On the Origins of “Gaslighting”

THANKS TO THE NEW ADMINISTRATION in Washington, DC, “gaslighting” is an early contender for 2017 word of the year. The definition is well established and widely known: it’s the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. The term’s origin, on the other hand, is a bit more obscure, largely because it’s been muddied by misrepresentation. While the term’s users sometimes gesture toward the well-known 1944 Hollywood film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, or, less frequently, to the 1938 English stage play on which that film was based, few describe those sources accurately. The popular version assumes that Charles Boyer’s character uses gaslight to drive his wife crazy, making it flicker and then telling her she’s imagining things in a deliberate attempt to undermine her sanity. Gaslight does not, however, play this role; many who invoke the term’s origins are, as Donald J. Trump would say, “Wrong!”

Patrick Hamilton’s stage play Gas Light (or Angel Street, its United States title) premiered in December 1938, just weeks before Time magazine named Adolf Hitler the “Man of the Year.” The events of that tumultuous year include the Blomberg–Fritsch affair, the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany, the annexation of the Sudetenland, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Munich Agreement. All of these events bear some connection to gaslighting, as in each case, Hitler made promises and asserted facts only to act later as if none of these facts had ever been acknowledged. The following year, Hitler invaded Poland, prompting a declaration of war by the United Kingdom after the protracted period of appeasement or, we could say, of national gaslighting. This period was, as one might imagine, fertile ground for artists, Patrick Hamilton (1904–1962) among them. While Hamilton has inspired enthusiasm and cyclical republication of his major works, he remains a “minor writer,” never quite achieving the status of required reading despite an oeuvre of much originality and psychological insight.

Hamilton’s lifetime financial security came from the success of two stage plays, Rope (1929) and Gas Light. Both plays feature dramatic suspense, single sets, and small casts, attributes which make them attractive to amateur and professional theaters alike. Shortly before his death, Hamilton showed aspiring novelist Angus Hall a chest full of press clippings — reviews of worldwide productions of the two plays — and said, “Behold, my income.” Although he considered the films of these plays “ballsed up and ruined” (the 1940 British film Gaslight was the best of the bunch, in his view), they are part of how later audiences know his work.

Although his stage plays made his fortune, Hamilton considered himself preeminently a novelist. Between 1925 and 1955, he published 12 novels, several of which have stood the test of time. The pub trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (originally published as individual titles in 1929, 1932, and 1934, then as a trilogy in 1935) and his homefront novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947) are both currently published in the United States in New York Review Books Classics editions, where Hangover Square (1941) is in print with Europa Editions. In a 1972 introduction to the pub trilogy, written 37 years after his first introduction to the same work, J. B. Priestley characterizes Hamilton as “the novelist of innocence, appallingly vulnerable, and of malevolence, coming out of some mysterious darkness of evil.” It seems only natural that such a writer would be able to construct the dynamic of gaslighting.

Bruce Hamilton (1900–1974), Patrick’s older brother, made a career as a schoolmaster in Barbados. Although he published 10 novels and a biography of Patrick, he never achieved the critical and commercial success his brother enjoyed. During his first stint teaching in Barbados, Bruce was, in the words of Hamilton biographer Sean French, “rather lonely, and had used time that hung heavily to write a detective novel.” Patrick arranged for the typing of Bruce’s manuscript before sending it to his own agent; it was placed with Faber & Faber and published as To Be Hanged: A Story of Murder in 1930. It features some of the timetable-alibi and false identity elements typical of the interwar clue puzzle mystery, but it also conveys lively period detail. In the book, Hamilton uses a limitation of gaslighting technology to corroborate a suspect’s movements. When light is turned up in one room, other rooms experience a dimming of their light; if the light is subsequently dimmed, the other rooms return to normal. In To Be Hanged, the landlady of a grimy boarding house notices the surreptitious evening exits of her lodger due to the fluctuating gaslight, a device that Patrick Hamilton borrowed, with his brother’s permission, when writing his 1938 play.

Bruce’s interest in communism — he began to learn Russian and traveled to the Soviet Union — to which he introduced his brother, led both into some murky waters. They sometimes engaged in work that reflects a refusal to acknowledge political reality and they even, in some instances, appear to have been gaslighted themselves. One of Bruce’s novels was intended to expose England’s “bourgeois justice in the period of decline” by defending the Stalinist show trials; Sean French cites the book’s “culpable blindness to reality.” Patrick’s only non-realist novel suggests that the dangers he saw so clearly when they were called fascist, he was unable to see when they wore the label of Marxism or communism. Impromptu in Moribundia (1939) is a Marxist dystopian novel that excoriates English art, literature, science, class stereotypes, and advertising. Given the reality of what was happening across Europe and in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, such concerns seem insular and petty. Rather than exposing what we would consider gaslighting, then, their work sometimes would seem to participate in the process.

