Patrick Hamilton – the forgotten English writer who invented ‘gaslighting’ | Books | Entertainment

The growing influence of the phrase is a tribute to the vivid imagination of Patrick Hamilton (Image: Getty)

Gas has all but disappeared from our lives as a method of lighting. Yet this outmoded technology, long superseded by cleaner, safer electricity, has left one remarkable legacy. For in recent years the term “gaslighting” has entered our language, deployed with ever greater frequency in psychological analysis and political debate.

It describes the process where individuals – or even institutions – can be manipulated by their abusers so that they lose their resilience and slide towards breakdown, a form of psychological trickery in which the abuser sows self-doubt and confusion.

Prince Harry has been accused of trying to “gaslight” the Royal Family with his barrage of public criticisms, while north of the Border earlier this year the SNP was said to be “gaslighting” the Scottish public over its failed pro-trans legislation.

The growing influence of the phrase is a tribute to the vivid imagination of the English writer Patrick Hamilton, whose 1938 play Gas Light, first performed 85 years ago this month at the Richmond Theatre in London, had mental disintegration as its central theme.

Today Hamilton is an almost forgotten figure, with many of his books out of print. But at his peak in the 1930s, he was one of Britain’s most successful authors, enjoying vast global sales and Hollywood acclaim.

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“It is all a strange Byronic dream. For it is not only the money – it is also the fame,” he wrote to his brother Bruce in 1929 when he first began to soar in popularity. Several of his works were turned into lucrative movies, of which the 1944 version of Gas Light, renamed Gaslight, is probably the most famous.

Set in Victorian London, it stars Ingrid Bergman as the wealthy wife of a grasping but sophisticated criminal, brilliantly played by Charles Boyer, who is determined to seize her fortune by driving her mad and sending her to an asylum.

One reason Boyer’s villain wants her out of the way is because he is convinced there is a huge hoard of her jewels hidden somewhere in their house, probably in the attic.

In a chilling image that runs through the film, Bergman’s descent into mental collapse is symbolised by the flickering of the gas jets that occurs every time Boyer secretly goes up to the vast attic at night in his desperate hunt for the prize.

It is a phenomenon caused by Boyer’s use of the attic’s lights and is made all the more sinister by the sound of his footsteps echoing through the house as he rummages under the rafters, heightening the distress of Bergman.

But in a heroic twist, she turns the tables on him in the end. Bergman’s compelling performance brought her the Academy Award for best actress that year. Yet Hamilton was an incongruous writer to have made it in Hollywood, for his books and plays are rooted in a very specific time and place in England.

Devoid of glamour, their subjects are despair, isolation, and social anxiety, often set in the downwardly mobile middle-class world of dingy hotels and faded boarding houses whose residents try to compensate for the emptiness of their lives through drink and snobbery.

With his acute ear for dialogue and his gift for characterisation, Hamilton painted a bleak portrait of contemporary urban life, with a sense of doom lurking in the background. The novelist and playwright J B Priestley, whose own fame has far out-endured Hamilton’s, called him “the novelist of innocence, appallingly vulnerable and of malevolence, coming out of some mysterious darkness of evil”.

On his death in 1962, the Times described him as a “poet of loneliness, purposelessness and frustration”. This bleakness reflected the tragedy of Hamilton’s own life, which was marked by personal chaos and ruined by alcoholism.

According to a superb biography by Nigel Jones, Hamilton was drinking at least three bottles of whisky a day from the 1940s.

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The mental afflictions that he wrote about so convincingly in Gaslight and his 1941 novel Hangover Square, about a loner driven to murder, were part of his own experience. He suffered severely from depression and in 1956 underwent experimental electro-convulsive therapy, which brought some relief but also eradicated the last broken remnants of his literary talent.

Hamilton’s tortured personality was the product of a difficult childhood, dominated by his father Bernard, a tyrannical eccentric, whose own addiction to drink was matched by his serial infidelity and delusional bombast.

Nominally a barrister, he wrote several minor books, whose failures did nothing to lessen his monstrous, pretentious self-regard.

“As a puff preliminary, you may say that it is the greatest novel ever written,” he told the publisher of his 1926 novel The Giant.

