L.P. Hartley

hartleyLeslie Poles Hartley (1895-1972) was a novelist and short-story writer known primarily for the Eustace and Hilda novels that began with The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), and for The Go-Between (1953). He did write both fantasy and science fiction as well, however. His ghost stories, which the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction reckons to include some of the finest of the twentieth century, were published in Night Fears and Other Stories (1924), The Killing Bottle (1932) and other collections, and have been brought together as The Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley (2001). His only science fiction novel, Facial Justice (1960), imagines what happens when humanity emerges  from underground after a nuclear disaster. He satirises the alleged desire of socialism to eradicate individuality. 

Hartley was born in Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, the son of a solicitor and director of a brickworks and of the daughter of a farmer. Until the age of thirteen he was educated at home, which was Fletton Tower, now a few minute’s walk from Peterborough shopping centre: “a miniature castle, a folly”, protected from the terraced houses around only by a high wall and trees (Wright 21). He then went to prep school in Thanet, to Clifton College in Bristol, and to Harrow. He won an exhibition to Balliol College Oxford in 1915, and it took him a while before he enlisted in the army.

After being invalided out of the army in 1918 he returned to Balliol, and there began a close friendship with Lord David Cecil (the son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, and grandson of the 3rd Marquess, who had been Prime Minister three times). Aldous Huxley introduced him to the Garsington set, headed by the eccentric Lady Ottoline Morrell, and his former Clifton College friend, the novelist Clifford Kitchin, introduced him to the Asquiths. He particularly hit it off with Lady Cynthia Asquith, the wife of the Prime Minister’s son, perhaps because they shared an interest: he was already publishing ghost stories, and after 1927 she would edit a number of collections of such stories. He met Virginia Woolf at Garsington in 1923, with some of his friends.

Lord David is a pretty boy. Puffin Asquith is an ugly one. […] Sackville West reminded me of a peevish shop girl. They all have the same clipped quick speech and politeness, and total insignificance. Yet we asked Lord David and Puff to write for the Nation, and also a dull fat man called Hartley (quoted Wright 75).

Lord David Cecil (who would eventually become Professor of English Literature at Oxford, to C.S. Lewis’s disgust) was indeed pretty, and according to Wright (ODNB), Hartley “was dismayed when Cecil announced his engagement to Rachel MacCarthy: to Hartley, it was an act of betrayal, from which he may never have recovered.”

An income from his father’s brickworks left Hartley comfortably off. His writing, particularly reviewing, gave him an extra income, which enabled him to keep up with his hobby of living in proximity with people of a social class one or more above his own. As Wright puts it (ODNB): “Much of his life was spent in a seemingly ceaseless grand tour of the houses of the rich and famous.” He took to retiring to Venice for a couple of months each year, and resented it when he was forced to give up that habit for a few years in 1939.

In 1946 he bought a large house next to the Avon at Bathford, and in later life divided his time between Bathford and his flat in Knightsbridge. He continued writing, but his output was not what it could have been, thanks to alcohol and his lack of organisation. In the year before he died he published The Harness Room, with the help of a friend who rescued it from a pile on his desk. It is about the love of a chauffeur and the adolescent son of his employer: “here, the underlying fact of homosexual adoration that had been hinted at in so much of his work found full expression” (Wright, ODNB).

The entry on Hartley in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is by Adrian Wright, who also wrote Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley (London: André Deutsch, 1996).

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