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.)
[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.∗
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)
Walter Allen, "Fiction," in The Spectator (© 1947 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6185, January 10, 1947, pp. 56, 58.∗
[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...
(This entire section contains 138 words.)
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.
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 satisfactory; though beautifully written, it reads almost as if its author were playing an elaborate game….
Mr. Hartley has not entirely succeeded in fusing into a single whole the various elements of satirical fable and religious fantasy of which his book is composed. In spite of this, and perhaps even because of its ambiguities and obscurities, he has written a sincere, brave and unfashionable work of the imagination whose implications deserve as much thought as he himself has evidently given them.
"Pretty Gentleman and Betafied Lady," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3038, May 20, 1960, p. 317.
[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 English life, set in the future." More specifically it is Hartley's latest novel about his central preoccupation: the difficulty of maintaining individuality in a society that increasingly impinges upon personal freedom and attempts to make us all identical together. (p. 41)
Facial Justice and the other novels show that Hartley is an immensely gifted stumbling Christian whose characters are always anxious because it is difficult to discriminate between their wishes and those ordained by God. Like Milton (but more awarely) he seems to be as often on Satan's side as on God's. At least it is the tension between the apparently Satanic will to self-expression and the apparently Godlike force that impedes self-expression that induces the conflicts in his novels from Simonetta Perkins to Facial Justice. "I never thought," Simonetta Perkins says in his first novel, "that one result of wrongdoing was to ease the temper. I feel like an angel." But she is never more sure than a religious existentialist of salvation. Appropriately her moment of ecstasy passes into tears. It seems likely that Jael 97 and Michael feel much the same at the conclusion of Facial Justice when they must face the world. Indeed all of Hartley's characters in all of his novels ultimately feel both ecstasy and anxiety about the human situation in which one is alone, sometimes guided, sometimes looking up at the sky and seeing nothing else.
L. P. Hartley's plots convey his meaning in a style that does not ostentatiously call attention to itself and are of course important to a consideration of his novels…. Except in A Perfect Woman with its too pat plot and The Hireling with its melodramatic close, the plots are always sufficiently tense vehicles of meaning and the characters, round or flat, apparently control the action rather than the other way around. Except for the most intense moments his style is appropriate rather than extraordinary. (pp. 43-4)
The novels themselves have [unity in variety]…. Hartley's primary preoccupation is with the efforts of men and women to realize themselves without offending God more than is human and without offending society more than is necessary. Naturally this involves the desire to please oneself and others without being overwhelmed by guilt or impelled sadistically to punish others or masochistically to punish oneself. It is interesting to notice that these preoccupations reflect both Christianity deeply felt and the depth psychology of Freud and his followers, whom Hartley understands without having read.
Viewed from this vantage point Hartley's novels as a whole form an expanding variety within a modified but fundamentally unchanging unity. Simonetta Perkins is the story of a repressed young woman's short "affair" with a Venetian gondolier. The conflict is mainly interior (though her mother and her memory of her past are almost an external conflicting force). Both depth psychology and Christianity are involved in the internal conflict…. Her repressed sexuality is evidenced by expressions of anger and meanness of which she disapproves but which give her a sense of release…. Always shame follows her outbursts. She feels the theological point that the will to do is the same as doing and thinks of herself as being like Hester Prynne. Yet at the same time she wishes that Hawthorne's heroine had lived in some place like Venice. At the end of the book it is left open to the reader to decide whether she has come to terms with both her wishes and God's, which she understands only partially.
The trilogy [Eustace and Hilda] that followed after nineteen years of near silence is a fictional account of how one becomes like Simonetta Perkins as a young woman. Eustace, the shrimp who is almost devoured by the anemone, Hilda, is a frail boy, whose relationship with other children is always "tinged with a fearful joy," altogether unlike his sister's apparent intolerance and hostility. During his childhood every assertion of himself is followed by the feeling he must perform an act of expiation, which is usually supplied by Hilda. He admires, fears, loves and occasionally wishes dead his sister because she asks so much of him that he can think of no one who would suit her requirements "but God or Jesus." The frantic ingenuity of his neurasthenia is partly ameliorated by Miss Fothergill who believes "'It's a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance.'" Throughout his later life at school, at Oxford, in Venice, and in the days that precede his death (his best because he comes to terms with himself), his will to enjoy is alternately encouraged by someone like Miss Fothergill and discouraged by Hilda or someone like her. (pp. 45-6)
His trouble is that of the very sensitive man we too often denigratingly call neurotic. He wants both "to be pleased by pleasing" and to be like the saints in the West Window of the cathedral at Frontisham. His death wish for "a womb-like, tomb-like state" and his wish to experience everything and get it down on paper while living like an angel are almost exactly balanced against each other until the conclusion. The counterpointing conflict between Eustace and Hilda that represents every man's conflict is resolved in a tragic ecstasy…. (p. 46)
My account of Eustace and Hilda emphasizes Eustace's conflict with and victory over his neurotic tendencies, but the novel is anything but a case history. Eustace is fully and movingly drawn in both his small and his large moments…. His last day, when with weary determination he proves that he can be both himself and thoughtful of others, is a triumph one finds only in tragedy.
