One of the signifying words of the decade is ‘Gaslighting’. The neologism has been applied to everything from domestic violence and intimidation to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s experience of racism. But what is Gaslighting and where does the term come from?
Gaslighting – for those readers who don’t follow social media – means the manipulation of people by psychological means to undermine their stability and sanity. It first came into popular parlance in 2016 during the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, when both sides in those contests were accused by opponents of ‘Gaslighting’ gullible voters with lies, fake news, and cyber fraud; just as abusive males in relationships use the same technique to maintain control over their partners.
Few of those who use the word so frequently today are aware of it’s origins. I had not heard of it myself until I wrote the biography of the man who inadvertently coined it: the playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton ( 1904-1962). In 1938 Hamilton wrote the eponymous stage play ‘Gas Light’ which was an instant hit, running for six months at London’s Apollo Theatre, where it was seen by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and going on, under the title ‘Angel Street’, to a record smashing four year run on Broadway.
‘Gas Light’ was also soon seen on the silver screen. In 1940, a British version directed by Thorold Dickinson won critical praise, but was eclipsed in 1944 by a lavish Hollywood production directed by George Cukor, and starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. In 1948 Alfred Hitchcock filmed Hamilton’s earlier hit play ‘Rope’, a sinister chiller dealing with two young men who kill for kicks before holding a drinks party on the chest containing their victim’s body.
On the surface, ‘Gas Light’ is a conventional Victorian melodrama, with an improbable plot involving a murderous husband, Jack Manningham, terrorising his wife Bella in order to get his hands on a hidden cache of jewels. But the leitmotif that has given the story it’s lasting resonance is the psychological campaign waged by Manninghan to persuade Bella that she is going mad, evilly convincing her that his own dimming of gaslight in their home is a delusion of her disordered mind.
Manningham’s abuse of Bella has become emblematic for feminists of patriarchy within the family. Patrick Hamilton knew whereof he wrote since he sprang from just such a family . His father, Bernard Hamilton, a pretentious novelist known in the family as the Old Devil, was a bullying alcoholic who held his wife Nellie and their children in thrall with pseudo-military discipline.
Patrick and his two siblings, Bruce and Lalla, emerged deeply damaged from the experience, but Patrick was able to put his dysfunctional family to artistic use and spin this bleak dross into commercial gold both on the stage and on the page in his fiction. His London novel trilogy “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky” and his twin masterpieces “Hangover Square” and “ The Slaves of Solitude”, along with his post-war “Gorse Trilogy” chronicling the career of a sadistic con-man and killer, are filled with bullying tyrants and their helplessly put upon victims. They are poems of subtle sado-masochism.
Hamilton’s own autobiography informs all his work, with the same themes of psychological cruelty emerging with maddening repetitiveness. The flickering gaslight of the play comes from his terror of the dark in his childhood nursery in Hove. The bullying, malevolent sadism of his villains with a hilarious side order of pompous absurdity, is a memory of his father, while the obsession with prostitutes is common to both father and son. Bernard Hamilton’s first wife was a prostitute, and Patrick in his youth romantically pursued a beautiful Soho street walker called Lily Connolly who was simultaneously conducting relationships with two other writers, Gerald Brenan and Cyril Connolly.
It is not so surprising that the man who invented Gaslighting was himself a Gaslighter
As Patrick followed Bernard down the path of lethal alcoholism to drown in drink – by the time he died of cirrhosis aged 58 he was downing three bottles of whisky a day) – the darker undersides of his personality were dissolving his inhibitions. He became a stalker in person and by telephone of another unobtainable love object, the Irish American film star Geraldine Fitzgerald, and his taste for bondage – first seen in ‘ Rope’ – became ever more overt. His hero worshipping elder brother Bruce – a less successful novelist himself – astutely observed that under the right circumstances he could imagine Patrick becoming a persecuting police chief in a Stalinist state.
It is fortunate that Patrick Hamilton had the talent to sublimate his darker desires, and transmute them into some of the 20th century’s most highly regarded dramas and fiction. If he had not, he himself could have become one of the criminals, con artists and murderers who people his works. As things were, it was his two long-suffering wives, the prostitutes, and the film stars he chased in vain who were his victims. It is not so surprising that the man who invented Gaslighting was himself a Gaslighter.
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