BOOK REVIEW / THE USES OF UNHAPPINESS

FOREIGN COUNTRY: The Life of L P Hartley by Adrian Wright, Deutsch pounds 17.99
Click to follow
L P HARTLEY'S The Go-Between stands in the memory of its many devoted readers for life before a fall, the world before comprehensive war, and childhood before loss of innocence. Its other great, currently less admissible, theme, or perhaps one should say condition, since theme is rather too active and martial a term for the preoccupations that seep through L P Hartley's work, is the tug, often though not invariably sexual, between members of separated social classes.

His trilogy of brother-sister tension, The Shrimp and The Anemone, The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda, has a smaller, but also intensely engaged, following. The unsure and precocious find shelter in its tentativeness and closely focused understanding of the flinch away from passion towards good behaviour in its many, often compromised, shades. Hartley may not have a cult following but his readers have a certain cousinhood it is not quite fair to define by resorting to categories, even if there is a camp aspect to an enthusiasm for some of his traits.

Adrian Wright takes a pleasure in recounting Hartley's life that is missing from many perfectly decent biographies, though it is always present in the best autobiographies. It's a kind of untranslated directness about minute experience, a diarist's quick pinning of an instant to a page. Nor is it enough to say that Hartley's life, which contained more servant problem than conspicuous existential assertion, is rich in such moments. All lives are, yet these are the moments apparently killed in action.

Between this book's author and its subject's work there grew an early sympathy whose destination, Wright tells us in his disarming introduction, was this, the first, biography of the novelist. He hazards: "Perhaps one of the reasons why I was so fascinated with him was that in his character I recognised much of my own: the eagerness to please, the deep craving for approval, the sense of isolation, the snobbishness, the feeling that the best has been long before - the list is long and largely discreditable."

No biographer without an intimate understanding of these attributes would have been qualified to write this book, which is, in spite of the odd paunchy usage ("relief was at hand", "astronomically high blood pressure") a more than satisfactory achievement, combining elements of quest and detective novel with a grasp of the uses of unhappiness.

The biographer contends that Hartley, in the words of one of his most loving friends, had "an empty heart". This is not the pragmatic Greeneian splinter, but the tragic emptied chamber, all valves shut in the face of the threat of eventual pain. Yet it is clear that Hartley had great loves, his mother pre-eminent among them. I am less certain about the ascription of the early, unidentified, obscure hurt that froze the novelist to the father he admired and whose industry and liberalism he failed to live up to.

Raised in the fenland that saturates his work, Leslie Poles Hartley was born to parents of comfortable means but little apparent social ambition, which frustrated their son who was a born, accomplished, though never wholly secure, snob. He could not be unconscious of who people were and so could never belong among them. Wright, always scrupulous about the relation between the life and work of this most autobiographical novelist, makes the subtle suggestion that Hartley's "novels are a landscape of that life, not a map".

Asked as a child what he would like to do, Hartley "felt guilty because so often his desires had nothing useful about them; enjoyment for its own sake was not enough". His mother Bessie trained him early that not to worry about someone was not to care for them. She trained and imprisoned him in lifelong habits of anxiety. From Clifton, and later from Harrow, letters flew home often dally, reporting application of corn plasters, wearing of Thermogen wool, bedroom slippers and so on. Yet at his prep school, Hartley had, as Wright says "recklessly", admitted to Bessie that, not having washed for three days, "the sensation of growing dirt is to [sic] delightful to mention".

Among the satisfying details of Foreign Country is its pinpointing of moments that flowered into writing. In August 1909, Hartley wrote to his mother from Bradenham Hall, the home of a prep-school friend:

"I had a comfortable journey and was met by Moxey in a motor car, along with a chauffeur and a dog. I sleep with Moxey (it was arranged so before I came) and also with a dog, which at first reposed on the bed...

"On Saturday we had a ball, very grand indeed, at least not very. We always have late dinner here. There is going to be a cricket match to day, the Hall against the village. I am going to score. Good-bye, dear Mother

Ever your loving little

Leslie"

The relish, squeamishness, social appetite and qualifying unease ("at least not very") are all in place. The cricket match is unforgettable.

Hartley's time at Balliol was interrupted by a period in the army at Catterick Bridge in North Yorkshire. His Aunt Kathleen, author of Mrs Dusty-Fusser: How She Swept into Society and three other novels, was a life-long devotee of her nephew and well saw that his talents were not those best able to serve in war: "Let him not undervalue his gifts, which are God-given, and which he can only bestow by living for his country and by their fullest development."

At Oxford, Hartley befriended Lord David Cecil. Adrian Wright believes this chaste friendship to have been the decisive non-familial love for Hartley, who was devastated when Cecil became engaged to Rachel, the daughter of Desmond MacCarthy. Wright perceptively adduces the integration of Cecil's character as the source of his great appeal for Hartley, who could never apprehend himself as an intellectual or physical whole.

The new social and intellectual world opened by Lord David offered comfort, but also stirred the deep sense of his own unacceptability. "Have you written any more shabby books, Mr Hartley?" asked Virginia Woolf, adding, "If only you could break up your crystal sentences." Hartley began to review for the Sketch, the Observer, Time and Tide and the Illustrated London News. He was a conscientious as well as prolific critic, though later in life he read little, the years of intensive reading having, as Wright says "worn away his enjoyment of books". Nor was he a particularly bookish child, which perhaps accounts for the unmediated conviction of his account of childhood.

Sustained by his income from the family brickworks and by a succession of the servants without whom he could not survive, Hartley moved between Avondale, his riverside home, where he would, with considerable vindictiveness, kill the swans that compromised his watery peace, and Venice, where until very late on he enjoyed the company of difficult grandees (Prince and Princess Clary thought his weight might threaten the flooring and so did not ask him to their daughter's wedding) and increasingly expensive gondoliers. It should be noted that he seems not to have had the pluck for "trade", or for any other physical expression of the longings that shimmer through his life and work. Emotionally supported by Lord David and his wife, his loyal servant Charlie and various challenging women - including Edith Sitwell, who knitted a yellow pullover for him that fitted very well, except perhaps "downwards" - Hartley continued to write long after producing his masterpieces, growing ever more terrified of the working class, fatter and more drunk.

Francis King, on hearing of his "branding theory" - that criminals should have burned on their cheek the initial of their crime: M for murderer, F for forger, V for violence - asked if Hartley was to be branded with Q for queer. Yet the impression left by this life that was so consciously out of sorts with the century through much of which it endured, is of a talent equipped precisely by its frustrations and inadequacies to record much of the period's ambiguity, at any rate for a certain type of personality, not necessarily English, homosexual, or even male, but usually lonely. Although there are gaucheries in Wright's book, it has an empathy that admirably suits its sometimes fitful but persistingly affecting subject, of whose deathbed, attended by an unfamiliar nurse, he writes: "It is somehow apt that at the last Hartley was in the company of a pleasant stranger."

Comments