Though she is seen primarily through Eustace's only partially comprehending vision, even Hilda becomes a fully drawn and sympathetic character before we finish…. The other characters, some forty of them, are drawn well and in proportion. (pp. 46-7)
Eustace and Hilda shows dramatically the possibility of individual salvation; The Boat is concerned with a larger problem: the relationship of a sensitive and confused humanist to his country in a time of war as this relationship is represented by the attempt of the protagonist to preserve "the right and duty of each human being to treat another as an end in himself, not as a flag or a coloured shirt or a sinner," to have "freedom of access to another's heart." (p. 47)
It is difficult to say which novel is an author's best because of the variety in unity that characterizes any good artist's work. Eustace and Hilda goes deepest into the process of the maturing of the individual; Simonetta Perkins best reveals the effect of repressing the subconscious; The Boat interprets the interrelationship of the individual and society with the most balance; A Perfect Woman is unique both in its representation of a quadrangle and in its presentation of a conventional man who is believable and likeable; My Fellow Devils shows better than any of the others how sex may be identified with sin and still lead to salvation; The Hireling represents most movingly the relationship between the "upper" and "lower" class; Facial Justice dramatizes most completely Hartley's quarrel with post-Edwardian civilization. But because it includes almost all of Hartley's varied preoccupations in intense unity The Go-Between seems to me his best novel. (pp. 49-50)
The Go-Between begins with the sentence, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The time is the turn of the century and Leo is twelve-going-on-thirteen during the summer in which the main action takes place. Like all of Hartley's protagonists, Leo Colston hopes for more than can possibly occur. He believes the coming century will be "a realization on the part of the whole world, of the hopes that [he is] entertaining" for himself. In this transformation he sees himself as Robin Hood and his friend Marcus's sister as Maid Marian, despite the fact that Marian is above him in class, seems angelic, and is undoubtedly the cause of his unrecognized sexual dreams about flying. He expects them to march purely together through their lives into a twentieth century totally different and infinitely better than that of Facial Justice. This is his dream world (and in dreams begin both revelations and responsibility?)…. The actual world conquers the world of dream when he discovers that Marian has been charming to him so that she could use him as a messenger to Ted and when, a little later, he discovers her, his angel, and Ted, with whom he identifies most strongly, on the ground in the act of sexual intercourse—"the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one." Ted's subsequent suicide completes the dissipation of the boy's fantasy about the world that is. Looking back upon the experience—for the whole story is told from the point of view of an older man tracing back the reason why he is "a foreigner in the world of emotions, ignorant of their language, but compelled to listen to it"—the happiest conclusion to which he can come (and it is the unhappiest conclusion in all of Hartley's novels) is that "the life of facts [has] proved no bad substitute for the facts of life." The life of facts did not let one down.
An intensely personal novel—indeed I can think of no other book both as pathetic and tragic except Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier—it is also a parable of how the twentieth century deteriorated into what it has become. Leo and his experiences are a symbol of what Hartley in his darkest hour feels that modern man is: Class and caste still do exist (as in The Hireling); "normal" men like Trimingham are involved in triangles if not in quadrangles (like Harold Eastwood in A Perfect Woman); to a degree all men are our fellow devils; the cause of war is what begins on the personal level translated to the international level; Leo's realization—that "most people mind being laughed at more than anything else. What causes wars, what makes them drag on so interminably, but the fear of losing face?"—is also the major theme of The Boat. (pp. 50-1)
Harvey Curtis Webster, "The Novels of L. P. Hartley," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1961), Vol. IV, No. 2, 1961, pp. 39-51.
[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 crying for food…. She wanted to rescue it so she pursued it while her friend and the gondolier napped in the boat, and when they woke, near dark, surprisingly Angela was nowhere to be seen. When at last the gondolier found her, she was, we are to suppose, mangled almost beyond recognition, and able in her suffering only to ask him to kill her before "it" came back. "It's starving, too, and it won't wait."
That is all we ever learn of the monstrous creature inhabiting the island. (p. 172)
This kind of mere imagining, and only that, without the extensions of thought or the beginning of commitments, is an effort to create a fragmentary sensation at once interesting for its intensity and for its limits in sensation. Because it stops short of meaning it claims a dignity as it were free from irresponsibility or morbidity. It makes no claims other than as a fragment, a shock. Its value is in the brilliance of the effect, a sudden glare.
