Fat and Fretful

John Bayley

  • Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley by Adrian Wright
    Deutsch, 304 pp, £17.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 233 98976 5

The only time L.P. Hartley met E.M. Forster they did not get on. Too much politeness, and mutual wariness. And what a comedy in contrasting physiques: Forster sharp, quizzical and birdlike; Hartley plump, vacant, moustached and apologetic, half walrus and half melting snowman, pipe in mouth. But underneath they had a great deal in common, and chiefly the mysterious, almost unconscious knowledge of their own powers as natural artists. They knew how to put themselves and what they wanted to say into an artifice that would enhance and dramatise by disguise, to the point where disguise itself became the object of art. Homosexuality may have been at the core of this knowledge, but more important was the instinct to personalise sexuality, so that it referred to themselves alone, a pure individualness in which the disguises of art could rejoice and revel, displaying themselves in their own way and in their own tongue.

Oblomov reproved his friends for comparing him with Other People. It is fatal to this kind of art to be standardised critically in terms of other people and their conventional problems. To assert, as Adrian Wright continually does, that familiar traumas and ‘terrible truths’ lie under it collapses art into convention, and indeed into banality. Shorn of the disguise that is itself, the allurements and the personality of its humours, it can look no more than a formula for a standard type of ‘powerful’ story, the kind that any creative writing course can teach you. Terrible truths are two a penny in fiction: what is needed is the art to deconventionalise them, to transform them into the personal, the really intriguing and engaging case.

Probably the worst thing that has happened to the fiction of our time is that it has lost the naturalness of a once necessary disguise, and has no way of recovering it. The absence of any social censorship and the imperative of ‘absolute honesty’ alike see to that. Wuthering Heights (Hartley’s favourite novel), A Passage to India, The Go-Between not only belong to the foreignness of the novel’s past – they seem to cling to it. Without the disguises that reveal the individual as in art he really is and can be, the novel, or to be more precise certain kinds of novel, would be quite lost.

The impulse and need to create a being in terms of art and the novel carried Forster through five of them, made him a famous writer and then left him stranded. After that he was wisely silent. Not so Hartley. The critical success of The Shrimp and the Anemone and the popular acclaim won by The Go-Between triumphantly overcame a lingering writer’s block that had dogged his native diffidence and indecision. From then on he wrote compulsively. He had found the formula for being himself and now abused it: he became an old buffer, he aired his prejudices, he bewailed the way things were going, he hated modern England.

In the late Forties, by when George Orwell was confiding to friends that he ‘loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future’, Hartley, a most un-Orwellian figure, was routinely and predictably saying the same. Satire was the last thing he could do well. Facial Justice, a laborious take-off of the cliché of ‘social justice’, is a cranky and absurd novel which might have been written by a different author, and yet – paradoxically – it reveals Hartley himself as he was in the flesh: a fat fretful rentier lamenting the state of the country. Though Adrian Wright loves Hartley and his books, and writes about them with style and spirit, he never quite confronts this paradox, nor the yet more misunderstood one of Hartley’s homosexuality, revealed more or less openly in the novels he wrote at the end of his life, like The Harness Room, which came out the year before he died. Unlike his spruce and overtly homosexual friend and fellow rentier C.H.B. Kitchen, some of whose books – Olive E, The Auction Sale and A Short Walk in Williams Park, for example – certainly deserve a reprint, Hartley in his last days went rapidly downhill, in life as in art.

Our vogue for honesty in such matters, an honesty we now take wholly for granted, means that Wright as critic assumes that Hartley would have been all the better – and bigger – a writer had he early and fearlessly disclosed his case, and explored it fully and powerfully in his fiction. But this must be all wrong; and not only for a comparatively modest talent like Hartley’s. Henry James, as artist, was well aware of what was involved. He teased a friend who interrogated him about the significance of The Turn of the Screw by pointing out that an artist is wiser never to define just what he means when he presents an enigmatically fraught situation, in which the ‘truths’ of sexuality cast long shadows. And just what happened inside those Marabar Caves? Perhaps nothing at all; but characters and readers think out its implications in their own ways. Forster, who attempted in early drafts to portray a more explicit rape of Miss Quested, was wise, as artist, to change his approach; and the concealment of his own sexuality in the same fashion lay behind the true requirements and proprieties of the subject. Hartley very nearly spoiled The Go-Between – some would say did spoil it – by tacking on an epilogue in which the effects on Leo of his experience are spelled out. He has been dried up by distrust of ‘love’, reduced to ashes. In fact Hartley saved the day, and most ingeniously, by presenting the gospel of love through the vulgar agency of the aged Marion, Ted Burgess’s erstwhile lover. It is she who ‘speaks out’, not the author; and the adult Leo can only marvel, in his secretly comfortable way, at what he feels to be the extent of her self-deception.

