“It’s a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance,” a rich, disfigured spinster advises a frail, well-mannered boy in The Shrimp and the Anemone, the first novel in L.P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The boy has won a hand of piquet, and the spinster has noticed that he has difficulty enjoying triumphs. Miss Fothergill (like many of Hartley’s characters, the spinster has an outlandishly characteristic name) foresees that her 10-year-old friend may not have ahead of him many occasions of pleasure to waste.
Rather than disobey Miss Fothergill, I will readily admit that I have felt pleased while reading Eustace and Hilda, and very pleased while reading Hartley’s masterpiece, The Go-Between. It was a spice to my pleasure that even though the Eustace and Hilda trilogy was first published between 1944 and 1947, and The Go-Between in 1953, I had not even heard of L.P. Hartley before the novels were reissued recently as New York Review Books Classics.
I blame my ignorance on an academic education. Hartley is not the sort of author discussed in schools. He is in no way postmodern. He is modern only in his frugality with sentiment and his somewhat sheepish awareness that the ideas of Marx and Freud are abroad in the world, rendering it slightly more tricky than it used to be to write unself-consciously about unathletic middle-class English boys who have been led by their fantasies and spontaneously refined tastes into the country homes of the aristocracy. If Hartley belongs to any academic canon, it would be to the gay novel, whose true history must remain unwritten until the theorists have been driven from the temple and pleasure-loving empiricists loosed upon the literary critical world.
Hartley belongs with Denton Welch and J.R. Ackerley. The three have different strengths: Welch is sensuous, Ackerley is funny and Hartley is a delicate observer of social machinery. But all are sly and precise writers, challenged by a subject inconvenient for novelizing: the emotional life of gay men.
They met the challenge with unassuming resourcefulness, writing what might be called fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen was their pioneer, as the first modern writer to discover that emotions considered freakish and repellent in adults could win sympathy when expressed by animals and children. Andersen also discovered that a plain style was the best disguise for this kind of trickery and that the disgust of even the most intolerant readers could be charmed away by an invitation to learn how queer characters came to be the way they are. Thus in Ackerley, Welch and Hartley one finds gentle transpositions–from human to animal, from adulthood to childhood, from health to illness–disarmingly exact language and just-so stories about strange desires. Once upon a time, a man fell in love with another man’s dog. Once upon a time, a boy on a bicycle was hit by a car and could not find pleasure again except in broken things. Once upon a time, a boy was made to have tea with a crooked-faced, dying woman, and to his surprise he liked her. The effect is a mood of tenderness; the stories are sweet and a bit mournful.