An Education, one of the Best Picture nominees at the last Oscars, is about a schoolgirl’s love affair with a secretive older man. Watching the heroine move through the familiar stations of Bliss, Disillusionment, and Chastened Maturity, I found the movie working all too well as an allegory of my last car purchase. Nothing was said—or nothing sensible at least—about love itself. Love is blind? No blinder than anything else. Sight corrected, we come to our senses? If only it were that simple. Truer to life are the stories in which a rational person walks open-eyed into hell. In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), sensitive Philip winds up in the thrall of grasping Mildred, one of the most loathsome characters in all fiction. “When she left him it was wretchedness, and when she came to him again it was despair.” The sentence hints at the Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story’s circular non-plot and one-sided perspective, but also at its greater profundity. The schoolgirl in the film would have been fine had she only known how to spot a married man. But how can we avoid falling for someone we don’t even like? We can’t. That’s an education.
Unfortunately, Maugham’s novel takes way too long to get to Mildred. Other contributions to this most autobiographical of fictional genres give too much rein to self-pity. The story told in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Eine unglückliche Liebe (1934), literally An Unhappy Love, feels no less overwrought for having evidently taken place in real life; the hero even buys a gun for the girl, Sibylle, to shoot him with. Superior to both books as a literary whole, if never as harrowing as either one, is The Midnight Bell (1929). Patrick Hamilton, the author, may be better known in the United States as the man on whose plays the films Rope and Gaslight were based, but in his native Britain he is remembered more for novels of urban loneliness and frustration. The Midnight Bell tells of a handsome young waiter’s love for a teenage prostitute. Bob is trying to work himself up the class ladder; Jenny pulls him back down, and then some, without a second thought. The novel is the first and perhaps best part of Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, which has been republished by New York Review Books.
The Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story is a male-dominated genre, just as tales of a lover deceived or betrayed tend to be written more often by female writers. But while the latter are still widely written and read, the former, apart from a few late and less unhappy entries like Keith Waterhouse’s Our Song (1988), was very much a first-half-of-the-20th-century thing. This may have something to do with the book Sex and Character, which enjoyed intellectual respectability for decades after Otto Weininger, its author, committed suicide in 1903 at the age of 23. The Austrian’s assertion that women are inherently parasitic may sound especially silly now, when more men than ever rely on their wives’ income, but the economic realities were different back then. An eligible young woman in London or New York certainly had more incentive than a man did—and more than her 21st-century counterpart would—to string along an unattractive admirer of very limited means. She also had—and this was new—the social freedom to do so without ruining her marriage prospects. What she lacked, if these stories are any indication, was enough incentive to be nice to the poor devil in return. Please don’t be beastly: variations of the plea recur throughout this fiction, as the girl snaps and snarls her way through the hero’s paltry savings. Perhaps (and this is a common trope) his last pennies will go toward a hotel room where she will enjoy a stronger, handsomer man. Mildredism is far from dead, of course, but stories of it are unlikely to move much product in today’s book market, which is infinitely more interested in women who love too much.
From selling one’s nearness to selling sex is arguably a small step, and in Of Human Bondage, Mildred eventually takes it, though by that time she has already left Philip. One might assume that in making his own hero’s love object a streetwalker from the start, Hamilton, a Marxist, was trying to convey too obvious a message about human relations under capitalism. In fact, The Midnight Bell is yet another fictionalized record of personal experience: the young author had himself just emerged from a chaste but ruinous infatuation with a prostitute.
This may be why the character of Jenny is so much more nuanced and credible than streetwalkers in other narratives. She feels no guilt. She is neither a nymphomaniac nor a man-hater. Least of all is she the golden-hearted hooker we know from Dostoyevsky and Pretty Woman. She was not starved into the trade nor—to mention how our half-evangelical, half-feminist society explains the rapid growth of prostitution— did she fall prey to sex traffickers. Jenny works without a pimp. The reasons for her choice of profession, which are set out dramatically in the second part of the trilogy, conform to those a shaken British pastor heard in 1890 during interviews with thousands of so-called fallen women: “Plenty of money”; “Your own mistress”; “Perfect liberty”; even: “Being a lady.”
In love, like poor George Gissing, with a prostitute! It still sounds like an almost comical state of affairs. Yet as described in The Midnight Bell, the basic nature of Bob’s predicament is no different from Philip’s in Of Human Bondage. The Buzzcocks sum it up beautifully—for pop music has given the Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story a permanent home—in their classic song “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”: “You make me feel I’m dirt, and I’m hurt / But if I start a commotion / I’ll only end up losing you, and that’s worse.” With such ghastly stasis making up the bulk of these novels, they cannot go on too long without boring the reader, so the quality of writing must compensate for the lack of surprise and event. This is especially true for The Midnight Bell, the entire course of which can be foreseen the moment Jenny first walks into Bob’s pub. Fortunately Hamilton was a master of observant, ironic prose. Perhaps his most famous trademark is witty comment on the characters’ dialogue. Here is the barmaid, who loves Bob just as hopelessly as he loves Jenny:
“Talking to those Prostitutes,” said Ella
Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated as Pros, and beyond the pale.
