Hartley, L(eslie) P(oles)

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HARTLEY, L(eslie) P(oles)

Nationality: English. Born: Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire, 30 December 1895. Education: Harrow School, Middlesex (Leaf scholar), 1910-15; Balliol College, Oxford (Williams exhibitioner; editor, Oxford Outlook), 1915-16, 1919-22, B.A. in history 1921. Military Service: Served in the British Army, Norfolk Regiment, 1916-18: 2nd lieutenant. Career: Fiction reviewer, Spectator, Saturday Review, Weekly Sketch, Time and Tide, the Observer, and the Sunday Times, all London, 1923-72. Lived part of each year in Venice, 1933-39; lived in Bath and London, 1946-72. Clark lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1964. Awards: James Tait Black memorial prize, 1948; Heinemann award, 1954. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1956; Companion of Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1972. Member: Committee of Management, Society of Authors. Died: 13 December 1972.



The Collected Short Stories. 1968.

The Complete Short Stories. 1973.

Short Stories

Night Fears and Other Stories. 1924.

The Killing Bottle. 1932.

The Travelling Grave and Other Stories. 1948.

The White Wand and Other Stories. 1954.

Two for the River and Other Stories. 1961.

Mrs. Carteret Receives and Other Stories. 1971.


Simonetta Perkins. 1925.

Eustace and Hilda. 1958.

The Shrimp and the Anemone. 1944; as The West Window, 1945.

The Sixth Heaven. 1946.

Eustace and Hilda. 1947.

The Boat. 1949.

My Fellow Devils. 1951.

The Go-Between. 1953.

A Perfect Woman. 1955.

The Hireling. 1957.

Facial Justice. 1960.

The Brickfield. 1964.

The Betrayal. 1966.

Poor Clare. 1968.

The Love-Adept: A Variation on a Theme. 1969.

My Sisters' Keeper. 1970.

The Harness Room. 1971.

The Collections. 1972.

The Will and the Way. 1973.


The Novelist's Responsibility: Lectures and Essays. 1967.

The Cat (essay). 1986.


Critical Studies:

Hartley by Paul Bloomfield, 1962, revised edition, 1970; Hartley by Peter Bien, 1963; Wild Thyme, Winter Lightning: The Symbolic Novels of Hartley by Anne Mulkeen, 1974; Hartley by Edward T. Jones, 1978; Best Friends by Julian Fane, 1990; Foreign Country: The Life of L. P. Hartley by Adrian A. Wright, 1996.

* * *

Often described as a stylist in the mold of Henry James (a portrayal given some edge by his Jamesian first novel, Simonetta Perkins, in which a young Bostonian falls for a handsome gondolier), L. P. Hartley is more than a simple imitator with a limited literary range. In Night Fears, his first collection of short stories, he provided evidence that he was an assured author with an acute yet delicate eye for the manners, morals, and harmless foibles of middle-class society.

The majority of the stories in the first collection can be described as experimental investigations into the different mental or psychological states of the main characters. The title story of Night Fears, for instance, explores the fears of a night watchman during the course of a single night. As the man confronts his own terrors Hartley contrasts the solidity of the environment around him with the darkness and solitude outside: for the man, one is reality and the other is the invisible world of the mind.

Fears of another kind lie at the hearts of "A Visit to the Dentist," in which an outsider convinces himself that life can only have meaning by facing up to a physical pain. In "A Tonic" a similar theme is explored; a seriously ill man attempts to persuade a distinguished physician, Sir Sigismund Keen, that he does not suffer from a serious heart condition. The story is both a perceptive study of one man's particular neurosis and a comment on every human being's fear of death. Another type of neurosis is examined in "Talent": a man goes through life convincing himself that he is without any literary talent when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

Other stories in the volume, like "St. George and the Dragon," "The Telephone Call," "A Condition of Release," and "The Last Time," betray another Hartleian preoccupation—the realization that life can never be tamed even though people spend most of their time attempting to bring order to their existence. In "A Condition of Release" a foppish young man attempts to be decisive by taking a swim but is discomforted by the theft of his trousers. Hartley provides an ironic vignette of the clash between order and chaos in a comic scene in which the pompous swimmer is forced to change roles with the vagabond to have his clothes returned.

"The Island," the longest story in this first collection, is also the most satisfying. Hartley makes it clear from the beginning that the life lived by Mrs. Santander, the central character, is vainglorious and self-destructive. Although she lives apart from the rest of the world, cocooned in a luxurious house, outside the environment is harsh and unforgiving. The island itself looks like "some crustacean, swallowed by an ill-turned starfish, but unassimilated," while inside her house order reigns. Of course, this is an illusion; Mrs. Santander is a flawed character who is unfaithful to her husband. When she is murdered at the story's end Hartley makes the wind and the rain crash into the idealized world Mrs. Santander has created for herself, thereby underlining the idea that people cannot isolate themselves from real life.

Hartley's understanding of the meeting points between reality and fantasy and his absorption with the symbolism of the "otherness" of life are developed further in the later horror and ghost stories of The Killing Bottle and The Travelling Grave. Here the characters exist in a world as tangible as the one of their own creation, like the country house settings of "Feet Foremost," "A Change of Ownership," or "The Travelling Grave." Italy, too, is a favorite setting and is often recreated in a fantastic way so that the islands near Venice depicted in "Three, Four for Dinner" are as much as exotic paradise as a real place.

Like John Buchan, Hartley is well aware of the narrow line that divides the civilized world from barbarism, and in his best Gothic tales ("A Visitor from Down Under," "Podollo," "The Cotillon") evil is seen as a mysterious force impinging on the lives of ordinary people. Vengeance and revenge after death are also favorite themes: in "Feet Foremost" the ghostly and possessive love of Lady Elinor for Antony is a curse, and he can only be saved by the love of another woman. These macabre and fantastical elements are central to Hartley's vision.

In the later stories of The White Wand and Two for the River Hartley continues his exploration of familiar themes in a deeper and more refined way. "W.S." is typical of the author's literary bravura and tackles the idea of the doppelganger. Walter Streeter, an author, is surprised to receive a series of threatening postcards from "W.S.," one of his least pleasant characters, and he comes to the sorry understanding that his character's worst points are merely an extension of his own failings. Although the conclusion is farcical, the story is an acute examination of the conundrum that good and evil can exist side by side in the human personality.

Other stories with the writer or artist as hero/villain are "Up the Garden Path," "The Two Vaynes," "A Rewarding Experience," and "The White Wand" (all from The White Wand). As in "W.S." Hartley seems to be saying that creative people have the facility to see behind appearances and to understand the moral dilemma thrown up by conflicting mental states. Hartley's early interest in the supernatural and paranormal also informs much of his longer fiction and points the way to the moral concerns of novels like The Go-Between and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy.

—Trevor Royle

See the essay on "The Travelling Grave."

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