We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  (Anthony Walter) Patrick Hamilton (1904–1962), by Elliott & Fry, 1948 (Anthony Walter) Patrick Hamilton (1904–1962), by Elliott & Fry, 1948
Hamilton, (Anthony Walter) Patrick (1904–1962), novelist and playwright, was born on 17 March 1904 at Dale House, Hassocks, Sussex, the third of the three children of Walter Bernard Hamilton (1863–1930), writer and non-practising barrister, and his second wife, Ellen Adèle Day, née Hockley (1861–1934), writer. Patrick Hamilton's earliest years were spent at 12 First Avenue, Hove, Sussex (now commemorated by a plaque), where his family lived from 1908 until the First World War. His parents' unhappy marriage together with the rigidly regulated social codes of Edwardian middle-class life left the young boy overwrought and introverted. The material privileges of his early years were gradually eroded from a position with servants and nannies to one where his mother had to run the household herself in the early 1920s. His father's alcoholism and mismanagement of an inherited fortune meant that the family spent the war years in boarding-houses in Chiswick and Hove, and Patrick Hamilton's education was patchy and interrupted: Holland House School, Hove (1912–18), Colet Court, Hammersmith (1915), and Westminster School, London (1918–19). About his fifteenth birthday Hamilton was removed from school by his mother when he contracted Spanish influenza. Apart from a brief, unsuccessful attempt to prepare for his matriculation at a London crammer in 1919, this was the end of Hamilton's formal education. An indefatigable autodidact from then on, he remained conservative in his literary tastes, detesting fictional experimentation in general and modernism in particular, attacking its exponents in his dystopian novel, Impromptu in Moribundia (1939).

Both his parents were minor novelists and Hamilton resisted his father's desire that he train for some profession, wishing to pursue his early vocation as a writer. After a series of poorly paid jobs, including those of assistant stage manager, small-part actor (under the stage name Patrick Henderson), and clerk, Hamilton became a full-time writer in 1923, financed by his mother, sister (Lalla), and brother (Bruce). His first novel, Monday Morning, was completed when he was only nineteen and published in 1925 by Constable, whose editor, the writer Michael Sadleir, became a long-term friend and mentor. Constable published the twelve novels and seven stage and radio plays which Hamilton wrote over the following three decades. The early books Craven House (1926) and Twopence Coloured (1928) were well received, and Hamilton was for a short time lionized in 1929 when his ‘shocker’, the stage play Rope, was a West End hit. The Midnight Bell also came out in that year, and was the first of three books—including The Siege of Pleasure (1932) and The Plains of Cement (1934)—which were subsequently published as a trilogy under the title Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1935).

The settings and focus of these and most of Hamilton's works were the boarding-houses, pubs, and brothels of inter-war London and Brighton, populated by ‘the lost, failed and forgotten’ (French, 1). Hamilton later wrote:
what I was trying to present was a ‘black’ social history of my times. There were so many ‘white’ portraits of the twenties and thirties that I wanted to show the other side of the picture. After all, those were the decades in which Hitler rose to power. No one that I read was writing anything about him and the evil he represented. (French, 275)
With his ‘bat's wing ear’ for dialogue (Cockburn, x) and coruscating wit, Hamilton was the observer and habitué of the kind of society he described in his fiction and his work has been compared to that of Dickens, Gissing, and Orwell. By the late 1920s he was smoking and drinking heavily and regularly and had conceived an infatuation for a prostitute which he depicted in The Midnight Bell.

A slight man, bespectacled and expensively dressed, Hamilton cut an elegant figure until in 1932, at the height of his literary success, he was hit by a drunk driver and suffered multiple injuries which resulted in a withered left arm, a limp, and scars on his nose and forehead; his radio play To the Public Danger (1939) was commissioned by the road safety campaign. The accident heightened his long-standing shyness. Despite the critical acclaim of his fiction and the financial success of Rope and his second play, Gaslight (1938), Hamilton was never part of any literary group, preferring the company of family and friends. Early on he compartmentalized his life into his friendships with Sadleir and other writers, his Soho acquaintances, his close relationship with his mother and sister until their respective deaths in 1934 and 1951, and his lifelong intimacy with his brother (also a novelist). Intensely fond of cricket and golf, Hamilton had a great many interests, but his main passion was his work. On 6 August 1930 he married Lois Marie Martin (1900/01–1975), yet Hamilton's attitude to women was based on an unhappy mixture of infatuation and misogyny. Intimate relationships were reserved for men. One way in which his writing differed from Dickens's was that Hamilton never wrote love stories. Nor do his characters belong to families; rather they are lonely men and women who are sympathetically portrayed in their unhappy and somehow inevitable solitariness. Nowhere is this more true than in his highly successful novel Hangover Square (1941), whose bleak subject is described in its full title: Hangover Square, or, The Man with Two Minds: a Story of Darkest Earl's Court in the Year 1939.

