L. P. Hartley Essay - Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles) (Vol. 2)

Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles) (Vol. 2)

Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles) 1895–1972

An English novelist and short story writer, Hartley achieved fame when his novel, The Go-Between, was filmed by Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey. Blending realism and symbolism, Hartley offered an ironic picture of society in the twentieth century. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

L. P. Hartley has a high reputation in England and deservedly so. What he starts out to do he accomplishes admirably; his novels are models of intelligent writing, good sense, sharp feeling for proportion, and clean design. His world of upper middle-class gentility unfolds without fuss or affection. Hartley is that rare novelist who knows what he wants to do and goes about it with a minimum of waste.

Frederick R. Karl, in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1961, 1962, 1971, 1972 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, p. 277.

Behind the fiction of L. P. Hartley one feels the ghostly presences of James and Hawthorne: they indicate both the nature of his art and his moral preoccupations…. The problem posed is how we should behave in the presence of evil, and his answer is unambiguous: we should have no truck with it.

Hartley's range is narrow. His manner is quiet, and though he has written some of the best comedy of our time it is muted comedy tinged with sadness. Yet though his world is a small one, and apparently demure, the smallness and the demureness are deceptive, for his world can uncannily reflect the violence and the conflicts from which it is seemingly isolated….

Hartley is one of a number of contemporary novelists who strike one as being very much at the centre of the English tradition of the novel. They are concerned with the behaviour of men and women in society, with the making of choices; and they are also scholarly novelists in the way that some painters and musicians are called scholarly. They approach the writing of fiction with a full knowledge of what has been done in the art before. They are conscious of the great exemplars. They are not the less original for this, but it means that generally they know precisely what it is they are doing, and what they are doing may very well be ambitious indeed.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 253-57.

L. P. Hartley's … short novel ['Poor Clare'] is an unexpected and splendid display of his powers. If it has not the compulsion and sympathy of his best work—'The Go-Between' and parts of the Eustace and Hilda novels—this is simply because Mr. Hartley, I think, is fully in artistic focus only when the time is Edwardian and the central figure is, as he himself was then, a child. The later stories in the collected volume show how his hatred of social change can obscure his vision so that sometimes only resentment glows angrily through the bilious yellow fog like a brooding red sun. When all is so evil it is difficult to paint in light and shade as he does with mastery in the sunshine hours of 1910.

True, evil in the forms of betrayal, of corruption of innocence, of self-deception, of sentimentalism and of plain defiance of the Ten Commandments served up as a New Morality, is present even in that halcyon age; Mr. Hartley is not Henry James's disciple for nothing. Nevertheless, his pre-1914 childhood time, despite all the incursions of the vulgar, the nouveau riche, the pretentious and the progressive, is still rich with the fat of two centuries of stability, decorum, integrity and disciplined relationships both of family and of class. It is still halcyon because its surviving patterns are firm enough to allow leisure for the cultivation of beauty and friendship—though woe betide even the best Edwardian who fails to remember the fragility of civilisation, the ever-threatening shadow of the Evil One….

Mr. Hartley is happier when he gives the menacing evil that closes round him a supernatural tinge, in his many splendid ghost stories, than where he embodies it in human form. Too often, then, by reducing evil to uncomfortable contemporary social phenomena—rude waiters, credulous progressive parents, promiscuous divorcees and sloppy-hearted tarts (after 1920 Mr. Hartley's time sense becomes increasingly inexact)—he sadly reduces his own fine moral discrimination to a self-pitying moan.

The reason is clear enough. Mr. Hartley is a metaphysical, not a social, novelist—only England would have so led him to confuse manners with morals. In his … book, "Poor Clare," he largely avoids his more recent, less happy grousing by reducing the four principal characters to voices and shades, by pencilling in only the outline of a neutral cultured and comfortable milieu that, if it could hardly be radiant 'then' is also doubtfully grisly 'now,' and by giving the whole short novel a discreet Christian religious framework which, if it does not commit him to any orthodoxy (I doubt if any could contain his bitter frightening Manichaean view of the world), nevertheless makes clear that the aesthetic symbols (his familiar works of art) have absolute overtones….

The morality, too, gains by being laid at the very centre of Mr. Hartley's Bloomsbury universe—a story of the hollowness, the corruption of personal relationships; a novel in which the reader is led really to feel the happiness that a fulfilled love affair brings only to see all its radiance fade before the cold light of justice. To describe the details of this beautifully plotted and well-told story would be to break the mould, for, in so short a compass, the story is the shape and the shape is admirably the story. It should be read.

