The verb ‘to gaslight’, which is now used to mean a situation when someone is bullied and manipulated into doubting their own sanity, comes from Gas Light, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, a remarkable playwright and novelist and, I would argue, one of the great London writers. As I read his plays and novels recently, I found myself coining another verb: I’ve been Hamiltoned; again and again I would sit down to read a few pages and then find that two hours had passed. His prose has a hallucinatory power, although his writing is simple and direct and both his themes and his language are repetitive.
In his mid-twenties Hamilton wrote another successful play, Rope, about two bored rich young men who murder a fellow student for kicks. Rope was later filmed by Hitchcock and there is an obvious affinity between the two men — a fascination with sadomasochism, murder and obsessive, unrequited love. Gas Light has been described as a classic Victorian melodrama. It is unlike the rest of his oeuvre because it is set in the 1880s and the victim is a woman. His novels are set in London in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In them, typically, an innocent young man is driven to a breakdown or even to murder by a calculating, attractive young woman who doesn’t return his infatuation.
This is the basic plot of Hamilton’s most famous novel, Hangover Square: a story of darkest Earl’s Court, and also his London trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Most of the time, George Harvey Bone, in Hangover Square, is a shambling, lonely man who drinks in the pubs around Earls Court with his malevolent ‘friends,’ and is ‘the dumb butt of their unfriendly wit.’ He is unrequitedly in love with a beautiful unemployed actress called Netta; but, every so often, he suffers from mental blackouts – prefaced by an ominous ‘Click!…Here it was again!’ – and becomes obsessed with murdering her. Hamilton wrote the novel at the beginning of the war and Netta and her lover, Peter, are both attracted to Fascism: ‘She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts.’
Hamilton’s London is a sleazy city of spivs, failures, alcoholics, solitaries and blusterers. Doris Lessing, who greatly admired Hamilton’s novels, wrote: ‘And when in 1949 I did at last did come to London I found Hamilton’s pages coming to life in pubs, streets and cheap hotels.’ James Agate, the most influential critic of his day, recognised its addictive quality when he reviewed Hangover Square: ‘Don’t gulp this, ration yourself to fifty pages a day […]’
My own favourite is The Slaves of Solitude, a novel with a wartime setting, written during the war, that hardly mentions fighting at all. The warfare is psychological. At the seedily genteel Rosamund Tea Rooms, in a town based on Henley-on-Thames, a group of lost souls endure the wartime privations. Rather like Dickens (his favourite novelist) Hamilton shows his particular talent for making familiar places metaphysical: ‘About the dining room there was something peculiarly and gratuitously hellish.’ Miss Roach is Hamilton’s most sympathetic female character, intelligent, sensitive and unmarried in an age when ‘spinsters’ were despised. She knows that her nickname is ‘Old Cockroach.’ Mr Thwaites is a bully, a ‘trampler through the emotions of others,’ who tries to make a victim of Miss Roach: ‘That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly’s wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy’s wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was on him as he now looked at Miss Roach.’ Yet, at the end, she wins the invisible war and gloriously escapes back to London. Some of Hamilton’s best writing is in this novel; the blackout is described as ‘moonlight gone bad’ and the novel ends with the heartbroken plea: ‘God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us.’ This could be read as the Janus face of the end of A Christmas Carol: ‘May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’ Hamilton, like us, was living in a less complacent age than Dickens’.
Hamilton’s father was a bully and a snob, a failed barrister, playwright, novelist and drunk, who lost all his money and had fascist sympathies. His first wife was a prostitute who committed suicide and his second marriage, to Hamilton’s mother, was deeply unhappy. Although Hamilton seems to have spent his life trying to escape from his father’s influence he actually fell into many of the same traps. A passionate Marxist, who sympathised with the underdog, he was generous with his money during his good years. In his early twenties he fell in love with a semi-literate prostitute, just as Bob in Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky falls hopelessly in love with Jenny. His drinking, after a terrible disfiguring car accident when he was only twenty-eight, went up to the amazing level of three bottles of whisky a day. Hamilton’s characters, like their creator, drink so much that you almost feel drunk on the fumes that come out of the pages of his novels.
Hamilton has often been accused of misogyny. After his parents separated he had a suffocatingly close relationship with his ‘Mummie.’ In his novels he tries to reject Victorian ideas about ‘harlots’ but can’t quite break free of them. In a letter to his brother Bruce in 1927 he remarked that, ‘women can’t earn a decent living,’ and ‘are utterly dependent on their sexual attractions for their salvation. There never was such a need for a huge feminist movement as there is now.’ Both his marriages were chaotic, he had many tormented affairs and it has been suggested that he repressed his own homosexuality after falling in love with another boy as a schoolboy. However, the women in his novels are certainly memorable and fully alive.
If Hamilton’s tragicomical characters and his knowledge of London show the influence of Dickens, I think he can also be compared to George Gissing, another underrated writer who also fell in love with a prostitute when he was in his teens and married her. Gissing’s characters inhabit the same seedy, impoverished London as Hamilton’s, a couple of generations earlier. Like Dostoevsky, Hamilton wrote novels of great intensity which appear to be realistic but in fact create an unforgettable imaginary world of their own. Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler, Hamilton was an alcoholic; I wonder if their addictions, and the guilt and torment they engendered, fuelled the surreal, metaphysical power of their work? Both men hated their fathers and knew how it felt to be utterly humiliated. As Michael Holroyd wrote of Hamilton’s novels, ‘We are spared nothing: nothing is sentimentalised.’ This quality of ruthless honesty expressed in straightforward prose is, I believe, why his novels have outlasted many others written more indirectly and ‘beautifully.’
Many of his characters are bores; they say the same thing again and again, just like real people – like Pinter’s characters for instance – yet, somehow, they grab you by the arm until you’ve finished listening to their story. You feel relieved that you haven’t had to meet them — then you realise that you have, and will never forget them. Hamilton’s friend, J. B. Priestley, admired ‘his enduring sense of homelessness, of the loneliness and solitude so many young men have known, his feeling for the innocence always menaced by stupidity and wickedness, the compassion behind his apparently sardonic detachment.’
Like all literary reputations, Hamilton’s has soared and plunged over the last century. In 2011 he was awarded a blue plaque at 2 Burlington Gardens, the Chiswick house where he spent part of his childhood and adolescence. His second novel, Craven House, is set in Chiswick and describes the lives of a set of grotesques and young hopefuls living in a boarding house. The plaque commemorates Hamilton’s dates,1904 to 1962 — when, not surprisingly, he died of cirrhosis. I do hope this plaque is confirmation that this wonderful novelist will be more widely read.