This is a special capacity of the modern short story, to provide the narrator with a role he can keep to the end, the role of someone imagining something for its own sake. In his novels Hartley takes that same trick, the flash lost in the darkness, and the purpose, in the first of them, almost remains the same—to exclude the context, to elaborate endlessly but still keep everything within itself, and to absolve the reader from thought. But as time goes on, elaborations extend the vista, and meaning forces itself inevitably upon us—the flash in the dark by the very constancy of its limits comes inescapably to signify the absolute and irredeemable tyranny of evil. In the conventional "Gothic" way these images of horror are developed into symbols, not merely as comments upon the events in the narrative but as active forces in the lives of the characters. In the trilogy that tells of the lives of a brother and sister from their earliest childhood, the first book, The Shrimp and The Anemone, takes its name from an incident both children once witnessed, a sight [of a shrimp caught up and being devoured by an anemone] that turned out to be the expression of what was forming and was to destroy their own lives. (p. 173)
[The experience] comes to be the evidence of a mysterious way the universe has of foretelling the boy's victimization by his sister, and of outlining his capitulation to something he acknowledged as "more interesting and rarer" than himself. Here the shock goes beyond that of Podolo, although I think they are the same in kind—a transfixing horror for which there is no saving justification, and to the degree that it is different it may have lost something of its force…. Hartley's technique here, developing more than the merely sensational, is yet not deeply enough conceived—there is a more judicious than imaginative combining of images and ideas, and the ideas themselves are too much limited by a view of evil that is itself limited by obsession.
In The Go-Between the symbol of a deadly night-shade encompasses innumerable aspects of the story. A small boy, already disposed to see magic in everything, comes upon the plant…. (pp. 173-74)
This time the image is not merely a stage-symbol, some hallucinatory sight containing a picture in little of the future, it is also something of a parable. The boy this time is older, and however mysterious the occasion and the presence of the plant and what it seemed to tell him, he is also less naively reporting its mythical and demonic force. To a certain extent he is outside its influence: he is not so completely enslaved because so much more of his life has already taken its own direction before this monstrous being appeared to capture the rest. All the same, his destruction is certain. (p. 174)
[The] way in which Hartley shows how life breaks the spirit of this boy is as profound and vivid a presentation of a dying-in-life as one can expect of fiction. It almost justifies the use of Gothic artifice as a device to show how moments of hysteria may indeed reveal the pattern of what is foreordained, but here the technique finally does the writer a disservice—Hartley's conception of the way the boy's loss of faith in life cripples him is so much more profound and sensitively accurate than the trick and the superstition comprehend. But in the effect of the novel as a whole, the image maintains a dominating and limiting darkness. It was meant to show that the boy—an innocent go-between for illicit lovers—was to be destroyed by being put to an evil use, but what it does affirm goes beyond this—that all human passion is evil and, inescapably, totally destructive. (pp. 174-75)
Hartley's mind in a systematic elaboration of the chances of life plays back and forth over the way Eustace or Leo or Marian seem at one moment to escape, at the next to throw themselves into the arms of the anemone or the night shade, The images are frightful, as limitlessly deep in horror, we are meant to see, as death itself. And it is the ambitiousness of the pretension that accounts for one of the chief faults of this kind of writing—the lack of humor. The stupidity of superstition necessarily limits its exploitation. Hartley evidently came to understand this, and in a manner not unlike Faulkner's he came to employ humor to dignify the Gothic techniques with intelligence, perhaps meaning in this way also to lighten the darkness.
In My Fellow Devils he takes a monster for his hero, the Devil himself. He is as serious about this being and his power as he is about the deadly night-shade, but this time the characters in the story are adults and he cannot exploit the humorless seriousness of children as a way of effecting horror. Instead, he tricks us by making us think, at first, that the Devil is not too bad a fellow—a movie actor, in fact, attractive, glamorous, and the dupe of his profession.
And this gives his intelligence its chance, to match the obsessive images of evil and horror with the observation of the endless capriciousness of life, to match horror with the most sophisticated humor.
In My Fellow Devils the humor is brilliant. And although this may not "transmute the heavy moral burden," may not finally emancipate the novelist from the intolerable Puritan gloom, it gives the mind of the narrator at least the semblance of freedom. (pp. 175-76)
As we begin to take in the magnitude of Hartley's work, the genius of it, the brilliance and integrity, the modern exploitation of the Edwardian novel forms and the new life he may succeed in giving them, one comes back to the thought of the uselessness of art in such a service as this. The exploitation of horror and cruelty always raises questions about the value of literature when it concentrates on such effects. The questions keep returning to the idea that sensations of this nature may not be sufficient either for the enlightenment or the satisfaction of a reader. On one side, there is the answer that it is quite enough for art to present us with the abysses that surround us, and on the other, that what shocks us serves reflection finally, and indeed the reader needs to be shocked in order to know what, or how, to think….
