This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
“MPs need to stop letting Boris Johnson gaslight the public and stand up for honesty,” wrote the honest Alastair Campbell in the upstanding Independent last July.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and control. To gaslight someone is to make them doubt their memory, their sense impressions and their judgment. Key techniques include denial, mockery, threats, insults, trivialisation, isolating the victim and, some say, emerging periodically from Number Ten to clap the NHS.
The term derives from Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (1938). A controlling husband tells his wife that she isn’t hearing what she’s hearing, that the gas light in their flat doesn’t go darker every evening when he is out of sight, and that her suspicions are baseless, the fantasies of a sick mind. She becomes increasingly passive and disturbed, and loses touch with reality. The intervention of a passing detective saves her from her husband, reveals the truth about what he’s been doing while he was out of the room, and restores her sanity.
In common parlance by the Sixties, gaslighting entered the psychoanalytic literature by the Seventies, and was then carried into upwardly mobile American parlance on a therapeutic and highly commercial tide of self-affirmation.
It might have been expected that gaslighting would be popularised in the United States, the land of the therapeutic, but it may well have been coined in buttoned-up Britain, the land of Michael Sadleir’s prurient novel of Victorian prostitution, Fanny by Gaslight (1940).
Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light was filmed twice. The British film adaptation was released in 1940, the year that Fanny by Gaslight was published. Vincent Price, later a star of Hammer horrors, brought Hamilton’s play to Broadway in 1941. In 1944, George Cukor filmed an American version with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and a young Angela Lansbury.
Cukor’s version was titled Angel Street. Was this to avoid confusion with the British film version of Gas Light? Or was it to avoid confusion with the British film adaptation of Fanny by Gaslight, which also came out in 1944, and was released in the US as Man of Evil? This American Angel Street was sold in Britain as The Murder in Thornton Square. Was that a cunning scheme to gaslight British audiences into seeing the same story twice? Perhaps Americans should talk of being angelstreeted. But they don’t.
The poet Alicia Stallings asks what the past participle of gaslight should be. I suggest that while Sherlock Holmes’s rooms and Fanny Hopwood’s indiscretions were gaslit, people are gaslighted. Smokes and stoves are lit with a gas lighter, minds are darkened by a gaslighter.
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