L. P. Hartley Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles) (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Walter Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Paul Pickrel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Harvey Curtis Webster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)

John Athos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)

Rosalind Wade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Anne Mulkeen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4180 words.)

R. E. Pritchard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 734 words.)