Wright takes for granted that Hartley’s inability to come to terms with his own sexuality ruined his life. But there seems to me no evidence for that at all. Both as artist and as social being Hartley found a way of doing very nicely for himself, thank you. He drew back; he was wry and rueful; with very much his own style of humour he made fun of himself. Both publicly and privately his art was his great consolement and apologia. In its own terms he could yearn and suffer and be wild with regrets; but the signs are that in himself he knew contentment, as well as a modest glow of achievement – modest, at least, until he began to suffer the common penalties of success, drank heavily and became, though always in his own engaging style, something of a prima donna.

Ironically, it was while he was still a young man that Hartley wrote the nouvelle that is in many ways his masterpiece, the one which most perfectly balanced the art of speaking out by not speaking out. Simonetta Perkins is a gem of almost miraculous accomplishment and maturity, despite its obvious debt to James and to Forster. Deplorable that it should so long have been out of print: indeed I don’t think it has been reprinted since the Thirties. It gave Hartley his first taste of a reputation in social and literary circles – the Duchess of Sutherland bought several copies and enquired who the young author was – but its astonishing fluency and finesse, apparently unrepeatable, seem to have silenced him as a novelist for twenty years, though during that long interval he became an assiduous and effective reviewer of other people’s novels. Then the war uncorked him, spilling out the fantasy of recall that became the Eustace and Hilda trilogy.

Simonetta Perkins takes place in Venice, the city that Hartley fell in love with and, during the Thirties, lived in for months at a time. A well brought up young Boston girl, Lavinia Johnstone (Hartley’s names are always a delight), is visiting Venice with her mother, and falls in love with their gondolier. With Hartleian cunning she dissembles this passion, writing to her close friend back home that she has met a lady called Simonetta Perkins who is in the same predicament, and what advice should she be given? The comedy is delicate and poignant too, with an anti-climactic climax of droll simplicity. Minor characters are masterfully etched, in particular a just-married couple whose ghastly uxoriousness demonstrates with marvellous humour Hartley’s deprecation of the bonds of intimacy, except on his own terms.

Hartley was never so funny again until he wrote The Boat just after the war, as much of a masterpiece in its comfortable form of looseness and length as Simonetta Perkins is in precision and economy. At the same time, and though it is all done in Hartley’s most beguiling manner, The Boat contains ominous symptoms of later self-indulgence, a decline into melodrama and quasi-autobiography. The boat itself, a graceful outrigger floating uselessly in a fabulously described Victorian Gothic boathouse, is the author’s most successful sex symbol, and yet it remains very much a boat. The bachelor owner, a pure Hartley figure, is not allowed to use it because of the fishing regulations the stuffy ruling-class locals enforce on the river – a fate that actually befell Hartley when he was living in a house on the Avon at the beginning of the war.

For all its comedy mishaps and absurdities The Boat is extraordinarily successful at conveying a weird sense of good and evil, at work in their own peculiar ways. Hartley here owes a debt to Hawthorne, if one can imagine Hawthorne creating the perspicacities of Hartleian humour in the midst of the English class system and its upstairs-downstairs world. The rector and his angelic wife, their son Edgell and his sinister fiancée Vera Cross, make a tableau in disquiet and secrecy which is proof of the author’s admiration for The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Edgell’s name is clearly derived from the Communist writer Edgell Rickword – fashionable fellow-travelling was one of Hartley’s many bugbears – and the egregious Vera Cross shows the accuracy of his eye for then contemporary social types, and his wide experience of their variety. But nothing is overdone, not even the concluding melodrama; and Hartley moves with his habitual and almost, as it strikes one, sexual freedom, between the servants who appeal to him on that score, and the upper classes who appeal for social reasons – although, as happens with other novelists (Proust the obvious case) who have an equal relish for low-life and for the beau monde, it is not easy to distinguish between the social and the sexual appetite.

In neither Simonetta Perkins nor The Boat is there any direct sex. A relief, because it is a literary disaster whenever Hartley attempts it, however briefly and voyeuristically, as near the end of The Go-Between. Sex described has its own sort of inevitable banality. Even so accomplished and versatile a performer on the sexual theme as Anthony Powell is capable of error in the same direction, as when the writer X. Trapnel (a superlative creation) reveals the secret horror of the diabolical Pamela Flitton’s sexuality. The Pamela enigma, and its funniness both louche and sinister, is at once collapsed into the banal. The same things happen, in their own, different fashion, when the chauffeur Leadbitter kisses Lady Franklin at the end of The Hireling, and even when his sister Hilda kisses Eustace meaningfully on the lips. Physical contact is never convincing in Hartley and seems to destroy inspiration by going across the grain of it. Wright comments on ‘the repugnance of the wrong, the misjudged physical act, the uneasiness with the body’s capability which would always plague Hartley’. The watchword of his art, though no doubt not of his own moral feelings, was Blake’s ‘Never seek to tell thy love/ Love that never told must be.’ Lady Franklin is no more to be taken au pied de la lettre than is Marion in The Go-Between when she says (poignantly as she supposes): ‘I think that love should always be told. I didn’t tell mine.’ The art of not telling love is at the root of Hartley’s comedy and of its pathos. Morality says let love all hang out: Art says No. The final word for Hartley is with Emily Brontë, the couplet that prefaces the Eustace and Hilda trilogy. ‘I’ve known a hundred kinds of love / All made the loved one rue.’

