The British writer L. P. Hartley is perhaps best known for his novel The Go-Between (1953), a beautifully written story of a young boy’s loss of innocence set against the backdrop of a blistering English summer. It is a book of many contrasts; perhaps most notably, the divisions between the classes, the barriers and conventions that can stand in the way of relationships between people from markedly different social backgrounds. Hartley explores this theme again in The Hireling as an emotionally repressed chauffeur finds himself developing a somewhat inappropriate relationship with one of his regular customers, the lonely but very wealthy Lady Franklin.
The novel centres on Leadbitter, a hard-bitten ex-Army man who is struggling somewhat to find his way in civilian life – the story is set in the period following the First Word War. Part of Leadbitter’s problem stems from his inherent tendency towards bitterness and self-protection. His life is governed by a certain moral code, one that values loyalty, punctuality and discipline, while keeping any softer emotions or feelings firmly under wraps.
Feelings with Leadbitter were something to keep hidden, something of which, if people knew, they would take advantage, and the deeper the feeling, the more closely he guarded it. (p.179)
Having tired of working in the Fire Service, Leadbitter has now sunk his war gratuity into the down payment on a car, setting himself up as a driver for hire for the well-to-do people of London. On the surface, he is unfailingly polite, reliable and discreet, qualities his customers value in spades. Nevertheless, there are times, especially when he is off duty, when Leadbitter struggles to keep his feelings of hostility under control. To him, life is a battle, a conflict of sorts during which his patience is frequently tested. In short, his deep-rooted cynicism is a defence mechanism against the outside world. Here is a passage from one of Leadbitter’s many musings on the nature of his customers. No one ever seems to recognise that he might have needs of his own or other commitments to attend to, especially not the women. Women have never done Leadbitter any good in his life; for starters, they never seem to know what they really want…
Such a being as the perfect customer did not exist, though some had more faults than others. Unpunctuality was one of the worst, and of this the women were particularly guilty. They would make a point of his being there on time and then keeping him waiting for an hour; they would expect him to pick up their friends and drop them again in distant places; they would challenge his choice of the route; they would want him to wait in streets where waiting was prohibited; they would ask him to turn round and go back; they would want to keep him long after he was due on another job. They did not or would not understand that time, which was as elastic to them as an accordion-pleated skirt, was a strait-jacket to him. (p. 50-51)
Then one day Leadbitter is called to collect a new customer, a young widow by the name of Lady Franklin, who hires him to take her on a pilgrimage to a country cathedral. As it turns out, Lady Franklin is still grieving the loss of her husband – she blames herself for not telling him she loved him and for not being by his side at the time of his death some two years earlier. Part of her reason for hiring the car is to pour out her troubles to a complete stranger – namely Leadbitter – in the hope that by doing so she can get over her loss and find a way back to reality. Moreover, Lady Franklin has been advised to take more of an interest in other people’s stories in the belief that this will aid her recovery. So, to this end, she asks Leadbitter to tell her about his own life, which he does by inventing an imaginary wife and family – in the heat of the moment, he thinks this might secure him a decent tip.
One cathedral trip leads to another, each outing following a familiar pattern, one that begins with Lady Franklin and her ‘obsession’ for unburdening herself and then ends with Leadbitter spinning tall tales of his make-believe home life. In essence, Lady Franklin is living vicariously through Leadbitter and his family, to the extent that she helps him out financially when he fabricates a story about the imminent repossession of his car.
Their conversations usually followed the same pattern: beginning with Lady Franklin and her obsession, they ended with Leadbitter and his fictitious home-life. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies; but Lady Franklin asked a great many questions and Leadbitter told her a great many lies. He had no scruples in doing this because it was his principle to give his customers what they wanted. In practice the customer was often wrong, in theory the customer was always right, and theory dictated Leadbitter’s behaviour. Except when ‘they’ annoyed him beyond bearing he himself did not come into it. (pp. 54-55)
Leadbitter, who for years has had no emotional life to speak of, takes a perverse sort of pleasure in inventing an imaginary one for the benefit of his employer. In some ways, he is living out a personal fantasy, one in which Lady Franklin herself comes to play an increasingly important role.
Instalment by instalment, as if composing it for the wireless, he built up a serial story of himself and his wife and their children, the story of an ideally happy family. Not that the Leadbitters were always happy; they had their ups and downs, of temper, health, and spirits, and they were chronically hard up. But whatever befell them […], it took place in an idyllic atmosphere, an atmosphere of gold and pink, with a never-empty box of chocolates on the table. For the whole fantasy owed its imaginative impulse to his dream – that dream in which someone rather like Lady Franklin was his wife. (pp. 55-56)
Much to his surprise, Leadbitter finds himself getting emotionally attached to Lady Franklin to the point where he makes a pass at her during one of their trips. Moreover, he also comes clean about his fictitious wife and family by declaring that they don’t exist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lady Franklin is rather shocked by her driver’s actions, so she rebuffs him and asks to be let out of the car some ten miles from home. While Lady Franklin is very grateful to Leadbitter for the help he has given her in overcoming her grief – his actions have in fact prompted a kind of reawakening in her – she cannot begin to think of him as a potential lover. For a start, they belong to very different social spheres; and besides, as far as Lady Franklin has been concerned – at least up to this point – Leadbitter was a married man with a family to support. How could she possibly get involved with an adulterer or a liar when she is just getting over her own guilt at the loss of her husband?
At first, Leadbitter’s pride is severely wounded; as far as he sees it, Lady Franklin has led him up the garden path and then rejected him because of his class. But then his feelings towards her start to soften, especially once he discovers that she has fallen for a clot of an artist named Hughie who also happens to call on his services as a driver. Hughie doesn’t love Lady F; rather he is attracted to her money, the glamorous lifestyle such a bounty can support. In a rather fateful turn of events, Leadbitter discovers that Hughie plans to continue seeing his longstanding lover, Constance, after his fothcoming marriage to Lady Franklin. So, Leadbitter is faced with a dilemma: should he destroy Lady Franklin’s new-found happiness by revealing the true nature of Hughie’s intentions, or should he keep quiet and let the erroneous marriage go ahead?
I’ll leave it there with the plot; to reveal any more might spoil the story, although it’s fair to say that what happens next is pretty dramatic.
While I didn’t love this book quite as much as The Go-Between, I really did enjoy it a great deal. The central characterisation is excellent, very convincing and compelling. Hartley takes a lot of care and attention in setting up the nature of Leadbitter’s character in the novel’s opening chapters, an investment which proves very valuable as the narrative develops. Deep down, Leadbitter seems to have Lady Franklin’s best interests at heart, even if he struggles to reconcile and contain his conflicting emotions – at a critical point in the story, he almost blurts out his true feelings for her but is cut off before he can finish his declaration. He knows his place in the British class system but longs to break away from it.
All in all, this is a very good novel with much to commend it. There’s a film version too, summarised here in this typically insightful piece by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. It sounds somewhat different from the book, especially in the closing stages; nevertheless, I’m looking forward to watching it very soon.
The Hireling is published by John Murray; personal copy