In the autumn of 2011, I played Bella Manningham in an amateur dramatic production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 thriller Gas Light, which has given its name to the practice of deliberately undermining someone’s conception of their own sanity for selfish or sinister purposes. Bella is the wife who sees lights flicker, whose things won’t stay where she left them, who is increasingly convinced that she is disappearing deeper and deeper into her own mad mind. “You mustn’t go on lying here in the dark, or your mind will go”, Bella is told. (The play was incidentally useful practice for being in academia.) Gas Light is set in the late Victorian era, a period when a wife like Bella Manningham, far from her own home and family, would have little recourse to support or legal favour, even if she was in a state to leave or challenge her husband’s authority. The ghost of Gas Light hangs over The Hours Before Dawn, I think, even though this is a novel set and written in the late 1950s, when women could vote, and go to university, and have careers–and yet, Louise, the mother of two small daughters and a new baby called Michael, cannot sleep and fears she is going mad from sleep deprivation and fears her baby will cry himself sick on a nightly basis and fears she is unsafe in her own home.
This is why I’m placing this on the CBR Bingo Politics square: The novel is about a mother’s breakdown, but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum–it happens within the framework of gender politics and power dynamics both within marriage and within society that eventually resulted in the second wave of (white) feminism; five years later Betty Friedan would publish The Feminine Mystique (1963), questioning the role of the suburban housewife, and Sylvia Plath would write the Ariel collection, in which “The Applicant” ends on a damning indictment of the objectification of women:
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.You have a hole, it’s a poultice.You have an eye, it’s an image.My boy, it’s your last resort.Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
The dreamlike feeling was gone now, and she was awake; but Oh! so wearily awake! She was so tired that her whole body seemed to be swaying, rocking, and when she lay down it was as if she was being sucked into heaving, bottomless water. ‘All-conquering sleep.’ The phrase drifted into her mind – was it some quotation from the classics? And had the author of it been inspired by a weariness as deep as hers? Across the span of the centuries Louise reached out for the solace of a fellow-sufferer. But uselessly; for that long-ago poet had managed to put his torturing sleepiness into immortal verse; not, like Louise, into muddling the laundry list and snapping at the children. (p. 58)