By the time he was writing Hangover Square, Hamilton had become intellectually committed to Marxist communism, which he championed with an almost religious fervour. Unfit for active service in the Second World War, he did work for the Entertainments National Service Association, as well as being a firewatcher during air raids. He continued to write plays, including This is Impossible (1941) and The Duke in Darkness (1943), but neither achieved the success of Gaslight, which was filmed in America as Angel Street (1942) and, more famously, Rope, the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 screen version. Unfortunately this was one of Hitchcock's weaker productions and Hamilton was disappointed at the loss of the taut atmosphere of his stage original.

More successful was Hamilton's novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947), which led John Betjeman to describe him as one of ‘the best English novelists’ (Jones, 283). In 1948 Hamilton began an affair with the novelist Lady Ursula (La) Winifred Stewart, née Chetwynd-Talbot (1907/8–1966), daughter of Viscount Ingestre. She had changed her surname by deed poll to Hamilton before their marriage on 10 April 1954, a year after Patrick Hamilton's divorce from Lois Martin in 1953. Yet Hamilton's life was no less turbulent and he was looked after by La and Lois in turn as his health continued to deteriorate because of alcoholism. His final three novels were The West Pier (1951)—‘the best novel written about Brighton’ (Graham Greene, in Jones, 310); Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953), which was adapted for the television series The Charmer; and Unknown Assailant (1955). Together they form The Gorse Trilogy and explore the criminal mind, a subject which had long fascinated Hamilton.

Hamilton's final seven years were dominated by his alcoholism and what one doctor diagnosed as menopausal melancholia. In despair he underwent electro-convulsive therapy in 1956. It brought relief but seems to have eradicated his desire and ability to write except for an autobiographical piece, ‘Memoirs of a Heavy Drinking Man’ (never published), in which he considered how far his alcoholism might be a genetic condition (his sister had also been an alcoholic). Increasingly impaired by regular drinking although suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Patrick Hamilton died on 23 September 1962 at his home, 3 Martincross, North Street, Sheringham, Norfolk. His body was cremated on 26 September and his ashes scattered on the Blakeney Flats.

Only since his death has Patrick Hamilton's work received its due critical recognition, with republications introduced by J. B. Priestley and Michael Holroyd. He has been the subject of several biographies.

Nathalie Blondel

Sources  

S. French, Patrick Hamilton: a life (1993) · N. Jones, Through a glass darkly: the life of Patrick Hamilton (1991) · B. Hamilton, The light went out: a biography of Patrick Hamilton (1972) · C. Cockburn, ‘Introduction’, in P. Hamilton, The slaves of solitude (1982) · D. Lessing, The Times (26 June 1968) · M. Holroyd, ‘Introduction’, in P. Hamilton, Twenty thousand streets under the sky (1987) · J. B. Priestley, ‘Introduction’, in P. Hamilton, Twenty thousand streets under the sky (1943) · J. B. Priestley, ‘Introduction’, in P. Hamilton, Hangover Square (1974) · B. McKenna, ‘Confessions of a heavy-drinking Marxist: addiction in the work of Patrick Hamilton’, Beyond the pleasure dome: writing and addiction from the Romantics, ed. S. Vice, M. Campbell, and T. Armstrong (1994), 231–44 · private information (2004) · m. certs. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1962)

Archives  

BBC WAC |  BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63261 · Constable publishers, London, Constable archives · NRA, priv. coll., Sean French MSS · NRA, priv. coll., Nigel Jones MSS · Temple University, Philadelphia, Constable MSS


Likenesses  

Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1948, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in French, Patrick Hamilton · photographs, repro. in Jones, Through a glass darkly

Wealth at death  

£6344 17s. 0d.: probate, 24 Dec 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales