Does anyone read LP Hartley any more? If not, they really really should. I picked up a 1956 edition of this 1955 novel at a vide grenier (aka jumble sale) in a friend's garden on Sunday, where books were three for a euro. I read it fast, and with huge enjoyment, and couldn't wait to tell you about it.
I suppose Hartley is most famous for The Go-Between (1953), which was made into an excellent film, though he published about eighteen other novels and several collections of short stories. I've also read his Eustace and Hilda trilogy and am certain I reviewed it on here but I can't find the post. But I'd never heard of this one, though it really deserves to be better known.
Essentially, this is the story of the marriage of Harold and Isabel Eastwood. Harold is an accountant, conventional and unimaginative, and Isabel is clever and has literary leanings. Despite this discrepency, the marriage jogs along comfortably enough, largely because Isabel
knew what was likely to happen when a woman of slightly superior social standing, decidedly superior brains and greatly superior imaginative capacity married a dullish man and lived in the provinces, and was on her guard against it.
Are we hearing alarm bells? We certainly should be. For, as the novel begins, Harold has met Alexander Goodrich, a well-known novelist, on a train, and somehow found himself agreeing to take on his tax affairs. When Alec comes to visit some weeks later, two things happen -- he is immediately smitten by Irma, a lovely Austrian girl who is working behind the bar in a local pub, and Isabel is immediately smitten by him. Her smitten-ness, though, is initially highly altrusitic. Thus it is that she believes it is her duty to procure Irma for Alec -- Isabel has lived in London, where she was initially teased by her more sophisticated friends for being a prig, so this is something she has worked on diligently. Harold finds the idea initially rather shocking, but Isabel manages to persuade him that it will benefit both parties, providing a better life for Irma and improving Alec's novels, which have been criticised for being too full of unpleasant, bitter women.
So Harold agrees to ask Irma out to dinner, and is amazed when she says she will come. But soon he finds himself involved in a most enjoyable affair with her. Isabel, meanwhile, is drawn into a passionate relationship with Alec, and spends increasing amounts of time with him in London, at theatres and restaurants and of course in luxurious hotel bedrooms. Initially the marriage rather benefits fron this. Harold becomes a great deal more cheerful, even uncharacteristically playful, and Isabel is grateful for this. In addition, each partner is so involved in their own secret affair that they don't have time or energy to notice what the other is up to. But this apparently happy state of things cannot continue forever, and when Isabel gets hold of the manuscript of Alec's latest novel, things take a dramatic and alarming turn...
This summary cannot do justice to the many great things about this novel, which manages to be both serious and witty at the same time -- there were many moments when I laughed aloud at some particularly apt observation, such as the description of a group of young men in the pub whose dark hair "set off the Brylcreem perfectly". There are some wonderful characters, including Alec's long-term mistress Elspeth, a tragic harpy whose intervention brings about the shocking events towards the end. Then of course there are the children, desperately serious Jeremy and frighteningly emotional and talkative Janice, who at the age of six is obsessed with love and marriage. These two are wonderfully well observed, as their own interactions innocently mirror that of their parents. But above all, the novel focuses on the inner lives of Harold and Isabel, and does so in an astonishingly perceptive and ultimately very moving way. You could justifiably say that Hartley sees into the human heart, and forgives its frailties. There are so many examples of this in the novel, but here's one more or less at random. This is Isabel, back from an illicit week in London with Alec, and surprised by Harold, who she feels she hardly recognises, and his gentle, teasing welcome:
She had braced herself to meet the alien atmosphere of home, the sunlessness, the smilelessness, the necessity to feel, think and act from the dry, dusty centre of her being, without the energizing power of love. Love was not here, how could this pleasant stranger be in love with her? And yet there was a simulacrum of it, to which her heart responded.
Well, I can only say that if you get a chance to read this novel, please do so forthwith. You will not be disappointed. You know you'd have seized upon it if it had been published by Persephone, which it easily could have been. And it is, in fact, available on Amazon for not very much money. So what are you waiting for?