L. P. Hartley

Leslie Poles Hartley CBE (30 December 1895 – 13 December 1972) was a British novelist and short story writer. Although his first fiction was published in 1924, his career was slow to take off. His best-known novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy (1944–47) and The Go-Between (1953). The latter was made into a film in 1971, as was his 1957 novel The Hireling in 1973. He was known for writing about social codes, moral responsibility and family relationships. In total, Hartley published 17 novels, six volumes of short stories and a book of criticism.

L. P. Hartley

(left to right) Sir Maurice Bowra, Sylvester Govett Gates and Hartley, by Lady Ottoline Morrell
BornLeslie Poles Hartley
(1895-12-30)30 December 1895
Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England
Died13 December 1972(1972-12-13) (aged 76)
London, England
EducationHarrow School
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
GenreNovel, short story
Notable worksEustace and Hilda,
The Go-Between
Notable awardsJames Tait Black Memorial Prize
Heinemann Award
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature

Early life

Leslie Poles Hartley was born on 30 December 1895 in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire. He was named after Leslie Stephen, the father of the writer Virginia Woolf.[1] His father, Harry Bark Hartley, owned a brickfield[2] and was also a solicitor and justice of the peace.[3] His mother was Mary Elizabeth née Thompson. He had two sisters, Enid and Annie Norah. Hartley was raised in the Methodist faith.[4] While he was young, his family moved to Fletton Tower, near Peterborough.[3] Hartley began his education at home and particularly enjoyed the work of Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote his first story, a fairy tale about a prince and dwarf, when he was 11 years old. In 1908 he attended Northdown Hill Preparatory School in Cliftonville and then briefly Clifton College.[5] It was there he first met Clifford Kitchin.[1] In 1910, Hartley finally settled at Harrow School, where he was a Leaf Scholar and highly regarded by his peers.[6] While there, Hartley converted to Anglicanism but was still greatly influenced by his earlier Methodism.[7]

In 1915, during the First World War, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, to read Modern History. This was a time when most of his contemporaries were volunteering for the armed services instead of pursuing university careers.[1] In 1916, with the arrival of conscription, Hartley joined the army, and in February 1917 he was commissioned as an officer in the Norfolk Regiment;[8] however, he never saw active duty because of a weak heart.[6] He returned to Oxford in 1919, with the intention of becoming a writer. While there, Hartley made a number of literary friends, including Lord David Cecil and Aldous Huxley.[1] He left Oxford in 1921 with second-class honours in Modern History.[6][1]


Editor and reviewer

Oxford Poetry first published Hartley's work in 1920 and 1922. During this time, he edited Oxford Outlook with Gerald Howard and A. B. B. Valentine, publishing work by L. A. G. Strong, Edmund Blunden, John Strachey, and Maurice Bowra. His own essays, short stories, and reviews were also included in its pages. In this early part of his career, Hartley spent most of his time broadening his social life. He was introduced by Huxley to Lady Ottoline Morrell, who welcomed him into her famed literary circle. Kitchin, with whom he had been reunited at Oxford, introduced him to Cynthia Asquith, who became a lifelong friend. He also met the writer and socialite Elizabeth Bibesco, whose support and status catapulted Hartley into aristocratic British circles. Although he enjoyed rapid social success, his career as a writer failed to take off, and he was unhappy.[1]

After his years at Oxford, Hartley worked as a book reviewer. He wrote articles for multiple publications, such as The Spectator, Saturday Review, and The Nation and Athenaeum.[6] His favourite publication to write for was The Sketch. Hartley was praised extensively for his critical, steady, and wise reviews. However, the large number of books he had to read distracted him from his goal to write novels.[1]

