Home > 1930, 20th Century, British Literature, Hamilton Patrick, Novel > Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook

Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. 1941 French title: Hangover Square

Set in London in 1939 and more precisely in Earl’s Court, Hangover Square describes the obsessive, consuming and destructive passion that George Harvey Bone has for the attractive Netta Longdon. But, let me introduce you to George:

He was thirty-four, and had a tall, strong, beefy, ungainly figure. He had a fresh, red complexion and a small moustache. His eyes were big and blue and sad and slightly bloodshot with beer and smoke. He looked as though he had been to an inferior public school and would be pleased to sell you a second-hand car.

This short description conveys information about his features and his character. George is weak and reminds me of Charles Bovary. It must be the beefy look –literally bovin in French— and the apparent slowness of mind. Contrary to Charles, George suffers from mental illness; sometimes his mind snaps and he starts living in an alternate reality. Hamilton mentions schizophrenia. George was born like that, is used to living with his funny moods and has never seen a doctor for this. He’s known and mocked for his stupid moods and people around him wait for him to come out of his mindless state.

Poor George is incapacitated by strokes of schizophrenia and he’s intoxicated to the point of stupor by alcohol and his special brand of dope, Netta Longdon. Alcoholic states have been abundantly described in literature and I don’t think I need to add anything to it. Plus, you may have experienced drunkenness yourself. However, you’ve mostly likely not experienced schizophrenia and this is how Patrick Hamilton pictures it for us:

A silent film without music – he could have found no better way of describing the weird world in which he now moved. He looked at passing objects and people, but they had no colour, vivacity, meaning – he was mentally deaf to them. They moved like automatons, without motive, without volition of their own. He could hear what they said, he could understand their words, he could answer them, even; but he did this automatically, without having to think of what they had said or what he was saying in return.

Hamilton has a fascinating way to describe George’s inner mind when his brain is off-balance. When he’s in his other mood, he has an idée fixe; he must kill Netta Longdon and then go and live in the country, in Maidenhead. The book alternates between chapters when George is “normal” and chapters when George is “gone”. Each time he’s “gone”, he goes further in the preparation of the murder. And the reader wonders: will Netta die?

George’s mind is assaulted by two illnesses: his schizophrenia enhanced by his heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages and his desperate and unrequited love for Netta Longdon which results in the said heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. He’s in a vicious circle and his life spirals out of control. He can’t fight the attraction and loves her and hates her at the same time for the hold she has on him:

Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.

And Netta is what Guy would call a nasty piece of work. She’s lethal as a syringe full of heroin. She’s lovely outside and rotten to the core inside. George is aware of her lack of qualities, of her brutal use of her beauty. She’s a bully. She’s a beauty and uses her charms as a weapon. But she’s not charming. Netta is not a courtesan who flatters, entertains and bewitches a man with agreeable manners and stunning looks. Netta is a black witch who oozes fatal attraction and George is caught is her spell like a butterfly to a light:

Then it happened. At one moment she was just something he was talking to and looking at; at the next she was something of which he was physically sensible by some means other than that of sight or sound: she was sending out a ray, a wave, from herself, which seemed to affect his whole being, to go all through him like a faint vibration. It was as though she were a small amateur wireless station, and he alone was tuned in to her and listening. And the message she was tapping out was, of course, her loveliness.

George is helpless. He despises himself for his weakness and loathes her for her power as soon as he’s far enough from her range of attraction. She’s stupid. Some people are stupid and nice; some are stupid and mean. Netta falls into that category. She uses George for his money and at the same time can’t bear his presence. She has no conscience, no moral compass, no compassion. Hamilton says she’s like a fish:

Her thoughts, however, resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving solemnly forward to its object or veering slowly sideways without fully conscious motivation.

I don’t know how it is in English, but in French, if someone compares your brain to that of a goldfish, it’s more than derogatory. She acts like an animal, taking what she needs without thinking about other people’s feelings or the consequences. George has no chance to fight the attraction and he knows it. That’s why killing Netta is the only solution he sees but only voices when his mind has snapped. George seems stupid with his strange moods but he still has quite a good grasp of political matters and people. He sees people and events with clarity. He can’t defend himself because he lacks confidence. He’s always been treated as inferior by teachers, family and comrades. I felt compassion for George because he’s lucid about the lethal attraction and can’t help it. I also felt compassion for him because he’s lonely, isolated by his illness which he doesn’t recognise as an illness.