[In My Fellow Devils], however, the advances into thought are there for all to see. It is true, as I have heard it said, that My Fellow Devils is a reconstruction of what the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius present as the logic of a back-slider, and the extraordinary humor of the book is in the suspense—each step is made to appear to us as anything but inevitable although the heroine is forced to think it inevitable, and each step that she thought was bringing her back to God was also always another selfishness and betrayal. The complexity and the sum of the sequences is perfectly schematic, and the humor of the book is in just that, the schematization of a person struggling with the devil in herself. And the irony and humor lead us from one complexity of thought to another, for we do not know if, as in the ways of the emancipated, we are to shrug and wink …; or if we are to be horrified by the implacable ways of fate; or whether we are to regard this furious enslavement as the scourge of God.
But it is not only the brilliance that attracts us. In the manipulation of words and techniques Hartley is the master of his art, and he re-creates as the best fiction does the very force of life. There are times when the heroine turns her face to the light in some instinctive question and we see the light strike her, and at such moments we know that we never ask more of art than this, to catch such light and shadow, such a gesture, such a significance in passion and interest…. (p. 178)
Hartley's work is at its best in the creation of sights like this, and in verifying the complexities of dream and passion. If such were his main aims, his achievement would be of the highest order. His special limiting of the ways of evil, however, too often spoils our enjoyment of the beauty and vitality and complexity of his work. The meaninglessness of the horrors he exploits in the end discourages our attention. (p. 179)
John Athos, "L. P. Hartley and the Gothic Infatuation," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1962, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 7, No. 4, January, 1962, pp. 172-79.
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)
Rosalind Wade, "Literary Supplement: Quarterly Fiction Review," in Contemporary Review (© 1974 Contemporary Review Co. Ltd.), Vol. 224, No. 1299, April, 1974, pp. 213-18.∗
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 and new responses.
Hartley's world is recognizably that described by Camus and Sartre, in which man must at length face his absurdity, his pitiable fate, his burden of guilt, and act in full knowledge of his impotence. But it is also a world which would have been quite comprehensible to Emily Brontë, whose poems he quotes so often as epigraphs…. (p. 10)
To this sternly-limited material, experiential, existential world in which we live Hartley introduces a genre which questions the opacity of that materiality, which casts upon it light calculated to reveal monstrous shapes and shadows above and behind. His characters try to be, like Hawthorne's, representative and illustrative, his plots attempt the apocalyptic—but they are built upon a base so realistic in characterization and social examination that it is often mistaken for Hartley's essential contribution. (pp. 10-11)
The form of Hartley's novels is, like the typical romance [Northrop] Frye describes, dialectical. Characters are linked to attitudes, world-views, dreams, ideas: usually inadequate by their very over-abstraction, over-simplification. Interaction with others and with life hardens or alters or reverses these attitudes. At the end we are usually confronted with a death, real or symbolic, and the problem of deciding whether that death represents utter tragedy and failure, or signals a successful resolution—the only possible resolution—of the dilemmas of life. Man, living, must always be torn between the opposing forces of matter and spirit, fact and ideal, Hartley seems to say—the best he can do, living, is to accept polarities and conflicts as the stuff of existence. Peace and reconciliation are somehow bound up with death—or with managing to give over one's material existence to a spiritual one. Whether this is a horror or the beginning of new life Hartley does not quite tell us.