Short stories and novels

In 1924, he met Constant Huntington of G. P. Putnam, who published his first volume of short stories, Night Fears, in that year, as well as his novella Simonetta Perkins in 1925.[6] Night Fears was relatively unsuccessful, earning him no money. Simonetta Perkins brought him only £12, though it was written about favourably. The Saturday Review called the young writer "one of the most hopeful talents", and The Calendar of Modern Letters said that Simonetta Perkins was a "distinguished first novel". Modern critics have called it his most dangerous novel, as Hartley explored infatuation and sexuality in a way not considered respectable at the time.[1] In 1932, Hartley published The Killing Bottle, a collection of ghost stories. Cynthia Asquith included some of them in an anthology, which increased his popularity with the public. Critics thought of Hartley as the successor of the Edwardian greats M. R. James and E. F. Benson.[1]

Though he had worked on it for two decades, Hartley did not publish his first full-length novel, The Shrimp and the Anemone, until he was 49 years old.[2] He had started and stopped writing the novel many times and even submitted it to a writing contest under a different name, but it did not win. The main characters, Eustace and Hilda, were inspired by Hartley himself and his sister Enid. He continued the series with the novels The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda. The trilogy explores the ideas of childhood nostalgia and the reality of adulthood. By the time of the third book's publication, Hartley had become a well-known author. Critics reviewed the books favourably, often marvelling at the author's ability to create characters that were lovable despite their high-class status. Walter Allen in the New Statesman called the last novel "one of the few masterpieces in contemporary fiction", and other critics agreed in similar reviews. Some, however, found the plentiful Italian dialogue pretentious. Despite the overwhelmingly good reviews, Hartley most valued the reactions of his friends and fellow writers. Both Edith Sitwell and Clifford Kitchin wrote him touching letters, expressing their awe and love of the novel.[1]

After writing a few more novels with moderate success, Hartley wrote The Go-Between in just five months. Having left his previous publisher after disputes over compensation, he decided to publish this one with Hamish Hamilton. Critics' reviews were enthusiastic, and Knopf immediately wanted to publish the novel in the United States. There, it became extremely popular and even made The New York Times's bestseller list. The novel was translated into Italian, French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Japanese. Hartley gained favour with other writers as well. W. H. Auden read the book and told Hartley that he was his favourite novelist. Many of Hartley's friends drew parallels between him and the main character Leo; just like Hartley, Leo was stuck between his middle-class upbringing and his high-class social circle. Leo also comes to understand near the end of his life that being alone is not something he wants, wishing that he was married instead. (This theme would be repeated in Hartley's later works.) Hartley had intended The Go-Between to be a commentary on the loss of innocence and morality; however, he was shocked when he found that many readers sympathized with the characters he thought should be hated. He was known to be a strict moralist, once describing compassion as doing away with moral worth and a substitute for justice.[1]

Conflicts with Virginia Woolf and Cynthia Asquith

Though Hartley joined the Chelsea literary group, the Bloomsbury group was also prominent in England at the time. Though the Bloomsbury circle was more popular, Hartley had no interest in joining them. He expressed his distaste for Virginia Woolf after her novel The Waves was published, asking the leader of the Bloomsbury group, Raymond Mortimer, "What are the Wild Waves saying?" On another occasion Woolf asked Hartley, "Have you written any more shabby books, Mr. Hartley?", particularly referring to "the one that might have been written by a man with one foot in England and the other in Venice". She advised him to change his formal way of writing.[1]

Cynthia Asquith was a support through much of Hartley's career, publishing some of his earliest writings in her anthologies and welcoming him into her social circles. However, feelings started to change after Hartley did not allow her to publish his novel The Go-Between. Asquith reminded him of this fact often, and Hartley came to believe that the only reason she continued to be friends with him was his increased popularity. At one point, Asquith convinced Hartley's cook to leave him and work for her. On another occasion, she gave him vinegar instead of alcohol.[1]