Gaslight in both public and private spaces is a quintessentially 19th-century technology. The first public gas lights appeared early in that century, and their success fueled a demand for home-lighting systems. By the end of the century, gaslight was being supplanted by electric light. The primary purpose of Hamilton’s chosen title for his play — emphasized by its subtitle, “A Victorian thriller in three acts” — was probably to evoke a dim, Victorian ambiance. Home lighting systems drew on a central gas source, and lights could be switched off — needing to be lit with a match, like older gas burners — or merely dimmed, requiring simply that the user turn up the amount of gas being drawn. While most commentary suggests the flickering gaslight is a point of contention between the gaslighter and his victim, an understanding of how the device works makes clear how illogical — even impossible — it would be to have gaslight as part of the process of driving her mad. In fact, closer analysis of Hamilton’s play reveals that the alterations in the gaslight are one means by which the victim clings to rationality and exerts some agency.

Hamilton’s Gas Light features a middle-aged man who has returned to the scene of an old crime; Manningham is a lascivious bigamist, now married to a younger woman whom he is driving mad while searching the top story of the house for the valuable rubies he failed to secure after killing their owner 20 years earlier. To achieve his goals undetected by his wife, Manningham embarks on a campaign to convince her that she is going insane; if she actually becomes unhinged, so much the better for him. Manningham uses an array of methods, beginning with the classic abuser’s tactic of isolating his victim, cutting off social contacts, and restricting her autonomy. He plays games with small items, such as a grocer’s bill, her watch, and her brooch, hiding them and claiming she lost them; there are related games with objects he accuses her of moving. He flirts openly with the maid, making her an ally against his victim, and he threatens his wife with involuntary committal to the asylum. These actions are all part of what we would now call a gaslighting campaign, but the gaslight’s fluctuations do not play a role.

The gaslight becomes, instead, a tool for Mrs. Manningham, betraying the husband in his surreptitious searches as the sitting room lights dim each time he turns up the lights in the top story of the house. As the victimized wife observes the patterns of her husband’s departures and arrivals, the noises on the top floor of the house, and the changes in the gaslight, she deduces something of what is going on; she knows for certain that the return of the full light means her husband’s arrival in 10 minutes. Manningham has been recognized on the street by a former police sergeant who then turns to the wife for her assistance in solving the old crime and bringing the killer to justice. Eventually Manningham’s crimes are exposed and the rubies are recovered.

The footsteps and gaslight are clues he unwittingly produces for her to decipher, and her understanding of their implications is what gives her agency. Rather than being the means by which Manningham terrorizes his wife, the changing gaslight is a lifeline of rationality and a warning of his return. Hamilton dramatizes the essential point: if you can observe and interpret, if you can name what is being done, these moves resist the insanity-inducing effects the perpetrator is aiming for. In spite of all her self-doubt, Mrs. Manningham uses her knowledge to protect herself. This is some of what we recover for our own use when we examine the original Hamilton text.

The 1944 film minimizes the quotidian terror of the source material, although the gas lighting functions in the same way. While the fluctuating gaslight contributes to the anxiety of Ingrid Bergman’s character in the film, contrary to much popular commentary, Charles Boyer’s character does not intend this effect — the two characters do not ever discuss the alterations in gaslight. Bergman’s Mrs. Manningham character, restyled as Mrs. Anton, also uses gaslight as a clue to reclaim her assurance in her sanity, despite having considerably less agency than the character written by Hamilton. The 1944 film takes quite a few liberties with the source material — the murder victim is a famous opera singer, the jewels have become crown jewels gifted to her by a lover, and the gaslighting victim is transformed into a wealthy cosmopolitan, niece and heir of the murdered woman. One of Hamilton’s objections to the film is how the social milieu has been upgraded; in his play, the house is “in a gloomy and unfashionable quarter of London” and the living room in which all the action takes place is marked by “dingy profusion” with an air of “poverty, wretchedness and age.” Hamilton’s victim of gaslighting, then, is far from the glamorous figure portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, but a much more ordinary woman.

The 1930s period shares parallels with our own times. Never as direct and pragmatic as his contemporary George Orwell (1903–1950), in writing Gas Light, Patrick Hamilton inaugurated a term as enduringly useful as Orwell’s doublethink and as relevant to our potentially apocalyptic Orwellian moment. Orwell’s clear vision marks him out as a unique voice from the period, but Patrick Hamilton has made a powerful contribution to personal and political discourse through Gas Light, by laying bare a dangerous dynamic while showcasing a method of resistance. If Mrs. Manningham knows she is being gaslighted, she knows she is not in fact crazy; to name the dynamic is to push back against its denial of reality, to repudiate notions of “alternative facts.”


Rosemary Erickson Johnsen has been writing about crime fiction for nearly 20 years, publishing articles, reviews, and a scholarly monograph, and presenting to academic and general audiences. She is a professor of English, and her website can be found at rosemaryj.com.