Indebted to Bloomsbury, as shown by a concern with personal conduct and a highly impressionistic style, L. P. Hartley betrays affinities with D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell in a more fundamental concern with larger social and moral issues. His best books argue for the existence of a spiritual dimension to life and demonstrate that recognition of its motive force, even union of oneself with its will, is a moral imperative. In this emphasis on connection, his novels recall those of E. M. Forster, but unlike his predecessor, Hartley insists that the nature of the motive force is supernatural, even traditionally Christian. In his most successful books, Hartley draws upon elements of both novel and romance, as Richard Chase defines them in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), and the uniqueness of the resulting hybridization precludes comparisons with the work of most of his contemporaries.
Hartley’s moral vision, revealed by the gradual integration of realism and symbolism in his novels, is the most striking characteristic of his long fiction. In a book such as The Go-Between, he shows that all people are subject to the power of love, even when they deny it, and that achievement of insight into love’s capabilities is a prerequisite of achieving moral responsibility. This pattern of growth at the center of Hartley’s novels is conventionally Christian in its outlines. The protagonist of each book, beginning with Eustace Cherrington in the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, accepts his status as a “sinner” and experiences, if only briefly and incompletely, a semimystical transcendence of his fallen state.
The epiphanic technique Hartley develops in the trilogy to objectify these moments of insight recurs in various forms in all of his novels, coming in time to be embodied not in symbolism but in the pattern of action in which he casts his plots. Without suggesting that Hartley’s fiction is about theology, it is clear that his concern with the subject of morality cannot avoid having religious overtones. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, he traces the process of spiritual growth in innocent, morally self-assured, and thereby flawed personalities who experience temptation, even commit sins, and eventually attain spiritual kinship with their fellow people. These encounters, in a book such as Facial Justice, occur in settings symbolic of traditional religious values, and so while Hartley’s novels may be read from psychoanalytic or mythic points of view, they are more fully comprehended from a metaphysical vantage point.
There is a thematic unity to all of Hartley’s longer fiction, but after 1960, there is a marked decline in its technical complexity. In one sense, having worked out his thematic viewpoint in the process of fusing realism and symbolism in his earlier books, Hartley no longer feels the need to dramatize the encounter of good and evil and to set it convincingly in a realistic world. His last novels are fables, and in The Harness Room, the most successful of them, the lack of realism intensifies his treatment of the psychological and sexual involvement of an adolescent boy and his father’s slightly older chauffeur. This book brings Hartley’s oeuvre full circle, back to the story of the American spinster and the Venetian gondolier he produced in Simonetta Perkins at the start of his career.
Eustace and Hilda trilogy
The three novels constituting the Eustace and Hilda trilogy—The Shrimp and the Anemone, The Sixth Heaven, and Eustace and Hilda—objectify a process of moral growth and spiritual regeneration to be found in or behind all of Hartley’s subsequent fiction. The process is not unlike that which he describes, in the Clark lectures reprinted in The Novelist’s Responsibility, as characteristic of Hawthorne’s treatment of the redeeming experience of sin in The Marble Faun (1860). The epiphanic moments Hartley uses to dramatize his protagonist’s encounters with Christ the Redeemer reveal truths that can be read on psychological, sociological, and theological levels.
In The Shrimp and the Anemone, Hartley depicts the abortive rebellion of Eustace Cherrington, aged nine, against the moral and psychological authority of his thirteen-year-old sister, Hilda. Set in the summers of 1905 and 1906, the novel reveals young Eustace’s intimations of a spiritual reality behind the surface of life. Unable to act in terms of these insights, for they are confused with his aesthetic sense, Eustace feeds his romantic inclination to construct an internal fantasy world and refuses to see the moral necessity of action.
In The Sixth Heaven, Hartley details Eustace’s second effort to achieve his freedom from Hilda, this time by engineering a socially advantageous marriage for her with Dick Staveley, a war hero and rising young member of Parliament. This novel focuses on a visit the Cherringtons make in June, 1920, to the Staveleys, acquaintances who live near their childhood home at Anchorstone. Eustace’s adult epiphanic experiences are more insistent. Less tied to his childish aestheticism, they emerge in the context of the novel as hauntingly ambiguous intimations of a moral and spiritual realm that he unconsciously seeks to avoid acknowledging.
In Eustace and Hilda, the final novel in the trilogy,...
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