Book Review: Through a Glass Darkly – The Life of Patrick Hamilton by Nigel Jones

(Black Spring Press) £11.95

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

Timing and happenstance are key stepping stones with the writing and publishing of biographies and both are to the fore with the propitious republication of Nigel Jones’ authoritative biography of Patrick Hamilton, Through a Glass Darkly.

Hamilton, though a household name from the 1930s to the 1950s, had since in death in 1964 been largely forgotten and his books fallen out of print. When first published in 1991 Through a Glass Darkly was hailed as the harbinger of an Hamilton revival that seemingly stalled on the literary pages.

But, in approaching his subject at a time when people were asking “Patrick who?”, Jones was afforded the opportunity to meet Aileen Hamilton, the widow of Hamilton’s brother Bruce, shortly before she died, and was given a suitcase full of Hamilton’s unpublished letters and papers, which became the foundation of this biography.

Through a Glass Darkly reveals that behind the persona of the successful and debonair author, Hamilton was a near lifelong alcoholic, with a troubled and tortured sexuality, and an obsessive and manipulative nature with regard to relationships, which equally informed his writing, of which this book presents an excellently marshalled and descriptive survey of all his novels and plays.

With hindsight it may now be seen that Through a Glass Darkly was the match to a long fuse, for 17 years later the literary status that Hamilton enjoyed during his lifetime has been firmly re-established with most of his novels back in print, high profile adaptations such as the BBC’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and the West End revival of Gaslight.

There is a fascinating dichotomy in that Hamilton was very much of his era and wrote about the sad, transient habituées of dingy pubs and boarding houses of London and the South Coast in the interwar year. But Jones posits that Hamilton strikes far more of a chord with modern readers than his contemporaries Graham Greene and George Orwell, because in “our disillusioned, post-political world” there is more interest “in what it feels like to be skint, or pissed, or abused, or besotted with a worthless lover than what your party or religious affiliation might be.”

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