Major themes and influences

The major influences on Hartley's work were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Emily Brontë. His books often explore themes of social and personal morality—in particular, depicting passion as a route to disaster.[6][7] He wrote about characters on the brink between adolescence and adulthood, contrasting childhood innocence with eventual self-knowledge.[9] Hartley is usually regarded as both a realist and a romantic by critics and historians. He is known for using symbolism to develop characters and comment on the complexities of the class system.[6] He is also praised for introducing fantasy, horror, and mysticism to comment on the mystery of existence.[7] In columns Hartley wrote for The Daily Telegraph, he often expressed a distaste for contemporary culture because of its general vulgarity and rudeness.[10] Beginning in 1952, Hartley travelled in England, Germany, Italy, and Portugal to lecture about his critical ideas.[7]

Awards and legacy

In 1947 Hartley was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Eustace and Hilda, and his 1953 novel The Go-Between was joint winner of the Heinemann Award. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1956 New Year Honours.[11] In 1972, he was named a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.[12] He was the head of the English section of P.E.N. and was also a member of the management council of the Society of Authors. In total, Hartley published 17 novels, 6 volumes of short stories, and a book of criticism. These were mostly done during the last half of his life.[6]

In 1971, the director Joseph Losey made a film based on Hartley's novel The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates.[9] In 1991, the filmmaker Clive Dunn directed a documentary about Hartley for Anglia Television, titled Bare Heaven.[13]

Personal life

While attending Oxford, Hartley proposed to Joan Mews; it is not known if she accepted his proposal or not. In 1922 he suffered a nervous breakdown.[1] Soon afterwards he started spending much of his time in Venice, Italy, and he continued to do so for many years.[9] He travelled there with his aristocratic circle, eventually buying a home next to the church of San Sebastiano. A statue of Saint Sebastian outside the church, with arrows piercing his body, had a great influence on Hartley, as he would soon come to see the saint as "a symbol of mankind". While there, he owned a gondola, had his own personal gondolier, and was known to spend entire days on the canals. He also entertained many guests – including the painter Henry Lamb, the art critic Adrian Stokes, and the novelist Leo Myers – and often set his writing aside to focus on social events.[1]

During the later part of his life, Hartley resided in London at Rutland Gate, enjoying swimming and rowing during his free time.[6] He was known to have many servants, a number of whom became dear companions and appeared in his novels. Hartley became relatively reclusive during these years, no longer attending the social gatherings that had punctuated much of his earlier life.[1] Hartley enjoyed reading a number of his contemporary authors, such as Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Wharton, and Henry Green.[7]

Hartley was known to be a hypochondriac, particularly afraid of tetanus and a painful death. Many believe this fear of sickness came from his mother, who was known to be overly concerned about his health.[1][2] Hartley was very concerned with remaining an individualist within the structures of modern society; this led many to label him as a non-conformist. He referred to himself as a moralist.[7]

During his trips to Venice, David Cecil joined him many times, leading many to believe that Hartley was homosexual. The first novel in which he included homosexual characters was My Fellow Devils – though instead of painting their sexuality in a favorable light, he portrays it as the reason for a friendship's ruin.[1] Hartley was not open about his sexuality until toward the end of his life.[14] He regarded his 1971 novel The Harness Room as his "homosexual novel" and feared the public reaction to it.[1] Hartley died in London on 13 December 1972 at the age of 76, and was buried at Golders Green Crematorium.[6]

List of works

Works by Hartley include the following:[2]