There is a little too much of this narratorial hyper-attentiveness in the rest of the trilogy, but here it recalls the dramatic sharpening of the senses that accompanies passionate love. (Aren’t we much blinder when out of it?) Bob adores Jenny no less for knowing that she is “a vulgar little bitch,” “a little criminal,” “a lazy little beast.” Much of the book’s comedy derives from his pained apprehension of every excruciating thing she says. Anyone who likes the plays of Joe Orton will enjoy the pair’s conversations, despite Hamilton’s overuse of facetious capitals:
He observed in passing, quite uncritically, that whereas she had invited him to, he was paying for, the drinks …
“I Like Music,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Bob said that he did.
“Specially them waltzes,” she added, “an’ all those Sad ones. Don’t you?”
“Yes. I do. I think the waltz is the best of the lot.”
“You know what I mean.” She was in great travail to make herself clear. “I ain’t sloppy, but I think I got a taste for Good Music, like. You know what I mean.”
He comprehended only too well what she was at such pains to express, and it abruptly occurred to him that the evening was going to be rather a bore.
How could a man love such a woman—and so much, that he doesn’t even want to sleep with her? Bob seems to share our bafflement. “Was there some magic in her? He looked at her. Yes, assuredly she was magic.” The hero in Of Human Bondage feels no less “metamorphosed by magic spells.” Even the narrator of the German novel asks, as the girl eats a messy breakfast, “What was her magic, why didn’t he go ...?” Love here is a demonic, frightening force that strikes out of the blue to destroy lives. This is why these novels are so moving despite their flaws. Perhaps it is only unhappy stories, including those like Wuthering Heights, that can fully convey the power of love. Romance novels fail, because love that makes happy instead of sad, that rewards instead of destroys, is too hard to distinguish—in fiction as in real life—from fervently heightened self-interest. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example, in which a woman realizes she loves a man only after she tours his enormous estate.
No wonder the Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story receded in time with the popularization of psychology and its refusal to see magic in human relations. Our age can no longer understand great destructive passion except in terms of sexual obsession, a phrase printed on the Bantam paperback edition of Maugham’s book. Never mind that Philip finds Mildred’s body downright repulsive. Koeppen’s hero does not sleep with Sibylle either, but that did not stop the American publisher from sexualizing—and trivializing—the title, Eine unglückliche Liebe, into A Sad Affair. Nonclinical explanations having become unthinkable, 21st-century man must wonder what is mentally wrong with himself for staying in an “unhealthy” relationship. As for Mildred, Sibylle, and Jenny, and Angela in Waterhouse’s Our Song—who are different in so many ways—a psychologist would surely note their shared dishonesty, craving for attention, and hostility to even mild criticism, and cut them down to size with one diagnosis. (Histrionic Personality Disorder, I’m guessing.) But how poorly psychologists understand the heart can be seen in the advice they give those who love such women: get away!
When Patrick Hamilton revisited the Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story in 1941, it was with a much angrier effort. Hangover Square tells of a mentally ill man’s financial and emotional martyring at the hands of Netta, a kind of über-Mildred. One speeds through the novel with all the pleasure of approaching revenge—and feels a little unclean for it afterward. The Midnight Bell is the better book, even if it is in a minor key; finishing it, one retains enough sympathy for Jenny to want to read her backstory in The Siege of Pleasure, the second part of the trilogy. The third part, The Plains of Cement, follows a 50ish bore’s pursuit of Ella, the barmaid. Hamilton tells the story from her perspective, and in such a way as to remind us of a truth that The Midnight Bell overlooks: while loving unrequitedly is misery, it is no fun for the other party either. Mr. Eccles begs for a chance to lavish money on his love, pretending, as men do, to expect nothing in return—and then feels cruelly used when she balks at his air of proprietorship. The goings-on in The Plains of Cement are set at the same time as those in The Midnight Bell, so that while the barmaid is fending off her suitor, we catch glimpses of Bob on his road to ruin. Perhaps this is why, when we close the trilogy to the sound of Ella’s sobbing, it is the memory of the first novel that lingers.
It is not such a sad ending; the heartbroken lovers are young, and life goes on. There is uplift even in The Midnight Bell if one looks for it. The best line in the whole thing: “He had forgotten that women were miraculous.” A close second: “He wanted no one else, for the simple reason that no one else was her.” Is that such a pitiful state to be in? No significance can be found in life without the sense of something bigger than we are, beyond our knowing. The magical Jenny gives Bob that sense. In loving the little tyrant, he frees himself from so much else, not least that constant diffuse lusting after the opposite sex that constitutes a tyranny of its own. (Jenny, whose “perfect liberty” compels her to search every passing face, represents more than just her profession.) If Bob is too young to regard even unhappy love as a blessing, the hero of Waterhouse’s Our Song is not:
I know that I would sooner have had the desolation than non-desolation, sooner the pain and the anxiety and yes, the fury, than the deadening experience of nothing very much.