Angus Wilson, "The Pursuit of Evil," in The Observer, October 27, 1968.

The full extent of the revolution I like to think we have all lived through is never made more apparent than when a novelist such as L. P. Hartley publishes a novel like his new one, Poor Clare. Mr. Hartley is one of the last gentlemen-writers with a sensibility schooled at a time when a limited number of people could spend a good deal of time being complex about very little. Today, such works have the air of the museum, and this one is no exception; at times it seems Mr. Hartley is guying both himself and the type of book he strives to produce….

What is chiefly baffling here is Mr. Hartley's loss of the 'feel' of his audience and his inability to create credible characters. We know from his sombre and splendid earlier novel, The Betrayal, what it is like to be the last of the Edwardians in present-day England, but need he have played so completely into the hands of the new Macedonians with this book?

Richard Jones, "Kensington Ghosts," in The Listener, November 7, 1968.

Mr. Hartley has often been compared to James, rather unfairly. He has a strong literary personality of his own. But while James could impose a silly story by sheer force and had an almost Shakespearian relish in getting away with the preposterous, Mr. Hartley is too delicate an artist: you can't tell the incredible in the tones of Prufrock. He lacks James's molten core of Yankee ruthlessness, his ability to accept and use vulgarity, his arrogant errors of judgment, which are the mark of vitality. Even his less successful novels are full of magnificent paragraphs. The falling short is usually in design. Recent mutterings from clubland suggest that Mr. Hartley could fill a gap and produce a great right-wing novel. It would probably be publicly burned and I should hate it; but after all the wounds had healed it might settle down as one of the more reprehensible classics.

R. G. G. Price, in Punch (© Punch, London), November 13, 1968.

[So] fully does L. P. Hartley establish his restrained, well-mannered world (a world where people phrase their speculations as: 'if she was his mistress, as some said she was'), that when two people actually go to bed together, it seems rather indecorous….

The success of Poor Clare comes from working within recognized limitations: it is brief, gentle, economical: the incidents and the characters are not strained to bear more than they can support.

Michael Wilding, in London Magazine, February, 1969, pp. 97-8.

One of the most appealing characters in 20th-century fiction is Eustace Cherrington, L. P. Hartley's shrimp. Poor, ineffective Eustace, one is tempted to think. Always meaning so well, always baffled, always defeated. His view of life is simpliste. Nice people are usually rich people and if they are rich enough they are probably aristocrats. What an elegant, charming world, where everyone is polite and no one lives in suburban houses. And as there are fairy godmothers, even in this wicked world, so was Eustace wafted into the sphere of wealth and elegance, if only briefly, to become the intimate of titled ladies and to be smiled at by bank managers.

For Eustace, through a grudging act of charity which he was bullied into, suddenly found himself a rich young man…. But Eustace has really arrived too late. We learn from a letter from Lady Staveley at Anchorstone Hall that Venice is not what it used to be. Rather queer people go there now….

The Eustace trilogy appeared between 1944 and 1947, The Go Between in 1953. If we jump to Mr. Hartley's more recent work, as represented by the linked novels, The Brickfield (1964) and The Betrayal (1966), both the relationship with and the attitude to the aristocracy have changed. Young Richard Mardick betrays no longing for aristocratic intimacies. In fact, he appears to be a reasonably balanced youth who is content with his family status, which is that of a Fenland farmer…. Wealth is respected, but not even the richest local farmer is associated with the aristocracy….

This seems to be a very different kind of background from those of Eustace and Leo—in many ways a healthier one, less troubled by servility of the spirit. But it was there. For when Richard forsakes farming and becomes a novelist, and in time requires a secretary, he employs a young man named Denys Aspin. Denys is well-dressed and extremely sophisticated, but what is most important of all is that he is the impoverished scion of a noble house, the Aspins of Aspin Castle. The tables are turned, the middle-class boy has grown up and pays a monthly salary to a young aristocrat. But apart from that, very little else has changed. Richard Mardick, nearing the end of his life, is as fascinated by the aristocracy as was Eustace Cherrington in the first flush of youth. There is no doubt that he feels honoured by the association, and doubly honoured because he can be of service to nobility….

Richard's unfortunate experience of the aristocracy serves as a satire on the earlier worship of Eustace and Leo. One after another the illusions are stripped away from a series of characters, all of whom bear a family resemblance. But it is doubtful if an inborn lack of reality can ever be transformed in this life. What is much more likely to happen is that it will change its appearance.

John Atkins, "Wonderful World of the Aristocrats," in Books and Bookmen, July, 1969.