If he suggests answers at all in his old-yet-new universe (and I am not sure that he does), they would seem to be along the lines of a somewhat existentialist approach to Christianity: a Christianity willingly relinquishing its pretensions to superior knowledge and power and affirming its oneness with human misery and helplessness; a Christianity cleansed of the abstract, the legalistic, the overly rational, and stressing above all the personal, the concrete, the leap of faith, the centrality of love and self-giving; a Christianity facing the universe with all the agony and unknowingness of modern mankind, yet willing to die for others. (pp. 14-15)
Almost all of Hartley's short stories, many of which are brought together in … The Collected Short Stories of L. P. Hartley, are best seen, perhaps, as studies, sketches, experiments for those larger canvasses. Here, over the years, he creates characters to embody themes, attitudes and points of view, finds objects to symbolize inner life and change, broods over and highlights events which seem to reflect mysterious universal laws. If Hartley's earlier novels can so finely suggest the density and complexity of experience, it is surely because in exercises like the stories he has painstakingly tried to capture, to explore and elaborate, one by one, the individual elements and perspectives which go to make up his vision of complexity. (p. 17)
The same themes and concerns weave in and out of all Hartley's stories, but in the first group he seemed to experiment mainly with expressing mental or psychological states; in the second, his more farfetched Gothic tales, with metaphysical statements about the whole of human existence; in the later volumes, with the locating of his enduring dilemmas in very contemporary problems like the relation between the artist and society, the pitfalls of modern sexual mores and modern marriage. Yet in all three types of stories, Hartley is talking about the same things. From Night Fears onward, he is concerned with the life of the mind in its relation to the 'real' world, and looking for ways of catching, in a symbolic event or tableau, the discrepancy between ideal and actual, between the imagined, the abstracted, the mentally organized, and the complexity of experience…. Hartley's own chosen method of symbolism seems appropriate to his own 'existentialist conclusion'—the symbol or symbolic situation in which he embodies each new version of the dilemma is, itself, in its concreteness, a contradiction of abstraction and idealization (while at the same time attesting to the need for the imprint of mind and imagination). (pp. 17-18)
What do we take from these first of Hartley's sketches? Concerns and a method that were to last him all his life long. The complexity of reality, the oftentimes sinister chaos at its heart, the seeming impossibility of capturing the truth about any aspect of life or reality in abstractions or categories. On the other hand, the restlessness of the human mind, free to override mere reality and experience and to be creative of its own versions of existence; the constant, constantly frustrated striving after meaning, form, a principle. Overall, the duality in us and in our universe…. Hartley first begins to embody states of mind: to give arms and legs and actions to the hidden halves of men's personalities; to let guilt and fear and Puritanism and hedonism become actors in little dramas.
Hartley's symbolism is of several kinds. First of all, the basic situation of each sketch is an embodiment of a moral question, perhaps of varying points of view—usually highly visual, perhaps static. These are tableaux, comparable to scenes in a well-made film by someone like Antonioni in which the visible relationships between the characters' positions in a room suggest all that is going on beneath the surface. (p. 23)
In general, Hartley reinforces his central situational symbolism and meaning by finding other symbols to echo and extend it. Sometimes this is in the use of a single, central, emblematic symbol, like that of 'Apples'. Rupert as a child wants those apples when he wants them. He will inconvenience his Uncle Tim, break his little sister's doll, to try to get them, all unripe as they are. Rupert as a sensual, self-indulgent man of thirty finds overripe apples falling all about him—and they make him sick. The apples are a kind of objective correlative for Rupert, his goals, and what happens to him and them; his attitude towards the apples, at both stages, is an index to his character and his happiness….
More generally, Hartley adds emphasis and extra dimensions to his meaning with a variety of incidental symbolism. He experiments, often over-obviously, with furniture and clothing and natural surroundings…. (p. 24)
One of the first discoveries we might expect to make—and do make—is that there is mysterious evil in this universe, in man and seemingly in untamed nature within and without him. Hartley deals extensively in curses ('Feet Foremost'), haunted houses ('A Change of Ownership')—sometimes involving commerce with the devil ('The Thought'), but usually revolving around the return of someone or other from the dead to avenge his attempted destruction…. There is evil at the heart of life; there is an evil side even to love.
But if un-lovingness and misdirected love kill, as Hartley suggests, he seems to suggest also that authentic love, the real placing of another's good before one's own—gives life. The image he uses for this kind of love, at least in the story where his meaning is most clear, is sacrificial death (or the willingness to undergo death for another). (pp. 27-8)
Hartley's incidental symbolism is carefully worked-at to fill out this sense of a huge economy of good and evil, love and non-love. The country houses are all replete with Gothic wings, disused churches, slimy moats—touches that set them apart in the realm of the past, or that perhaps set the scoffed-at beliefs of the past against the flatness of the sceptical present, to ask which is greater truth. (p. 28)
In any case, we are clearly dealing with the making real of an inner vision and its clash with actual physical facts. And Hartley relates this individual self-deception to the larger problems of human relationships, including the war; to pre-war aestheticism and individualism and the separation of art from life; to the post-war tendency of British art, perhaps, or the British upper classes, to long for the serenity and irresponsibility of the past and a no longer viable beauty and culture; to all current temptations to ignore reality, the hard lessons of the war, the challenges of the present. In such dissections of his own class and profession, Hartley seems to be grappling with the problems and contradictions he feels within his own being—that is why he can present them with such complexity and balance and leave us with very real questions instead of simplistic answers. (pp. 34-5)
The trilogy Eustace and Hilda (1944–47) is thought by many to be L. P. Hartley's masterpiece. A subtle and sensitive detailing of a life and of the relationship which dominates, characterizes and seemingly destroys that life, the trilogy is first of all the tragedy of Eustace, who dies because he and Hilda can no longer exist in the same world, because one can only live at the expense of the other. But Eustace and Hilda seems also the story of the achievement, the strange salvation of Eustace, who dies after learning what few manage to learn—to love.
