Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lord Ernest William Hamilton (1858-1939), Mystery Writer

Lord Ernest William Hamilton (1858-1939) certainly came from one of the more elite backgrounds among British mystery writers.  His father was James Hamilton, first Duke of Abercorn (earlier he had been merely Marquess of Abercorn--and before that there had been nine Earls of Abercorn, going back to 1606).  During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Duke served in the Privy Council and was twice Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
James Hamilton,
1st Duke of Abercorn, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland,
and, last but surely not least, father of a mystery writer
Ernest Hamilton was the youngest of fourteen children of the Duke of Abercorn and his wife, Louisa, daughter of John Russell, the sixth Duke of Bedford.  Like four of his brothers, he served for a time as a Conservative member of parliament, but he was also known in his day as an accomplished man of letters, publishing several volumes of memoirs, as well as theological studies and novels.
John Russell,
6th Duke of Bedford,
Lord Ernest Hamilton's maternal grandfather
Among Lord Ernest's novels, which include several works of historical fiction (such as The Outlaws of the March, 1897 and The Mawkin of the Flow, 1898) are at least two books that clearly fall with the mystery genre: a thriller, The Perils of Josephine (1899), and a much later detective novel, published when Lord Ernest was seventy years old, The Four Tragedies of Memworth (1928).

Both Perils of Josephine and Tragedies of Memworth (particularly the former tale) bear resemblance to the Victorian triple-decker sensation novel associated with Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others.  A contemporary review of Perils of Josephine, in which rather bored reference is made to Lord Ernest leading the title character, Josephine ("that unhappy young person"), "through a series of experiences with bolting horses, sliding panels, crazed cousins, wicked priests, and burning houses," gives some idea of the style in which it was written (yes, it even draws on traditional English anti-Catholicism).
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Queen of the Victorian Sensation Novel

Wilkie Collins
King of the Victorian Sensation Novel
The admittedly jaded reviewer went on to dismiss, in rather amusing fashion, the whole sensation or Gothic fiction genre as hopelessly outmoded and old-fashioned at the dawning of a new century (the twentieth):

"A strong impression remains with the [modern] readers that 'these things are not done.'  In our well-policed days, the most malevolent of wicked uncles whom our father's will is keeping out of his rights is hardly the cloaked and sinister figure that he was.  Our rival in love is not so likely to drop poison into our tea as to pity us for our unfortunate taste in collars.  Our athletic young women, with their inches and their biceps, cannot be counted upon to swoon when the panel slides back, but would probably make things unpleasant for the slider."
The athletic, bicycling young women of the 1890s
could not be expected to swoon at the sight of a sliding panel
When, nearly three decades later, Lord Ernest published The Four Tragedies of Memworth, it was at the height of the Golden Age of detective fiction, with its rules (one of the most famous sets propounded by Ronald Knox) designed to mark a clear aesthetic boundary between the detective novel and the thriller (or shocker, as it was sometimes called).  The novel was grabbed by the up and coming firm of Victor Gollancz, who also would publish such prominent Golden Age names in the English mystery writing field as Dorothy L. Sayers, E. R. Punshon and J. J. Connington.
Gollancz was one of the prestige publishers of Golden Age English detective fiction
For his part, Lord Ernest dutifully attempted in Tragedies of Memworth to move away from the tad lurid style of Perils of Josephine toward the more purely cerebral pleasures of the modern, 1920s detective novel; yet some affinity with the sensation style clearly remains.  As I indicated in Part One of this review essay, there is in the novel, for example, the lurking presence of a certain Asian gentleman with a vengeful agenda.  Yet Ronald Knox proclaimed Memworth an honorable exception to his anti-Chinaman, anti-thriller rule for the writing of detective fiction.  In Part Three of this review essay, I will assess just how successful a detective novel The Four Tragedies of Memworth really is.
Though it may have fallen out of critical fashion after 1900,
Victorian melodrama lived on in England--
in the 1930s, for example, in the films of Tod Slaughter--
and full scale critical revival lurked just around the (dark) corner!
Note: I do not have a photo of the actual Lord Ernest Hamilton.  If anyone finds or has one I would love to add it to the blog.  And for more on Lord Ernest Hamilton, see
http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/ronald-knox-his-detective-fiction.html

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