Category Archives: Hartley L. P.

The Hireling by L. P. Hartley

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

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley was made for the summer. First published in 1953, it is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. It’s one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

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As the novel opens, Leo Colston (a man in his sixties) finds an old diary from 1900 among a box of mementos from his childhood. The diary triggers a series of memories of a month spent at Brandham Hall – the Norfolk home of an old school friend – memories that Leo has kept buried for over fifty years. The events in question have left a terrible mark on Leo; they shaped his personality and direction in life in the years that followed. In some respects, this reawakening of old memories is an opportunity for Leo to finally deal with the fallout from this time in his childhood, to let go of the emotional burden that has haunted him ever since (albeit subconsciously). As he looks at the pages for July, Leo is powerless to resist the reopening of old wounds; it’s a classic set-up for the story to come.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like the effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with an effort that I can see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I can remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream. (pg. 28)

Winding back to the summer of 1900, Leo is twelve years old. He is on the threshold of adolescence, and his 13th birthday is fast approaching. A sensitive boy at heart, Leo’s stock has recently risen at school. He is an inventive child with a keen sense of imagination, and recent mysterious events have earned him some kudos among his fellow boarders.

When he arrives at Brandham Hall to stay with his friend, Marcus Maudsley, Leo is somewhat daunted by his new environment. The privileged Maudsley family belong to a higher social class than Leo, and their ways of operating are very different from those of Leo and his mother. Moreover, he feels buttoned up in his fusty clothes — a thick jacket, breeches and boots, items which prove totally unsuitable for the scorching July weather. All this leaves Leo somewhat fearful of losing face; in short, he feels utterly out-of-place among the smart, well-to-do people of Brandham Hall.

Marcus’ older sister, Marian, can tell that Leo feels uncomfortable in his heavy clothes, so she offers to buy him something more suitable — the gift is tactfully positioned as an early birthday present. Leo is transformed by his light linen suit and summer shoes; his confidence is restored, and his mood lightened. Even Marcus’ mother approves of the change, the woman who seems to hold the reins of power at Brandham, directing the social agenda each morning after breakfast.

Leo is also befriended by Lord Trimingham, the man the Maudsleys consider as Marian’s rightful future husband. Trimingham is kind to Leo, talking to him and giving him verbal messages to deliver to Marian on his behalf. Leo, for his part, warms to Trimingham. In general, these grown-ups in their late teens and early twenties are a mystery to Leo, but Trimingham with his relaxed and friendly manner strikes a chord with the young boy.

When Marcus is confined to bed for a few days, Leo occupies himself by roaming the countryside surrounding the Hall. One afternoon, he cuts his leg quite badly and is helped by the local farmer, the rough-and-ready Ted Burgess. In return for bandaging the boy’s leg, Ted asks Leo if he will take a secret note to Marian at the Hall. Leo is keen to repay the favour, so he agrees to deliver the farmer’s letter. In effect, Leo becomes a kind of Mercury – the messenger, postman and Go-Between – as he finds himself passing a series of covert messages between Ted and Marian over the days that follow.

For I took my duties as a Mercury very seriously, all the more because of the secrecy enjoined on me, but most of all because I felt I was doing for Marian something that no one else could. She chattered to her grown-up companions to pass the time, she turned a smiling face to Lord Trimingham, sat next to him at meals, and walked with him on the terrace; but when she handed me the notes, young as I was, I detected an urgency in her manner which she did not show to the others – no, not to Lord Trimingham himself. To be of service to her was infinitely sweet to me, nor did I look beyond it. (pg. 94)

Leo looks up to Marian, viewing her as a rather god-like creature, standing as she does at the dawn of the 20th century, a new era full of hope and expectation. Ted, on the other hand, is a source of fascination for the young boy; Leo’s feelings towards Ted are a mix of part admiration and part aversion. Ted’s somewhat rough personality and physical presence cast a kind of spell on Leo; in some respects, he represents everything a ‘real’ man should be. But at the same time, Leo is a little wary of Ted’s apparent power over Marian. Nevertheless, Leo enjoys his role and status as a Mercury – certainly at first – mostly because he feels trusted by Ted and Marian. Moreover in return, Leo gets seduced by their charms.

Needless to say, Leo is getting drawn into a world of secrets, duplicity and desire. When he reads a few lines from one of Marian’s letters, Leo starts to realise what might be happening between the pair, so he tries in vain to disentangle himself from the role. Plus, he is puzzled as to where this leaves Trimingham. Unfortunately for Leo, both Ted and Marian – the latter in particular – apply all kinds of direct and indirect pressure to persuade him to continue to deliver their messages. Poor Leo seems powerless to resist. As you’ve probably gathered by now, everything comes to a head in a dramatic dénouement, the event that shapes the young boy’s life in the years that follow.

The Go-Between is a superb novel, fully deserving of its status as a 20th-century classic. Plot, character development and a strong sense of period/place all come together in perfect harmony. Like Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, Hartley’s story captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world. Leo is exposed, caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. As such, Leo is totally reliant on the guidance of the people who befriend him, most notably Ted and Marian.

It is also a novel of many contrasts: the differences in class between Leo’s family and the Maudsleys; the contrast between the kindly, sophisticated, war-wounded Trimingham and the rough, tempestuous, manly farmer Ted. Marian is expected to marry Trimingham out of a sense of duty and social convention, but it is Ted whom she really loves. Some of these contrasts are captured in a marvellous central scene, a cricket match between the men of the Brandham and the local villagers. As twelfth man for the Hall team, Leo should be rooting for his friend Trimingham; but he is also keen to see Ted do well, especially when he turns out to be a rather nifty batsman.

Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also the struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution, between one attitude to life and another. I knew which side I was on, yet the traitor in my gates felt the issue differently, he backed the individual against the side, even my own side, and wanted to see Ted Burgess pull it off. (pg. 124)

There are other contrasts too, perhaps most significantly Leo’s reliance on the trust he places in other people; it is this (along with his lively imagination) which guides him rather than experience, knowledge or certainty.

Finally, the novel perfectly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the Norfolk countryside at the height of July. There are hints of the danger to come in the rampant belladonna plant that Leo discovers in one of the outhouses near the Hall. I’ll finish with a short passage on the blistering heat, one that struck a chord with me.

Sounds were fewer and seemed to come from far away, as if Nature grudged the effort. In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person. (pg. 70)

The Go-Between is published by Penguin Books. #TBR20 Book 3.