L. P. Hartley

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Leslie Poles Hartley is one of the most critically acclaimed English novelists of the twentieth century. He was born to Mary Elizabeth (Thompson) Hartley and H. B. Hartley, a solicitor who eventually directed the family’s brick business in addition to being a Wesleyan Methodist who passed his morality and emphasis on individual moral responsibility on to his son. Hartley was educated at Harrow School and entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1915. He interrupted his education to serve as a second lieutenant in World War I but was discharged because of a weak heart and returned to Oxford, where he received a degree with second-class honors.

Soon after leaving Oxford, he published Night Fears, a book of short stories, and Simonetta Perkins, a novella. He became known primarily as a book reviewer and literary critic until 1944. In that year, The Shrimp and the Anemone was published, the first volume of the Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The second and third volumes followed in rapid succession, and the third, Eustace and Hilda, won for him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In the 1950’s, he published the best of his work: The Go-Between, which was awarded the W. H. Heinemann Foundation Prize and subsequently translated into a successful film; The Hireling; and Facial Justice. Although he continued to publish regularly until his death of heart failure in 1972, his later novels and short stories were not as successful, financially or critically, as his earlier work.

Facial Justice, which concerns the aftermath of a third world war, is atypical of Hartley’s fiction in its futuristic, science-fiction setting. It is vintage Hartley, however, in its focus: the plight of the character who attempts to maintain individuality in a society bent on conformity and control. Ostensibly about the future, the novel actually satirizes contemporary English life, which he implies has already become the totalitarian world usually associated with the future.

Hartley’s fiction tends to be remarkably consistent in both form and content. Like his literary predecessor Henry James, Hartley makes adept use of his “central intelligence,” those characters through whom the third-person narrative is strained and shaped. The genre is—as is the case with James and Jane Austen, another of Hartley’s literary ancestors—the novel of manners, and usually those manners are exhibited by members of the upper middle class. As a result, Hartley’s world is a small one, but it is one that contains the same violence and class conflicts of the greater world. The Go-Between, which focuses on the year 1900, depicts the worlds that Hartley characteristically describes in conflict: the Edwardian world of the past, epitomized by the Hall, and the modern world, represented by the Village.

Like James, Hartley was a psychological novelist portraying the subconscious lives of his characters; like Nathaniel Hawthorne, he was a moralistic novelist dramatizing the effect of evil on hitherto innocent characters. The Hartley protagonist must make moral decisions, must choose between God’s demands and those of an oppressive society, and unfortunately the protagonist inevitably is afflicted by a desire to please others and be accepted by them. Typically sensitive and intellectual, the protagonists suffer from real or imagined sin, often associated with sex, and isolate themselves from society.

The Boat , the most personal and reflective of Hartley’s novels, concerns the conflict an artist experiences during World War II. The choice between art and society isolates the artist, who typically wants both to secure society’s approval and to retain his individuality. The dilemma is Hartley’s own, and his fiction reflects his commitment to art and individuality. Although he never enjoyed great popular success, he was respected as a serious writer by critics, who regarded him as the literary heir of Austen, James, and Emily Brontë. Because he is part of that tradition, he has sometimes been...

(The entire section is 1,235 words.)