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EUSTACE AND HILDA (1944-49)

by LP Hartley

Plot: Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister, mucking about at the seaside. Eustace finds a shrimp half-eaten by an anemone and, terminally over-sensitive, finds himself in a quandary: the problem is solved by Hilda who decisively wrenches the shrimp from its predator; as a result, both creatures perish. This incident is the emblematic leitmotif of the novel. Eustace is taken up by a fairy godmother figure, Miss Fothergill, who leaves him pots of money when she dies. He decides to share this with his sister, so that both "shrimp" and "anemone" can survive. The only blot is Eustace's heart condition. He goes to Oxford. Slightly unhinged, Hilda opens a clinic and is betrayed by a posturing, neo-fascist friend of Eustace, has a breakdown and withers in a wheelchair. Eustace comes to the rescue: but in bringing the anemone back to life, the shrimp must die...

Theme: Eustace and Hilda are locked in a stately pavane of mutual destruction that they neither can nor wish to halt. Eustace evolves into a symbol of the refined aesthetic spirit, while Hilda is the tenacious do-gooder, a public-spirited pain in the neck.

Style: Insinuatingly graceful. Hartley shifts the narrative point of view and strands the reader in a state of wary apprehension.

Chief strengths: Apart from George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, no other novel offers such a devastating illumination of sibling rivalry.

Chief weakness: The half-eaten shrimp and the carnivorous anemone, a deeply off-putting symbol of the sexual act.

What they thought of it then: Hartley's chum, Lord David Cecil, speaks of the trilogy's "poignancy", "pathos", and "exquisite refinement for feeling"; he omits to stress the irony and humour.

What we think of it now: Apart from The Go-Between, most of Hartley's work is out of favour. He falls between the social acuity of James and the sexual poetry of Lawrence.

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