt, meanwhile, may not be coping quite as well as everyone thinks, with running her house, and keeping everyone happy.

Engaging characters and a superb sense of time and place captivated me instantly. I felt one or two characters could have done with a little more development and the novel is overall a little loose in places – but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am still amazed it was written by someone so young. Toward the end there’s a dramatic shift in relations between Miss Hatt and her residents – and the days of Craven House appear to be coming to an end. In his choice of ending (which I still loved) I detected the hand of an inexperienced writer, unsure perhaps of how to end his novel.

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