Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles) (Vol. 22)
L(eslie) P(oles) Hartley 1895–1972
English novelist, short story writer, and critic.
The unifying theme in Hartley's fiction is the search for individuality. A basic romanticism predominates in his work despite realistic English middle-class settings and historical backgrounds. In his presentation of moral dilemmas, he is often compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Critics also note Hartley's effective use of symbolism, but above all, his attention to craft and plot unity recall Henry James.
(See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
The Saturday Review
[L. P. Hartley cares] seriously for truth, but in [Simonetta Perkins] human nature becomes, without falsification, something not easily recognizable…. Mr. Hartley's [feeling is] for the queer impulses which urge a character into actions on a superficial view uncharacteristic, but ironically appropriate. [He] creates people whom we cannot know completely, as we may know the puppets of the ordinary competent novelist: there remains, with … Mr. Hartley, the possibility of some disturbing twist of the mind. (p. 542)
[The subject of Simonetta Perkins] is the reaction of an American girl, Miss Johnstone, to what is most essentially Venetian. "No one knows where they are with me, because they really aren't anywhere, I am forever making up my mind about myself," she writes in her diary: Mr. Hartley gives us the process…. [He] has a remarkable talent for recording the twists of thought, the uneasy developments of emotion, in such characters as his heroine. He is capable of this paradoxical success of giving reality to a nature that is inconsistent, and can make us feel that the girl's aberrations, in one sense out of character, are yet very much hers. To complain that he has here spent his skill on material perhaps not quite worthy of it may seem ungracious. (p. 544)
"New Fiction," in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 140, No. 3654, November 7, 1925, pp. 542, 544.∗...
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When we first met Eustace Cherrington [in The Shrimp and the Anemone] he was a little boy of nine living in an East Anglian seaside town at the beginning of the century bewildered, delicate, priggish, dominated by his elder sister Hilda. In The Sixth Heaven he is an undergraduate at Oxford, still delicate, timid, shadowed by guilt, dominated by Hilda, and vaguely literary in his leanings. The material, then, is precisely that from which the hardened reviewer of fiction automatically shrinks. He has, he believes, read it all before, so many times before; it is the material of nearly every English novelist's first attempt at fiction, whether published or not. The miracle is, Mr. Hartley makes it new and exciting, so exciting that one is not aware, as one reads, of all the other variants of similar material that have preceded it. His work is unique, reminiscent of no other writer.
In other words, Mr. Hartley is an artist…. The Sixth Heaven is composed, in the Jamesian sense. It is a triumph of art, existing in itself and for its own sake as a beautiful vase or a fine painting does. More ambitious, perhaps more important, certainly more grandiose novels have been published during 1946; but none has given me such keen and delighted aesthetic pleasure as The Sixth Heaven, and aesthetic pleasure is the rarest kind of pleasure one derives from fiction. (pp. 56, 58)
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[The Go-Between] is a study of a boy's premature initiation into the mysteries of evil….
The Go-Between is a very literary novel, and its literariness is of a high quality; it is a very mannered novel, and its manners are excellent…. Yet for all its beautiful craftsmanship, the book somehow does not have much of the illusion of life. Probably the chief reason is that the center of psychological interest and the center of narrative interest do not coincide. One senses that Mr. Hartley feels in the problem of the boy who fails to attain emotional maturity an urgency, a reality, greater than the plot that is here invented to account for it.
Paul Pickrel, "Outstanding Novels: 'The Go-Between'," in The Yale Review (© 1954 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIV, No. 1, September, 1954, p. xviii.
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The Times Literary Supplement
Mr. Hartley's curious new novel [Facial Justice] is a kind of religious science-fiction, part fantasy about the future and part satirical fable about the standardization and neutralization of men and women. Though it concerns an individual who rebels against a conformist regime, it is not at all like 1984; perhaps the easiest way to contrast the two books is to remark that whereas Orwell invented the Ten Minutes' Hate Mr. Hartley has invented the Five Minutes' Laughter programme. His book is a love-story about humanity, comic in spirit, not tragic, religious, not political; the regime it portrays is more pathetic than horrific, while the narration has the odd, contrived remoteness of a dream rather than the inevitability of a nightmare….
Facial Justice is dedicated to Hawthorne, who called his own psychological romances "allegories of the heart"; and some of Mr. Hartley's symbols—the veil worn by Jael after her "betafication", the Dictator's mysterious birthmark—can be found in Hawthorne. The wittily described primitive taboos which form so large a part of the Dictator's pathetic regime can be interpreted without much difficulty as satirical observations on various present-day attitudes to individuality. But it is in the rhapsodical dance at Ely, and in the final pages, that the heart of the allegory, and its meaning as a parable of the workings of the divine, must be sought. The conclusion is not altogether...
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Harvey Curtis Webster
[L. P. Hartley's] best novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, The Boat, and The Go-Between, three of the most significant novels published in our century.