  • Night Fears (1924), short stories
  • Simonetta Perkins (1925)
  • The Killing Bottle (1932), short stories
  • The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), Eustace and Hilda Trilogy I
  • The Sixth Heaven (1946), Eustace and Hilda Trilogy II
  • Eustace and Hilda (1947), Eustace and Hilda Trilogy III
  • The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (1948), short stories
    • "A Visitor from Down Under", "Podolo", "Three, or Four, for Dinner", "The Travelling Grave", "Feet Foremost", "The Cotillion", "A Change of Ownership", "The Thought", "Conrad and the Dragon", "The Island", "Night Fears", "The Killing Bottle"
  • The Boat (1949)
  • My Fellow Devils (1951)
  • The Go-Between (1953)
  • The White Wand and Other Stories (1954), short stories
  • A Perfect Woman (1955)
  • The Hireling (1957)
  • Facial Justice (1960)
  • Two for the River (1961), short stories
  • The Brickfield (1964)
  • The Betrayal (1966)
  • Essays by Divers Hands, Volume XXXIV (1966), editor
  • The Novelist's Responsibility (1967), essays
  • Poor Clare (1968)
  • The Collected Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1968)
  • The Love-Adept: A Variation on a Theme (1969)
  • My Sisters' Keeper (1970)
  • Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971), short stories
  • The Harness Room (1971)
  • The Collections: A Novel (1972)
  • The Will and the Way (1973)
  • The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1973)
  • The Collected Macabre Stories (2001)
    • "From the Introduction to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book", "A Visitor from Down Under", "Podolo", "Three, or Four, for Dinner", "The Travelling Grave", "Feet Foremost", "The Cotillon", "A Change of Ownership", "The Thought", "Conrad and the Dragon", "The Island", "Night Fears", "The Killing Bottle", "A Summons", "W.S.", "The Two Vaynes", "Monkshood Manor", "Two for the River", "Someone in the Lift", "The Face", "The Corner Cupboard", "The Waits", "The Pampas Clump", "The Crossways", "Per Far L'Amore", "Interference", "The Pylon", "Mrs Carteret Receives", "Fall in at the Double", "Paradise Paddock", "Roman Charity", "Pains and Pleasures", "Please Do Not Touch", "Home Sweet Home", "The Shadow on the Wall", "The Sound of Voices", "Mrs G. G.", "The Stain on the Chair"


  1. Wright, Adrian (1996). Foreign Country: The Life of L. P. Hartley. London: Andre Deutsch Limited. pp. 1–268. ISBN 978-0233989761.
  2. Bloomfield, Paul (1970). L. P. Hartley. Writers and Their Work 217. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd. pp. 5–33. ISBN 978-0582012165.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: ignored ISBN errors (link)
  3. The Balliol College Register, 3rd ed., 1900–1950, ed. Sir Ivo Elliott, Oxford University Press, p. 178
  4. Rubens, Robert (July 1996). "Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley". Contemporary Review. 269 (1566): 53 via Opposing Views in Context.
  5. "Clifton College Register" Muirhead, J.A.O. p307: Bristol; J.W Arrowsmith for Old Cliftonian Society; April, 1948
  6. Jones, Edward T. (1978). L.P. Hartley. G.K. Hall & Co.: Twayne Publishers. pp. 13–200. ISBN 978-0805767032.
  7. Bien, Peter (1963). L. P. Hartley. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  8. "No. 29956". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 February 1917. p. 1857.
  9. D'Aquila, Ulysses (February 1997). "Reviews: Gay men's biography". Lamda Book Report. 5 (8): 24–25 via Student Resources in Context.
  10. Davies, Laurence (Spring 1998). "Reviewed Work: Foreign Country: The Life of L. P. Hartley by Adrian Wright". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 30 (1): 179–180. doi:10.2307/4052450. JSTOR 4052450.
  11. "No. 40669". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1955. p. 11.
  12. "Companions of Literature". Royal Society of Literature.
  13. "Clive Dunn/Seventh House Films Production Profile". Clive Dunn Photography. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  14. Robert Aldrich; Garry Wotherspoon (25 October 2005). Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History Vol. 1: From Antiquity to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Routledge. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-134-72215-0.

Further reading

  • S. T. Joshi, "L. P. Hartley: The Refined Ghost", in The Evolution of the Weird Tale (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2004), pp. 64–74
  • A. Mulkeen, Wild Thyme, Winter Lightning: The Symbolic Novels of L. P. Hartley (1974)
  • J. Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978) [Incl. critique of Hartley's ghost stories]
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