Monday, 9 May 2016

A Theory of Literary Reincarnation : George Gissing and Patrick Hamilton. More Palimpsestic Texts? (Part 4.)

Two minds with a single thought could almost be the definition of my theory of literary reincarnation, particularly when the inspiriting spark of a disciple’s conception occurs in the same year of his master’s death. 
           This was the case surely for the begetting of English novelist-playwright Patrick Hamilton, who existed in the first trimester of foetal growth when the spirit of George Gissing descended on him (according to arcane Catherinian divinations) following Gissing’s death in December 1903. 
           The transmigration of a literary soul? Well, before you dismiss such a notion, why not compare two – not dissimilar – texts from these writers, published half a century apart. Both are written in their characteristic vein of Mayhevian socio-cultural observation of the poor (though Hamilton’s empathic concern for the half-world of the underclass, admittedly, owes more to Marx than Mayhew).

A cab-runner in those days was roughly identical
with a criminal of the worst sort.

The cab was piled with luggage, and within sat a young matron, her cheeks fresh as the meadows she had quitted but a few hours ago. Long Bill, lurking on the limits of the railway station, caught a significant nod from the cabdriver, and at once started in pursuit.
            Long Bill was not very tall, but had limbs so excessively slender, and so meagre a trunk, that his acquaintances naturally thought of him in terms of length. When unoccupied, which was generally the case, he let his arms hang straight, and close to his sides, as though trying to occupy as little room in the world as possible. He walked on his toes, rather quickly, and almost without a bend of the knee; his back was straight, and the collar of his filthy coat always turned up, to shield the scraggy, collarless neck. Observe him in motion at a distance, and you were reminded of a red Indian on the trail. Catch sight of him suddenly close at hand, and his sliding, furtive carriage made you anxious about your pockets or watch-guard. By his own account, Bill was nineteen years old, but he had the wizened face of senility: his hairless cheeks hollow over tooth-gaps, his nose mere cartilage, his small eyes a-blink, yet eager as those of a hungry animal.
            For more than a mile he ran along by the laden cab, and seemingly without much effort: when it drew up in front of a comfortable house, Bill sprang to the door of the vehicle.
            ‘You’ll let a pore young feller help with the luggage, lydy? I’ve ran all the w’y from Victoria.’
            He panted his mendicant humility, and with a grimy paw shook drops from a scarce visible forehead. The fair young matron regarded him with pained, compassionate look.
            ‘You have run all the way from Victoria? Certainly you may help; of course you may!’
             She alighted, entered the house, and stood there in the hall watching Long Bill as, with feverish energy, he assisted a servant to transfer trunks and parcels. Relatives pressed about the lady, but she could not give them due attention.
             ‘Look at that poor creature. He has followed my cab all the way from Victoria, just to earn a few pence! Oh, these things are too dreadful!’  
[Later, the cab-runner  is revealed to be a consumptive] . . . who lay helpless by the roadside. ‘Severe hæmorrhage from the lungs,’ said a doctor.’ 
Transplanted by George Gissing
(Stories and Sketches 1898). 

Mr. Downes’ father had also been connected with Brighton Station — but not in any official capacity. Mr. Downes’ father had worn no uniform — he had worn rags, and he had not worn shoes. He was not allowed on to the platforms : instead of this he hung about the horse-cabs outside the Station.
             When a train of any importance came into the Station, Mr. Downes’ father would eagerly watch these cabs as they were loaded with luggage by the uniformed porters, and, with a discrimination learned from long experience, would choose a cab, which he would follow, running, to its destination. He did this because he hoped that when it reached its destination, wherever that might be, he might be permitted to help with the unloading of the luggage, and be given a copper for doing so.
             Mr. Downes senior — who was, by the way, a consumptive — was not obliged to move at a great speed while his cab was moving along thoroughfares in which the traffic was thick, but when the emptier streets or roads were reached he had to run like mad. And, if he was unlucky, he had to run like this for a matter of three or four miles.
             Was the hopeful Mr. Downes senior, at the end of the pursuit, rewarded with the copper he had sought?
            The answer is that nine times out of ten he was not. On the contrary he was ordinarily threatened and shooed away with the greatest violence. Policemen were mentioned menacingly, and, if one happened to be present, used.
             In extenuation of this cruelty on the part of the users of the cabs it should be mentioned that the consumptive Mr. Downes senior, small as he was, at the end of his run presented an appalling sight — a frightening sight. The users of the cabs were frightened, and did what they did largely in panic. It must also be remembered that the man was looked upon as a beggar, and a beggar in those days was roughly identical with a criminal of the worst sort.
The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton
(First published 1951). 

A lineage to continue each predecessor’s unfinished work.


Since my teens, I confess, I have continued to believe the points of resemblance in these two troubled literary lives to be convincingly evidential: A shared veneration of Dickens* as the classic exemplar to emulate in their fictions? Check. A shared reckless callow infatuation with young prostitutes? Check. A shared literary taste for the milieu of seedy boarding houses, paying guests, and shabby hotels that reflects the desperate lives of London’s rootless masses? Check.

The same combination of sociocultural grit and nacreous sentiment? Check.

But the question remains. Did the mantle of Dickens fall on Gissing in the same manner as the mantle of Gissing on Hamilton? Gissing was twelve years old when Dickens died but that blip in chronology, in my own view, does not discount a belief in the transmigration of literary souls, since the lineage of the Dalai Lama, for example, owes its survival to the reincarnation of the Sage in boys as young as eight, recognised as the Chosen to continue each reincarnated predecessor’s unfinished work. 

However, these conjectures aside, maybe the shared motif of the broken winded Have Nots carrying the baggage of the Haves has moral weight . . . the moral weight of a cautionary tale . . .

. . . and points to the dangers for any writer who is fated to be a colporteur of another man’s tracts**.


See, also,  A Girl Alone Scenario of a Screenplay in Homage to George Gissing. A Treatment in Sixty Scenes from Four Acts of a Screenplay prompted by the stories of George Gissing (freely adapted from, notably, A Daughter of the Lodge and The House of Cobwebs).


There is, indeed, a spiritual connection with Dickens of some significance concerning Hamilton’s death (in 1962). Hamilton, the Dickens devotee, died aged fifty-eight, and geranium petals from a wreath (‘Patrick’s favourite flower’) were scattered on his coffin. Charles Dickens also died in his fifty-eighth year, entombed in Westminster Abbey, with his coffin covered with his favourite flower, scarlet geraniums.

** 04.11.2017 : Have I been unfair to Hamilton’s memory? Is my theory in ashes? You must judge the merits of the case for I learned only today of a memoir by Patrick’s brother Bruce in which he states, ‘It was years afterwards that he told me how once he had been coming from Brighton Station with Mummie in a “fly” [cab]. She must have been returning from some visit, because there was luggage. And, all the way from the station to Number Three, the cab was pursued by a “runner”; one of those pitiful creatures, unemployed and unemployable, who sought a subsistence by chasing after horse-drawn cabs in the hope of earning a few pence by helping with luggage at the end of the journey. Patrick, sitting with his back to the cabman, watched the man in fascinated horror; but I am sorry to have to tell that Mummie ordered him away peremptorily on reaching home, without giving him a halfpenny. Patrick was appalled. He was never to forget the poor fellow’s sweating face, laboured breath, and consumptive look. It was perhaps his introduction to the world’s suffering.’

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