Many authors are specifically remembered for one beloved book. L P Hartley is recalled with a single phrase: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It has achieved the status of a British proverb.
Lesley Poles Hartley was born near Peterborough in 1895, went to Harrow and Balliol, survived the First World War by remaining in Britain (ill-health) and stayed within the Oxford elite, close to Aldous Huxley, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lord David Cecil, and the Asquiths. By now he was reviewing and editing poetry, but the Bloomsbury Group wanted nothing to do with him.
As with many authors then, his advancement towards full professional fiction came via a collection of macabre short stories. Night Fears appeared in 1924, followed by a Jamesian novella Simonetta Perkins. Seven years later came another volume of fantastical tales, The Killing Bottle. This was once seen as a perfectly respectable way to begin a career. Hartley then wrote what he felt would be his magnum opus, the “Eustace and Hilda trilogy”, starting with The Shrimp and the Anenome. These chronicled the lives of a brother and sister, a theme to which he returned several times – he had two sisters.
However his most interesting novel came in 1949 with The Boat, written at a time when collective demands had overtaken the needs of the individual. A young loner returns from Venice (where Hartley had spent much time) to an English village to pursue his passion for rowing, and has to contend with communal complexities and new friendships. The book is a delicately observed snapshot of English village life, and was hailed as a masterpiece. But it’s The Go-Between, written in 1953, for which he is best remembered, largely because Joseph Losey filmed it in 1970 – and for that memorable opening phrase. The story of a 12-year-old boy misinterpreting adult relationships and causing a tragedy was adapted by Harold Pinter, and its starry cast included Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Margaret Leighton and Edward Fox. The film’s lush period evocation virtually created what Alan Parker later termed “the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking”. Although Hartley had won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1947, he had gained no commercial recognition. Once he was established in the popular mainstream his earlier books were republished, and he went on to be appointed a CBE. He wrote some 30 books (although several contained the same stories), but the best are infrequently read.