The story of Eustace and Hilda is also the story of an age—our age—at its inception. The years of Eustace's growth and struggle and defeat (or victory) are the years of the death of the Past: the death not only of Victorianism, but of absolutes, of assumptions, of God. Eustace's is the world which pronounces all the gods dead, all the wars fought, all the faiths in man shaken; it can offer him nothing but death. (p. 42)
It is very possible—especially if one reads Hartley's everpresent symbols and the dreams and fantasies he gives to Eustace in a conventionally Freudian sense—to see this novel only as the sadly comic tragedy of a boy destroyed by his environment: specifically his sister's domination, his own guilt and death wish….
It is certainly true that Eustace and Hilda is tragic, that it points to terrible forces at work in man's life, that much of its basic plot can be interpreted in a coherently Freudian way. But it is important to see that Hartley's symbolism (like all true symbolism) is multivalent. We may read Eustace and Hilda as a Freudian psychological study, as we may read much of Hawthorne. But we may also, and I think here more importantly and inclusively, read the trilogy as the kind of 'apocalyptic' work Hartley attributed to Hawthorne. In Hartley as in Hawthorne, good and evil are the main, the only issue—though, as in Hawthorne, we may see the good and evil as relating primarily to one's own complexes, guilts, fears and their effects, or to a supernatural order in which God's (or Someone's) Providence directs, rewards, punishes. Or perhaps both Hartley and Hawthorne are saying that the two are one. (p. 45)
The events, the entire physical world of objects and people take on more and more possible meanings as the story proceeds and these events, objects and people are linked with, paralleled to others…. One senses that silence, speech, language all have their shimmering significance, as well as L-shapes, arches, squares, circles and all the colours of the rainbow…. Symbolic meanings touch and shift and interrelate; one thinks one sees a coherent pattern in the world of value and significance which radiates from and surrounds the visible, material one. One grasps at it and tries to fix it, and it shimmers again and shows another face. (p. 46)
Eustace and Hilda could be seen as a Bildungsroman in which the lesson Eustace has to learn just may be that 'he who loses his life shall find it'. (p. 50)
The visions of perfect unity, balance and harmony which keep recurring in Eustace's life are the dreams of every man, torn and divided; here they are connected variously, through symbols, with union with Hilda (or Reality); with human effort and art (incarnating spirit, marrying body and soul); with selfgiving; with death; with eternity. (p. 53)
It seems to me that Eustace and Hilda best makes its mark, is most fully understood and of most lasting interest when seen as a romance in the Hawthornian vein, taking description and characterization that is often more realistic than Hawthorne's but transforming it into symbolic suggestion of the mysterious spiritual universe surrounding and enfolding its materiality. (p. 61)
Hartley's version of romance, incorporating the most modern of novelistic techniques, builds on a foundation of realistic social and historical detail: asks its ultimate questions not in the abstract but in the context of our own age, its history, its bitter 'Experience'. Depicting 'the surface of life' as well as 'trying to interpret' it, Hartley gives a rich and faithful and perceptive picture of the early twentieth century and its changes in class structure and dominance, in religion, in styles of life and thought. (p. 63)
One can, in fact, see most of Hartley's novels as a very personal continuing dialogue with himself, at various ages and in various circumstances, about the meaning of life. (p. 72)
[The Go-Between] could be seen as Hartley's 'Young Goodman Brown', addressed to an England dry and disillusioned after the Walpurgisnacht of world war. Characteristically, however, Hartley's book ends—not, as Hawthorne's story does, with the death of the innocent-turned-cynic—but at the moment when he at last comprehends what has happened to him. Hartley wants, perhaps, to show the postwar world a complex symbolic picture of the past fifty years. Having put the last piece in place before his audience, he will step back, his task done, to see if in the flash of comprehension any spark of new life is communicated. (p. 97)
Hartley experiments with a new structure for The Go-Between, one which can move back and forth between single and 'double' vision and enable us, even more than is usual in his novels, to experience the dialectic between fact and imagination. The book is about seeing, about vision and double vision. Its frame-story is the encounter of a sixty-five-year-old bibliographer—buried for years under 'cliffs' of dingy paper—with his diary, the diary which tells the story of the summer of 1900 and the blighting of his life…. In fact, the book is the extension of an argument in the Prologue … between the twelve-year-old Leo and the sixty-five-year-old Leo over the content of the diary, the meaning of that summer and love affair, the meaning of life and love in general. Looking through the two pairs of eyes (actually the same pair, fifty years apart) so contrasting in their viewpoint, yet so alike in the extremism and romanticism at the root of their judgements, we are able to see sinners and sinned-against with much more sympathy and understanding than either; able, too, to understand more of the human mixture that has gone into the making of 'this hideous century we live in'…. (p. 98)
The Go-Between is a book, an experience which can immeasurably increase one's penetration into, one's love for and acceptance of life, one's 'tolerance for ambiguity' in people and events—that primary attribute, according to some social scientists, of true maturity. Leo seems just possibly on the verge of attaining some such maturity, at sixty-five, as we close the book, and Hartley's art is such that we understand the preciousness and rarity of the achievement, even at such an age.
