A cindery path out of childhood

Foreign Country: The Life of LP Hartley by Adrian Wright Andre Deutsch, pounds 17.99; L P Hartley's life moved from unexplained family trauma to cantankerous old age. Paul Binding looks for clues
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A member of LP Hartley's family, afraid he would enlist, wrote in 1915: "England is going to need just such men as Leslie presently". Born in 1895, he had as a schoolboy quite unusually combined sensitivity with an ability to succeed in conventional domains. Good at both work and games, he became head boy of his public school, Harrow, from which he won an exhibition to Balliol, Oxford. And when, after a year at university, he did enlist, he acquitted himself well in the army, though he saw no active service. He returned to Oxford having been told: "You have done your utmost for king and country."

But when England became aware of Hartley, it was as a writer of novels fixated on the transition from childhood to the adult world, seen as the passage from light into darkness. His work insisted, in the most dramatic terms, that he had suffered an early trauma of such dimensions that participation in normal life was utterly impossible afterwards.

Emotional relationships and sexual relations he viewed and presented as being, of their nature, destructive. By his last years, Hartley's misanthropy was all- pervading. He regarded his country as having been corrupted by too much compassion. He used his literary gifts to articulate the most terrible ideas. The English working class he called the WC, changing this, in case his point had been missed, to "the toilet". He wanted wrongdoers "literally branded, with F for forger, V for violent criminal etc" and many people hanged. Humans weren't the only object of his hatred either. Disturbed by swans while boating on the River Avon, Hartley killed two with barbiturates wrapped in bread pellets. He died in 1972 with years of heavy drinking, "servant problems'' and paranoia behind him.

What brought about this change? What darkened this clever, imaginative, well-off, indeed successful, writer's journey through life? What is the truth behind the various forms that the blighting traumas take in Hartley's best-known novels - The Eustace and Hilda trilogy, The Go-Between and The Brickfield - forms that support as well as conflict with each other?

Adrian Wright, as he tells us, admired Hartley's novels so greatly that their author became a hero to him. Fascinated by the sadness behind the sensibility, he set out first to explore Hartley's life and then to write it, persevering where others had turned back defeated by the dead man's friends and relations. But Wright won over Hartley's surviving sister Norah who asked: "What sort of book do you want to write?" A truthful book about Leslie, Wright said.

In this he has both succeeded and not succeeded. Wright's feeling for the writings is unflagging, as is his careful attention to them. A late- starter in full-length fiction, Hartley was very productive once under way, and in his lifetime received wide acclaim. Three publishers vied for his work because they thought him the most distinguished British novelist of the times.

He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and decidedly annoyed not to get it. Few post-war literary novels have had a happier career than The Go-Between (1953) which the Pinter-scripted, Losey-directed film greatly boosted; it has with no strain survived the 24 years since Hartley's death.

Wright is good on what features his novels share and what makes each one an individual creation. He is particularly shrewd about the lesser- known works, The Boat (1949) for instance, Hartley's ungainly but absorbing novel of the English countryside in the Second World War, or My Fellow Devils (1951), a study of conventional virtue coping with the evil embodied in a film star.

The life as opposed to the work presents formidable problems, the worse for Hartley's continual implications that the latter sprang from cataclysmic happenings in the former. During the filming of The Go-Between, for instance, a remark of his about the "real-life" Leo would suggest the novel was directly autobiographical. And Wright is convinced, surely correctly, that The Brickfield (1964), where the adolescent hero has a more active initiation into sex, is more autobiographical still. But when all has been thought and said, what evidence is there for any traumas?

Wright builds up a convincing picture of a family life of suffocating gentility, decorum and tedium: his father was a Peterborough solicitor, and a rich man through wise investment in a local brick field, while his mother and elder sister were both cripplingly narrow and interfering women. Aren't Hartley's lurid plots essentially dramatisations of wishes nurtured during those years which so squeezed all trace of rebellion and assertion out of him?

I am not even persuaded - for again so little evidence seems available - of Hartley's homosexuality. His obsessional dependence on women friends must have had an erotic element surely. We seem to be, in either respect, in very ''cindery'' territory here, to use one of his alter ego Leo's words.

It is on emotional matters that Wright is least satisfying. His determination somehow to account for so much unhappiness leads to this book's vitiating flaw. Wright believes that Hartley's friendship with his one-time fellow under-graduate, the younger Lord David Cecil, was so intense that he never recovered from Cecil's marriage, and that Cecil was therefore guilty of a betrayal that haunted his days.

In order to flesh this out he attempts to deny David Cecil - a friend of my own for 27 years - and his wife Rachel, herself devoted to Hartley, qualities which I feel his subject would have been the first to commend. There was constant communication between the two men throughout their lives, David Cecil taking the most thoughtful and generous interest in his friend's work.

Wright doesn't suppress this - he gives us all the facts but hedges them about with prejudiced and misleading conjecture. He also fails to do justice to what the two men shared - a Neo-Platonist life-view and literary admirations in which David Cecil was often the leader, such as those for Emily Bronte and the Jacobeans which so influenced Hartley's writings. In fact this biography's very title, deriving from the opening sentence of The Go-Between, can itself be traced to David Cecil, who used the phrase with reference to the past in his inaugural lecture as Goldsmith's Professor in 1949. David and Rachel Cecil were sympathetically and practically concerned with Hartley in his sad last years, as Wright, who himself shows exemplary kindness in his treatment of them, relates. This makes the flaw the more regrettable.

But maybe there is another explanation for Hartley's depressions. Judged by the standards they appear to invoke, for all their formal accomplishment, his novels are ultimately unsatisfactory. The Go-Between amply deserves it success, with its many felicities of eye and ear, such as the schoolboys' slang and the marvellous set-piece of the cricket match and village feast, and its drama can jerk out a few tears. But it is middlebrow stuff; its psychology, morality and governing ideas cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.

For reasons we will probably never know, Hartley preferred retreat to confrontation - a chronic evasion which prevented any of the fictional metaphors for his agonised condition from ever reaching completion.