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[749] The Hireling – L.P. Hartley

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” He saw life as a campaign in which there was no real cessation of hostilities; opposition whetted his nature and agreement blunted it. ” (Ch.6, p.50)

This lesser-known novel (published 1958) tells a rather quirky story of an improbable relationship between a cab driver and a bereaved young widow. Leadbitter, ex-army man, hides behind his dapper, faultless appearance and rather formal disposition a lonely self-sufficiency and a churlish bitterness. Son of a negligent and extravagant mother who haunted his childhood, he adopts a jarred view of women in general, rejecting all the qualities that are supposed to recommend them.

I felt that here was someone I could rely on absolutely, who responded to the true values of life, whose experience wasn’t spurious and self-induced, like mine. You were real and so was everything about you—your wife, your family, and the way you lived— (Ch.13, p.107)

Leadbitter is hired, at frequent intervals, by a rich Lady Franklin, a young, rather fragile widow who only exists in her grief and lives in the memories of her late husband. She has withdrawn herself from high society and shrouded in guilt. She hires Leadbitter to chauffeur her to cathedrals where she visits in an act of remembrance of her husband. As she takes a personal interest in him, he beguiles her with stories of his non-existent wife and children, thereby weaning her from her self-absorption, yet weaving for himself a dream-life with Lady Franklin at its heart.

Still obsessed by his fantasies, his double life, in his protective vigilance, as Lady Franklin prepares to marry a worthless artist, whom he overhears in his cab, Leadbitter contrives to stop her. The novel from the very beginning doesn’t forebode to end rosily; and the turn of events leads to a dramatic end. Like The Go-Between but even more pronounced in direness, the theme of foreignness, of the position of protagonist as outsider even in his life, lies at the heart of the novel. It’s a classic story of irony redolent of a sense of time out-of-kilter.

240 pp. Capuchin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[105] The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley

hartley.jpgNYRB Classics series.
A beautifully written novel that explores naiveté and knowledge, and the mysteries of the human heart.

“All the time at Brandham I had been another little boy, and the grown-ups had aided and abetted me in this; it was a great deal their fault. They liked to think of a little boy as a little boy, corresponding to their idea of what a little boy should be–as a representative of little boyhood–not a Leo or a Marcus. They even had a special language designed for little boys–at least some of them had, some of the visitors…” (p.285)

Leo Colston, the 13-year-old narrator, arrives at Brandham Hall in the scorching summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. The novel intimately follows events that ominously unveil the next three weeks after the daughter of the house, Marian Maudsley, who has a secret love affair with the farmer Ted Burgess, entrusts him to be bearer of messages between the lovers. What at first seems to be a sense of self-importance, the pride of being trusted for such missives, and the thrill of secrecy and risk, becomes ghastly disappointment that leads to emotional collapse. Not only does the class difference between the lovers forbid the relationship, but also to Leo’s utmost disquiet, is by Mrs. Maudsley’s will Marian is engaged to the Viscount Trimingham.

In a sense the engagement is a personal triumph for the innocent boy as he will no longer be obligated to deliver letters. Totally ignorant as he is of love affairs and little as he knows about their conventions, he feels more than a sense of responsibility his postman job  as he cannot undo the secret. As he has noted that “he carries something dangerous in him,” he fears the surfacing of truth will cost the lives of the lovers and bring disgrace to Brandham Hall. Too innocent and ignorant to pass judgment on the whole affair, the young keeper of secret only fears for the viscount, weeps with Marian, and grieves for the farmer.

As the novel unfolds, the love affair imperceptibly shifts to the backdrop, revealing Hartley’s real intention for the book: Class and social stature only justify the doomed affair between an aristocrat lady and a farmer. But written between the lines of the book, one might perceive that it is not really about class or English society, or a lost world mourned by Hartley (The Go-Between has obvious autobiographical origins as Hartley had studiously avoided intimacy almost all his life), instead it’s about the boy’s own sensuous nature going blindly amiss toward some emotional collapse impelled by his intensity of feeling and innocence.

Aside from the affair which attracts initial attention, aside from Leo’s jealousy of men’s power over Marian, Leo is caught in his own struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and rebellion. That he is being part of the secret intensifies his longing for liberation and transfiguration. The book’s power arises from his keen way of noticing, and his alertness to the prospect of humiliation, on the lookout for mockery.

This novel has become a favorite that it might challenge the seats of Moleskine All-Time Favorite on the left.