Hamilton_HangoverApart from Netta and George, Hangover Square is full of colourful second characters, London being one of them. Netta’s friends aren’t better than her and Peter is particularly repulsive. He’s a fascist and George loathes him for his privileged relationship with Netta and despises him for his political involvement with fascist activists. With Peter and Netta, Hamilton evokes the fascist current in England in 1939 and the country on the eve of WWII. I liked Johnnie, George’s only friend. He’s ambiguous and kept me wondering if his friendship for George was sincere or not. I mentioned London as a character. The novel is set in Earl’s Court but it also describes other neighbourhoods and part of the action takes place in Brighton. Hamilton describes the city and its pubs where George spends most of his time. I wonder if George’s desire to kill Netta Longdon and go and live in the country isn’t a metaphor for the city. Is the corrupted and insensitive Netta a metaphor for London and its failings while the good and slow George represents the countryside? London is the place where George is currently unhappy; the countryside is where he feels peaceful and happy.

Hangover Square is a multi-layered book. The toxic relationship or lack of relationship between Netta and George is interesting in itself. The description of George’s mental illness, its effects on his consciousness is brilliantly done; it could be a book in itself. Then there’s the ambiance in London just before the wart starts, the divisions among the citizens and the fascist movements which have touched part of the population. All this is enveloped in the global atmosphere of the city, its streets, its pubs, its boarding houses. I’ve read that Hamilton drank heavily, used to live in a boarding house and lived in London. This is probably why his descriptions sound so right.

Hamilton’s style is excellent, sharp and spot on. Few words bring the reader where he wants them and nail a character. See what he writes about Netta She looked like a Byron beauty, but she was a fish. or about George He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded. I can imagine him pretty well, his loneliness showing through his postures, his looks, the way he carries himself. I liked George, despite everything. I pitied him and the idea that someone like Netta could have such a hold on somebody else’s life made me shudder. I think this book will stay with me for its characters and the beauty of its language.

One last thing: many, many thanks to Max, from Pechorin’s Journal for recommending this fine piece of literature. I owe you one.

  1. September 21, 2013 at 3:28 am

    I read this a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (made into a television series) which is part of a trilogy. I cannot express how much I loved this book. It is excellent.


    • September 22, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      I’ll look for his other books. I didn’t know if you had read it or not when I was reading it myself. I kept thinking how much you’d “like” Netta. She’s one of those kamikaze women.


  2. September 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

    You really liked this book. I’ve got this and another of his novels and am looking forward to it. The quote about schizophrenia you added didn’t strike me as pertinent, so I’m interested how he depicts the illness in the rest of the book. (I’ve been stalked by a violent schizophrenic (a rare thing, they are ususally not aggressive) for years and have read tons of books on schizophrenia). The combination of mental illness and alcohol is fatal, of course. Hamilton was an alcoholic, was he afflicted by the illness as well, do you know? Many people confound the euphoric and psychotic states of bi-polar disorder with schizophrenia.


    • September 22, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      I’m not sure at all it is schizophrenia, that’s why I said that Hamilton mentions this illness. George doesn’t remember what he was doing or thinking when he was in his other mood. His other self seems to pick things up where he left them the last time he was “out” or leading the game.
      I’ve read that Hamilton drank heavily but I didn’t read anything about mental illness. However I wondered if he wasn’t suffering from something because of the precise descriptions of George’s mind. (And the choice of topic for a book)


  3. Vishy
    September 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Wonderful review of an interesting book, Emma! Netta looks like a complex, difficult-to-like character – she reminds me of Mildred from Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’. I haven’t read a Patrick Hamilton novel yet, though I have his ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’. I should read it sometime. I have seen a movie based on one of his plays though – the Hitchcock movie ‘Rope’ – and loved it. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • September 22, 2013 at 4:44 pm

      I want to read Of Human Bondage.
      Netta is a great character, from a literary point of view. I wouldn’t want to know someone like that in real life but Hamilton portrays her extremely well. You can “see” her.


      • September 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

        Hope you get to read ‘Of Human Bondage’ and like it, Emma. It was the first Maugham book I read and I think my most favourite. I should read it again one of these days. It is nice to know that Netta is a great literary character. She makes me think more and more of Maugham’s Mildred. I would love to hear your thoughts on both of them when you get to read ‘Of Human Bondage’.