Hartley's frame structure, the single/double pair of eyes through which he has us look, is the means by which he makes his narrative into a romance while yet criticizing those who romanticize…. Surely there is something of transcendent meaning in these people and their story and the century half gone by? And if there is myth and transcendence in their story, it is because there is in all love stories, in all lives, including our own. This romance warns us of the dangers of romanticizing, yet it shows us that the dry, peeled vision Leo has tried to practise since Brandham Hall is also inadequate. (pp. 99-100)
How, then, to combine the child's spiritual vision with the grown man's knowledge of evil? It is the same question Blake asked long ago. Hartley gives no very strong and sure answer in the book—he is too concerned with showing us exactly where we are today. But the book as a whole seems to call for a Higher Innocence, for a rebirth of faith and vision in a people whose ideals have been shocked and defeated by the evil and violence and ugliness of our century. (p. 100)
[One] of Hartley's characteristic analogues or epitomes or controlling symbols summing up the meaning of the whole book [is] the encounter of the overly-innocent with the unsuspected—and deadly—force of Nature (and human nature in particular). This is a perfect example of the way in which Hartley can render complexities of inner experience through the detailed description of a symbol or analogy. In the boy's descriptions we catch the strong sexual hints … but the boy does not know what he is describing or why it is so strong, so primeval, so dangerous, so frightening, yet so weak.
In The Go-Between it is easy to recognize Hartley's favourite motif—of the very human tendency to believe in the Eden one longs for as already existing, to see human nature as self-perfectible when its wishes, its desires for the beautiful and pleasing are unobstructed. This tendency, Hartley shows us over and over again,… can only be destructive. There is evil at the heart of the universe, in Nature, in human nature—it cannot, perhaps, be fully understood, but it must be reckoned with…. But Leo's story is even more a criticism of those who saw and see the twentieth century, culmination of so many years of cultivation and humanism and scientific achievement, as, logically, a Golden Age of human fulfilment—and who cannot comprehend or encompass the devastating wars which have characterized it…. Hartley is offering war as supreme proof that humanism is inadequate to man's needs, that man's animal nature alone is no key to his life and happiness, that there are—must be—transcendental truths and standards and a world of the spirit, a spiritual dimension, which gives meaning to the physical: that without access to that dimension we are lost. (pp. 105-06)
The Go-Between is unquestionably one of Hartley's most successful romances—if not the most successful. It is a small book, tightly unified by its frame structure, its two viewpoints which are really one, its many recurring symbols of colour, heat, natural surroundings, clothing, and the spells, signs of the Zodiac and mythical figures by which a small boy's imagination turns the natural into the supernatural. (pp. 110-11)
The Go-Between is pervaded with sexual feeling, with the sense of the power and heat (literally, since this is one of his chief symbols) of sexual passion. The fact that Leo is uncomprehending and describes all with an innocent eye makes the reader's awareness and understanding all the stronger. What is Hartley saying about sex in letting it be the chief agent of destruction in this novel? Mainly, I think, that it is one of the chief manifestations of that lovely but flawed, deceptive and deadly Nature about which man since Rousseau is apt to be a little too naïve and trusting. At the heart of things for fallen man there is a great blackness which he cannot discount; he must learn to face the void with courage and love, but he can never come completely to terms with it. And specifically: if modern man is going to make a mystique of sex, going to see it as an agent of salvation, Hartley wants to warn that it could just as easily—given its strength, its potential for deadliness—be an agent of tremendous destruction.
