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[180] A Perfect Woman – L. P. Hartley

perfectwoman“She believed she knew herself fairly well. She did not suspect herself of Bovarysme. She did not mean to shoot herself or take poison or break out in any way. But latent in her were feelings she had not quite subdued when she accepted Harold and his gospel of conformity…” [12]

“Harold sat quite still. He was dumbfounded. Dimly he realized, in a flashing compendious vision of their relationship, that this was the outcome of it, and that he had no one but himself to blame.” [208]

Chartered accountant Harold Eastwood, conventionally minded, chances to meet Alec Goodrich on the train, who defies the conductor by traveling first-class with a third-class ticket. The tawny-eyed, but slate minor novelist soon finds Harold’s knowledge of income tax allowances useful. When Alec pays a visit to the accountant’s residence, the wife, Isabel, who yearns for culture and literature, quickly takes up the fantasy to be his mistress. However, not she but Irma, the Austrian barmaid at the tavern, has caught Alec’s wayward fancy.

What is about to descend on this staid, upright marriage separates L. P. Hartley from his contemporaries and makes him the mischievous literary juggler. Whereas W. Somerset Maugham would dwell on the insipidness of their marriage, Hartley decides to throw a wench into Harold’s monotonous work and a wolf to Isabel’s lethargic housewifehood. Even though the quality of Harold that had first attracted her has worn well and strengthened over the years, she has lost the sense of humor and sentimentality living with him. He who believes emotions should be reserved for staid social occasions finds his self-pride being taken away by his wife.

When the novelist asks Harold to procure the barmaid for him, Isabel sets out to be the social worker to pull her into the Women Institute, hoping to pair her up to Alec. But before Harold knows what’s hit him, Irma becomes his mistress, and Isabel, so long frustrated, soon finds herself filling Irma’s place in Alec’s bed. Hartley, with good good humor and feline subtlety, draws multiple morals from this description of a staid and stable marriage. With such literary grace and elegance he gives us a story of ordinary people who let themselves go and get entangled in eerily extraordinary situations. The sense of tragedy that follows in the wake of such domestic revolution is one that is funny, and Hartley surely has a knack to tap and bat his characters around before the crunching them at the end when the irony of the title is disclosed. 319 pages. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Recommendation: Leslie Pole Hartley is one of our leading contemporary novelists who is often overlooked. His first major success was The Shrimp and the Anemone. Next came Eustace and Hilda which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. My favorite is The Go-Between, which is available under NYRB Classics. With skill and suavity in his writing, Hartley is known for his twists and weaves in asserting human relationships.

6 Responses

  1. I have enjoyed The Go-Between, love Hartley’s aplomb writing style. I’ll check this one out, although it looks like it’s out of print.

  2. “Bovarysme” This sounds like a very interesting novel on marriage. It does echo Somerset Maugham’s works. Great review!

  3. I’ve always liked L.P. Hartley – especially his ghost stories. His books aren’t that easy to find these days, but I always pick them up when I see them in used books stores or library sales. I’ve never read this one, but I think I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy.

  4. Ken:
    The writing style is pretty much the same as that of The Go-Between, but this book is a bit lighter and fun.

  5. John:
    The writing is first-rate. What attracted me about Hartley at the very beginning was his resemblance in style to Maugham and D.H. Lawrence.

  6. Joyce:
    I picked up all my hartley books at the used bookstores as well. I didn’t know he wrote ghost stories! Now I have to hunt them down! 🙂

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