        • September 24, 2013 at 8:31 pm

          Of Human Bondage is a long book. I need to be on holiday or something like this to read it. Otherwise it’s going to take ages.


          • October 8, 2013 at 9:12 am

            Yes, it is a long book, Emma. Maybe you can try reading it next summer. I want to re-read it again one of these days – it has been a while since I read it last time.


  4. September 22, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    I love your commentary on this book Emma.

    Sounds like a delicious character study. One thing that sounds all different here is that in literature the object of obsessions are all too often paragons of virtue and victims. Obviously that is not the case here.


    • September 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm

      I really really recommend this book. It’s short and yet there’s so much in it.
      It is a great study of characters and Hamilton’s style is almost perfect. Sharp, direct and saying much with few words. I’m fond of that kind of writers. I’m not much into sentences leaking words and paraphrases from everywhere and needing an awful lot of words to get to the point. (Unless the writer is Proust, then I bathe into the rhythm of his lacy style)


  5. leroyhunter
    September 23, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Great review Emma. Your description of Netta is pretty hard-boiled itself, and spot-on.

    This is a fantatstic book. You probably don’t need pointers, but Slaves of Solitude by Hamilton is also superb, and Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross covers the same deadbeat, 1940s English territory.


    • September 24, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      Thanks Leroy. I remember you seconded Max’s recommendation when he mentioned it.
      I’ll remember George and Netta, they’re great literary characters.


  6. October 2, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    There’s nothing likeable about Netta Vishy, she’s one of the great femme fatales and a superb portrait of an utterly vicious person.

    There’s an issue in this book with empathy. George falls sometimes out of empathy, as the quote shows, and becomes essentially an (insane) animal. Netta too somehow lacks an empathic sense. George has psychopathic episodes, while Netta arguably simply is a psychopath and a much more efficient one.

    The portrayals of London pub life are superb, but that was one of Hamilton’s great gifts.

    I second both Leroy’s recommendations. I was originally going to call my blog Of Love and Hunger, but I started on blogger and it was already taken hence Pechorin’s Journal. I do have that title on wordpress, and tried briefly to start a second blog using it but two blogs was just too much to manage. Still, Of Love and Hunger is great and well worth checking out in its own right.


  7. March 1, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I agree this is a brilliant book. Although I also think it has a flaw – it is just a little too contrived, with George’s mental illness used as a handy plot device. If you are interested for the reasoning behind this view you can read my review, it is on my website and is called The “Click”. I think his Slaves of Solitude is his best work.


    • March 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting and commenting.
      Of course, George’s illness is the main plot device. It’s an assumption and you have to accept it to enjoy the book. Is it too easy? It would be if Hamilton didn’t describe George’s inner mind and perception. Hamilton doesn’t just use George’s illness, he also describes it and gives an idea of what it could be.
      It would also be an easy plot device if he used it at the end of the book, to wrap things up. That’s not it.
      PS: I didn’t find your review. Can you copy/paste a link? Thanks


      • March 2, 2014 at 5:43 pm

        Here is the link: http://serenityscience.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/click.html

        I agree with all you say. However, I still believe that the book could have been a little more open-ended. The novel feels, to me at least, a bit too mechanical; a fault, I think, with many of Hamilton’s books. The one exception is The Slaves of Solitude.

        I’ll be very interested in your response to my piece. And I wonder if after reading if you might not agree with me just a tad!


        • March 2, 2014 at 7:22 pm

          Thanks for the link. I left a comment on your blog.
          That’s a very interesting review of the book but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. 🙂 I see why you’d think it’s too neatly constructed but for me it’s a strength of the book.


  8. May 7, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    I’m so glad you loved this book too. That’s a great quote about Netta: “It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.”

    Terrific use of language there. Hamilton has a real talent for that. No-one writes about the loneliness and isolation of the solitary drinker quite like Hamilton – he captures that seedy Earls Court milieu just perfectly.


    • May 8, 2017 at 9:29 pm

      It’s a book that stayed with me. I’ve never read anything like this, so precise on the description of alcoholism and mental illness.
      His writing is amazing and the quote you mention just proves it.


  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am

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