At the same time his best novels fairly vibrate with the emotion. Love-avoidance, like tax-avoidance, in which he also became something of an expert, suffuses the novels with a colour and an atmosphere as erotic in a different way as Lawrence’s stories. The ‘hero’ of A Perfect Woman is in fact a tax adviser who finds himself attempting to win a woman on his client’s behalf, a woman who then falls for the accountant himself. Grotesque as the plot is, the novel contains a number of tender moments, though none so moving as the scene in The Hireling, in which Stephen Leadbitter, an ex-army sergeant, strides manfully up and down the nave of Winchester Cathedral, since its exact measurements interest his customer Lady Franklin, with whom he is falling in love. Proust writes of the springtime of social flowers that infatuate the snob’s imagination; and Hartley is equally discerning, and funny, about the class lyricism of sexual infatuation, and the bewitchment implied by the loved one’s status.

The first love to make him rue was also the last. He was devoted to an adoring and possessive mother; but his adoration, unlike Lawrence’s, took the sensible line of keeping away from her as much as possible, although he wrote to ‘Bessie’ assiduously every day. He saw the humour as much as the pathos in unequal relationships: young as he is, Leo is aware of his adored Marion as a comic as well as an erotically masterful figure. Whether sexual or maternal, love can be more touching as a joke than as a tragedy. Harry Hartley, Leslie’s father, was a remarkable man for whom his son always had the greatest respect and affection. Like the character drawn from him in The Brickfield he was ‘nobody’s fool’; and though a working solicitor and a shrewd businessman he sometimes helped his son to write his reviews when a deadline perturbed the dilatory Leslie. They had intimacy with each other as well as friendship. The same could not be said in the case of his elder sister Enid, the prototype of Hilda, whose protectiveness towards her brother is melodramatised in the novel sequence to the point where she seems almost responsible for his death.

Guilt was a garment easily worn by Hartley, like a good suit. Although at home he always felt that he had ‘done something wrong’, he worried about his pampered position in the family circle as little as would most young men of the time who were privileged with moderate if not great expectations. While his sisters remained at home he was sent to Harrow and Oxford, survived the war in a home posting and was able to cultivate the beau monde on something like its own terms (Eustace’s friends usually ‘had one thing in common: they were rather rich’.) It was the brickfield which Hartley’s father bought into and exploited that made the family fortune; and the son himself remained a director, if an unwilling one, nearly up to the time of his death. Wright is very good at suggesting the lasting effects of his childhood in East Anglia, and the near-fixation Hartley continued to feel for Croyland Church, and for the deep cuts and reedbeds at Whittlesey near Peterborough, where he was born.

Wright thoroughly enjoys the humours of Hartley’s life and is discriminating about most of the novels, although he returns again and again to the ‘terrible truths’ which the novelist never let out, and what a shame he didn’t. That is a presumption which should surely be dropped when we explore not only the past itself as a foreign country but the nature of such novels before the present time. Allied with this misunderstanding goes another more personal one about Hartley’s great, perhaps greatest, friend, Lord David Cecil. In keeping with his views on what fiction ought to be, Wright insists that this warm, heartfelt but altogether jokey relationship was the tragedy of Hartley’s own life, leaving him with a legacy of disconsolements, and a desolating sense of what rewards might have come from speaking out. Certainly not true. Hartley, like Jane Austen’s Mr Woodhouse, was discomposed when close friends got married; but the amitié was not in the least amoureuse on either side and he always remained on the closest and most affectionate terms with both Cecil and his wife Rachel. There was indeed something Austenish in the extended family, or families, which Hartley acquired around him. His relations with the family of one of his own servants were often bizarre and at the end of his life became highly disquieting to his friends.

Virginia Woolf remarked that Jane Austen was the hardest of novelists to catch in the act of greatness, and something like this might be said of Hartley too; but greatness caught in fiction’s act can often have a derivative element to it, and Hartley’s own world is as unique as Austen’s. Perhaps the best tribute was P.H. Newby’s in 1951, which offered the understatement that Hartley was ‘quieter’ than Graham Greene, but that he had no situation or character which had been ‘accepted at secondhand from another book’. Greene, like many other authors of his time, had no characters that weren’t.