Born into wealth, Bernard Hamilton should have been able to provide his family with an affluent lifestyle and comfortable home but instead his egomaniacal irresponsibility left a trail of wreckage wherever he went.

At the age of just 21, he had inherited £100,000, the equivalent of around £7million today, but he squandered this on expensive mistresses and luxurious foreign travel.

As a result, he later had to sell his grand house in Hove, with his wife and children forced to live in the kind of seedy rented accommodation about which his son wrote so eloquently. Nothing in Bernard’s existence ever seemed noble or uplifting.

He flirted with Fascism, became a fan of Mussolini and indulged in anti-Semitic tirades in public.

In his early twenties he fell for a prostitute who went on to kill herself by leaping in front of a train at Wimbledon station when their relationship ended.

He then married Ellen Day, a London dentist’s daughter who had ambitions to be an artist and a writer. She was a far more affectionate parent than her bullying husband to Patrick and his two siblings, brother Bruce and sister Lalla, but her warmth could not hide the family’s straitened circumstances.

In fact, though he was a bright pupil who had received sporadic spells of private education, Patrick had to leave school at 15 and begin work as a shorthand typist.

Other unsatisfying, poorly paid jobs followed, two of them in the theatre as a small-part actor and an assistant manager.

But writing was his real passion, fuelled by his voracious reading and support from his mother, brother and sister. With their financial backing, his first novel, entitled Monday Morning, was published in 1923 when he was just 19.

By the end of the decade he had built up an impressive reputation through a string of well-received works. The most notable was his hit 1929 play called Rope, about two students who kill one of their colleagues as an intellectual exercise in amorality.

In 1948 this taut psychological thriller was made into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, miscast as the killers’ former professor. Success brought Hamilton riches but not happiness. He was a man in permanent turmoil on a quest to overcome his self-hatred.

Eager for a sense of political certainty, he was attracted to Marxism but, like many left-wingers, despised the traditional working-class.

Painfully shy, he avoided fashionable literary circles and the company of intellectuals, preferring to hang out in pubs as a taciturn observer, a practice that sharpened his year for dialogue but worsened his alcoholism.

“If ever a man knew the atmosphere and life and ethics of these places, it is me,” he once boasted. His introverted nature was dramatically exacerbated in 1932 when a drunken driver smashed into him on the street, leaving him with permanent facial disfigurement.

The psychological scars also ran deep. Hamilton not only became convinced of his ugliness and sank into depression, but also developed an abiding hatred of the motor car which he came to regard as a menace to civilisation.

Tellingly, several of the most sinister characters in his books are motoring enthusiasts, while Ralph Gorse, the murderous swindler at the centre of Hamilton’s final trilogy of novels written in the 1950s, is a car salesman.

Nor did Hamilton achieve contentment in his romantic life.

Unsurprisingly, given his troubled, dysfunctional upbringing, he found relationships difficult and conventional sex awkward.

His attitude towards women was said to be “an unhappy mixture of infatuation and misogyny.”

As his biographer Nigel Jones revealed, he had a taste for sadism and bondage. Like his father, he was also obsessed with prostitutes, and in his youth became besotted with a beautiful street-walker called Lily Connolly, whom he had met, inevitably, in a London pub.

The failure of his long pursuit of Lily drove him further to drink, but also served as the inspiration for his first great novel, The Midnight Bell, about a barman hopelessly in love with a cynical prostitute who is just after his savings.

Both Hamilton’s marriages ended, predictably, in failure.

The first, to Lois Martin, was undermined by sexual incompatibility and finally broken by his unreasonable behaviour, which included not just his chronic alcoholism but also turbulent affairs with other women and even bouts of stalking.

The renowned Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald had to move out of her flat because of Hamilton’s unwanted attentions both in person and on the telephone. His second marriage, to his former mistress, Lady Ursual Chetwynd-Talbot, a novelist who wrote under the name Laura Talbot, was doomed from its start in 1954, since Hamilton was by then almost a living wreck.

He had to dictate most of his last novel, a slim book published a year later, because of his drunkenness.

His last years, as painful as anything he produced in his novels, were spent in a flat at Sheringham on the remote Norfolk coast before he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.

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