The symbolic method Hartley has evolved seems perfect for the complex world into which he wants to introduce us: a world in which we see men slipping, over and over again, into some version of romanticism, of hubris, of the belief that we are immortal, unflawed, can control events, ourselves, our destinies. Each of Hartley's modern romances is a questioning, a probing—usually a tragic refutation—of this attitude, this hope…. In all these modern romances Hartley deflates the man of imagination, the humanist, the aesthete, the optimist, for their over-simplifications; he shows us the world's blackness. But he is asking that we learn to meet that blackness with imagination and hope, and that we rediscover, before it is too late, the true meaning of man's spiritual aspirations. (pp. 111-12)
Many critics have praised L. P. Hartley's achievement while stressing the 'limited' sphere in which it takes place. Hartley protagonists … tend to be men and women of one mould, their experiences basically similar; Hartley settings (with the exception of Facial Justice) are eminently predictable. But one must perhaps find another term than 'limited' to describe an artist who tries to create a new genre—lightly comic but deadly serious—in order to raise, amid the pettinesses of everyday social life; the ultimate questions of existence. Hartley may sometimes fail, his failures may even approach the ludicrous or the maddening, because he attempts so much; his trying to locate eternal, implacable Evil in a West End flat or a suburban garden may approach the absurd, may end, as Angus Wilson believes it does, in confusing manners with morals. But those who would confine his interests to exploring certain types of neurotic personality, certain classes in British society or periods in British history, even certain moral conflicts between the individual and the collectivity, certainly misread. The Hartley subject is Everyman: the meaning of his love, life, death in the modern world; and Hartley's novels, far from fitting into an established pattern, have been worthwhile investigations into forms whereby such a subject may be exploited. (p. 155)
The romance genre, that blend of mythical patterns and everyday experience which is basic to most of Hartley's experiments, is at one with the meaning it seeks to convey. From the total body of Hartley's work emerges a shadowy, shifting world-picture in which images of absurdity, contradiction, negation and death seem to mingle or alternate with those of self-discovery, radiance and renewal. Now these prevail, now those, and it is a risk to try to fix a Hartley 'system'. If there is consistency, it is a consistency in which Jungian and Kierkegaardian concerns seem to meet—both of which visions would insist first of all that salvation and truth are of no system, but of the individual.
And so the individual search for salvation, for meaning, is the core of, the key to, the Hartley cosmos. The search takes place amid the seemingly opaque properties and petty events of contemporary urban and suburban life—except that always an imaginative eye within the story (usually the protagonist's own) gives us a vision of these landscapes and homes and clothes and pleasures as the stuff of dreams and Golden Ages, of gods and demons, heavens and hells. When the dreams fail, as they always do, when absurdity and irrationality are seen to prevail, when all that the individual has been building and planning comes to grief as it invariably does—we know we have watched something suggestive of life, ending, as life does, in death. (p. 156)
Anne Mulkeen, in her Wild Thyme, Winter Lightning: The Symbolic Novels of L. P. Hartley (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1974 by Anne Mulkeen), Wayne State University Press, 1974, 193 p.
[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 echoes, so that this almost seems the real subject: the fictionalisation of experience into art. (p. 45)
[One] way of defining The Go-Between would be as an ironic pastoral romance…. The ironic mode is one where the hero's 'power or intelligence is inferior to ours, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration or absurdity'. Clearly this is the case with the young protagonist, Leo; the narrator—his adult self, Lionel—to some extent distances himself from him, presenting his thoughts and actions with some irony, but not unsympathetically; and the work's obvious artifice has settled over the action…. (pp. 45-6)
Hartley's work depends on its knowing, indirect narrative technique….
James's influence upon Hartley is apparent … in his use of the child as central figure and reflector, and in setting adult guilty knowledge against childish innocence…. Hartley also makes use of the 'cult of the child', the view of the child as having a freshness of perception and strength of response that are lost with the coming of adulthood. (p. 46)
Hartley stresses that the twentieth-century emphasis on impersonal forces—economic or psychological—has weakened the concept of individual responsibility, with which he is concerned here: 'with the weakening of our belief in free-will, the word "fault", like the word "ought" has lost much of its strength and meaning … some defect of character or conduct which would once have unhesitatingly been called "our fault" is now ascribed to causes over which we have no control, or very little'. Within its view of an ordered society, the novel deals with questions of individual morality. (p. 48)
Under the surface of The Go-Between the familiar structures of romance can readily be seen. The novel is filled with explicit allusions to romance material of various kinds to myth, legend and fairy-tale…. All these serve not only to suggest the cast of mind of Leo/Lionel, but also dispose the reader to view the material in the light of romance. That is, not only to see further significance, but also, it seems, to assimilate the material to 'story-time', long ago and far away, the past, where 'they do things differently'…. (p. 49)
Romance provides the basic organisation for the work, but other stylistic features are also very apparent, in a way that tends to subordinate 'realism' to literary pattern. There is a continuous verbal nudging or irony…. [Also] there is an elaborate system of symbols demanding recognition: the summer heat, equated with sexuality and will, so that the carefully recorded daily temperatures trace the progress of Leo and the lovers;… the ambivalence of green, that associates Leo with nature and freshness, and also with naïveté and ineptitude. (p. 53)
The pushing of the story into the past, the child-centred viewpoint, the deliberate obstrusiveness of the literary devices, make it … a shapely and selfconscious fiction, not kinetic but aesthetic in its end. Yet Hartley's object was not merely aesthetic, but also humane….
R. E. Pritchard, "L. P. Hartley's 'The Go-Between'," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press 1980), Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 45-55.