Not even his three most distinguished novels make their claim to permanence obviously. Nowhere does one find the stylistic innovations of Joyce or Gide. Though he learned the lesson of Henry James about a central point of view defined clearly, he allows himself liberties occasionally that suggest the "old fashionedness" of E. M. Forster and the nineteenth century English novelists. His style does not call attention to itself as frequently as that of, say, Virginia Woolf, because it is submerged in substance…. His apparent scope is not a great deal wider than that of Jane Austen or Ivy Compton-Burnett. It is his method to suggest the great world by intensively representing the smaller world most individuals inhabit. With Hartley, substance is the main thing and even this he approaches cautiously, circuitously, more like a birdwatcher than a hunter. (pp. 40-1)
Facial Justice is as interesting a novel about what the future may become as 1984 and Brave New World. I start with it because it presents his basic attitude toward life more expicitly than his other books. It differs from other good non-Utopias in its only superficial relationship to science fiction…. It is, as he intended, "a sort of satire on present day trends in...
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[L. P. Hartley's] experiments in form and technique … are limited, and it is not unfair, I think, to speak of him in these respects as an Edwardian writer, although his main inspiration goes back still farther. His impetus from the beginning has been romantic, and in particular he has always been drawn to the substance as well as the devices of the "Gothic" writers. It is in the light of this, I think, that one can usefully view an important aspect of his work.
Hartley published a volume of short stories in 1924, and a novelette, Miss Simonetta Perkins, in 1925. There were a few other stories after that but there was no novel until 1944. The eleven novels of these last seventeen or eighteen years are remarkably finished works, and it seems indeed that a long period of the most intelligent apprenticeship had prepared for them. I think we can observe in the first works—Miss Simonetta Perkins and the stories—the substantial material and inspiration he was to continue to draw on when the time came for the more sustained efforts.
It all centers, I think, in the way he conceives of evil. In one of the cruelest of the short stories, Podolo, an Englishman, resident in Venice, takes the wife of a friend of his for a picnic lunch to Podolo, a small island in the Venetian lagoon…. While they were idling pleasantly off the shore the English-woman noticed a cat on the island, scrawny, starving, and...
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L. P. Hartley is regarded as being one of the century's leading novelists but if he had written only short stories his fame would have been equally assured. The stories [collected in The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley]—early and late—flow into one another with a curiously traumatic rhythm, displaying various aspects of his ability to probe, as Lord David [Cecil] puts it, 'with an insight into the process of the conscience so sharp as to be painful'. Whether it is an early story, such as the spine-chilling almost mystical The Killing Bottle or a humorous later vignette like Mr. Blandfoot's Picture, the same qualities of meticulous observation blended with perception in depth of human foibles and inconsistencies are apparent, while for wit and characterisation … Mrs. Carteret Receives must rank as a masterpiece by any standards. Keeping himself well in the background like a more urbane and lovable Somerset Maugham, the narrator records his visits over the years to the formidable Carterets in their ostentatious Venice residence. In the end, World War II catches up with them. The couple move away, die, the house falls into other hands—and little tangible evidence is left of their anachronistic reign. One could wish there were more of it—yet everything necessary has been said about the Carterets and their entourage in the compass of twenty printed pages. (p. 214)
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Basically, Hartley's novels seem variations on the Bildungsroman, the traditional novel of quest for selfhood. In each a more or less sensitive, perhaps slightly neurotic protagonist … undergoes some part of the inward journey from innocence through experience to higher innocence, in a setting documenting one of the crucial moments in recent history: the beginnings of the century and life among the country houses of the Edwardian era; World War I; English society in between-the-wars Venice; World War II; the Welfare State and the crumbling of the class system; the post-World-War-III future. (p. 9)
Hartley is an explorer of our own age, not a gentle fabler of the past. At his best he asks more questions than he answers; he tries to let us experience in microcosm and think about the dilemmas and contradictions and polarities of living when and where we live. With the protagonists we sway between imaginativeness and a sense of reality, between going along with the current sense of life and trying to go against it, between a regard for one's own selfhood and the call to place others before that self. From the dialectics emerge, from time to time, evidences of forces which insist upon being recognized, though we have sworn they are not there. Hartley's universe keeps suggesting at their work those mysterious realities which we used to call evil, grace and Providence—and to which, he seems to imply, we may have to give new names...
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R. E. Pritchard
[In The Go-Between,] the story of a young lad exploited by two passionate clandestine lovers, Hartley intends us to see an extra dimension, the pattern of this century: a self-deceiving idealism that denies human reality, the exploitation of people and feelings for ulterior ends, a willingness to indulge in irrationality, that all combine to produce disaster….
The novel deals with the repression of true feeling, and its consequences. It is—like its protagonist—very selfconscious, and is elaborately wrought. The reader needs not only to come to terms with the social codes of the turn of the century, to recognise the social and sexual blinkering of the middle-class young of the time, and to respond sympathetically to the introverted and unworldly young protagonist, Leo Colston, but also to appreciate the sophisticated and even knowing use of various literary devices, especially irony, allusion and symbolism.
These last features are crucial to the work; their deployment is, in a sense, its main concern. The repressed young protagonist sublimates his half-recognised feelings into fantasies and idealisation: he interprets life in terms of fairy-tale and romance. Part of the problem of The Go-Between is that, while this is a characteristic of his, it is also, to a very great extent, the method of the novel itself. Leo composes fictions; and Hartley's fiction in turn parades its fictional devices and...
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