Genealogy by Gaslight
The family tree of Patrick Hamilton
Those who enjoy the novels of Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) may recognise the way that themes of heritage and family history feed into his writings. Although most of his characters are strangely alone in the world - adrift from family and society in cheap boarding houses or hotels - family background drives their behaviour, interactions and fate. It is therefore particularly tempting to examine the writer’s own family tree.
Anthony Walter Patrick Hamilton was born on St Patrick’s Day, 1904. Enjoying commercial success early in life with two plays, Rope and Gaslight, both made into films, he produced a total of twelve novels that became increasingly dark in tone until his alcohol-related death in 1962 . He was also one of the chief exponents of the now extinct genre - the boarding house novel.
Many of his works are set in the West End of London and deal with a collection of pathetic low-lifes, chancers, street walkers, snobs and boozy bores. Interestingly for genealogists, some of his more sinister characters use pedigree and family background, always untrue or exaggerated, to further their wicked ends. Their victims are easily identified as those who are quick to be taken in by a posh accent or a claim of distinguished ancestry. Combined with this, they are often sensitive about the way that "gentle people" always seem to “do the right thing”- that is take big risks in life that always appear to come off. This tendency alone can be their undoing.
Both Patrick’s parents were novelists. His mother, Ellen Hockley, wrote under the pseudonym, Olivia Roy, and one of her works, The Husband Hunter, was turned into an early Hollywood film in 1920. In addition to his writing activities, Hamilton’s father, (Walter )Bernard, was a keen researcher of his own family history, much of it thought to be fanciful. Insisting that his own Scottish ancestors were steeped in the Scottish royal throne, Bernard once remarked to his son that “ ..If it ever comes to war between England and Scotland - you and I go over the border.”