The Travelling Grave

12 Apr

Leslie Poles Hartley has been credited with writing some of the most sophisticated ghost stories in the English language, and was once quoted as saying that this type of story was “if not the highest, certainly the most exacting form of literary art.” Hartley was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England, on 30 December 1895. His father was a solicitor who invested his money in local brickmaking businesses, eventually becoming one of the directors of a prosperous company. Harry Hartley was a busy and respected public figure in his locality: the personification of the self-reliant and god-fearing Victorian businessman. Harry’s wife Bessie was very different, a soft-spoken woman who delighted in poetry. She was also consumed by worry about her health and that of her three children – and was never to let them forget it. Nevertheless, Hartley’s parents complemented each other, and by all accounts enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Hartley’s biographer Adrian Wright quotes Bessie as telling her husband, “I have never seen you come in without pleasure, and I have never seen you go out without regret.” Their only son was never to find such requited fulfilment, except, perhaps, in aspects of his close friendship with David Cecil – but even then Hartley’s feelings were not to be returned in the way that he seemed to have longed for. Once Hartley started to write, his short stories would frequently feature single men who were always somewhat on the edge of things, outsiders who could never quite be at home, who could never quite be themselves, even in the most apparently pleasant settings and comfortable situations.

Harry Hartley’s growing prosperity allowed him to move his family to Peterborough, when he bought Fletton Tower, a large house (or miniature castle – it did boast an impressive entrance tower) set in extensive gardens not far from the centre of the city. Over the years Hartley would always visit his parents in their hulking gothic house, returning to the shielding concern of his mother. After their deaths, Fletton Tower remained in the family, but as Hartley grew older he would try to avoid going there except for short visits. At the age of thirteen Hartley was sent away to school, being later enrolled at the public schools Clifton College and Harrow School (in England, ‘public’ schools are in fact private). At Harrow he played sports and began contributing to the school magazine. He won a university scholarship and proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1915; but it was impossible to escape the Great War, and much against his mother’s wishes, the young man enlisted in the army. Hartley was found fit only for duties on the home front, and was honourably discharged in the autumn of 1918. Nevertheless, the Great War left its mark on him. As his biographer notes, “[Hartley’s] belief in his fellow man was corroded in the aftermath of war. There was a loss of confidence in human nature, the knowledge that another man would do him down if he could.” Already convinced that he should become a writer, Hartley was to embody this sense in much of his fiction, including his macabre short stories. The darker side of what people are capable of doing to each other would always be present in his life and writing.

Hartley’s stories are frequently set in the context of a visit to a country house in England, or a holiday destination abroad – Venice, the setting for so many fine uncanny stories, being a favourite. Hartley visited the city on numerous occasions, renting an apartment for extended periods while exploring the canals and islands with the help of a succession of specially chosen gondoliers. Podolo is a particularly intense evocation of a fateful trip to a small uninhabited island in the lagoon. In Three, or Four, for Dinner the contrasting attitudes that two young Englishmen display towards the Venetian gondoliers, waiters, and other functionaries they encounter become the reason why a possibly important invitation to dinner takes on a terrifying significance. One of the visitors is thoughtful and sympathetic, but it is the thoughtless actions of his boorish friend that set in motion events that cannot be stopped. In Hartley’s stories, the real action has often already begun, offstage, before the opening words can be read; or the consequences of some previous act have already started to work themselves out, and are projected, intruded, into the present of the story through the characters’ own actions and their necessarily incomplete grasp of the greater situation. There are scarcely-stated backstories against which nothing can then be quite as it might seem – with appalling results.

The usually male, single, protagonists experience all the uneasy insecurity of men moving in unfamiliar territory and among people they do not always know well. Hosts and guests often come together due to brief acquaintance among those of a similar class: they are not always natural, genuine friends. Hartley reveals to the reader his own experiences as an insecure insider – in fact he is often an outsider who feels he has been allowed entry under false pretences, and might easily be cast out again. Even so, he is an expert although unconfident guest and host, a seasoned traveller to the destinations his protagonists and narrators also frequent. In his apparently idyllic and relaxed settings unfold black social comedies in which the promise of initially possibly sinister situations is confirmed. Surfaces are brittle and may crack and shatter; misunderstandings may take on lives of their own, developing into unstoppable tragedies. Not for nothing is The Travelling Grave one of Hartley’s most memorable stories, with its slowly unfolding deadpan revelation of a host’s collecting interests, and a particularly fiendish (and certainly ingenious) item that the collection contains. The outcomes of Hartley’s stories are often predictable – or rather, have been well prepared. There may not be many true surprises, but the journey to the denouement and often devastating final lines is an exercise in growing suspense and elegant nightmare – because there is still space for almost anything to happen. Stories such as A Visitor from Down Under (with its mockingly self-explanatory title that tells all and yet leaves so much unsaid, rightly leaving the work to the reader) as well as The Cotillon and A Change of Ownership are in this vein. Their basic themes are simple: the intrusion of the past into the present and the return of that which had disappeared (or been made to); vengeance and a personal reckoning of accounts. These may be modest in conception, but are always urbane and chill in execution, and in Hartley’s hands become concentrated exercises in complex and uncertain psychologies.

Hartley formed several life-long friendships, most notably with literary historian David Cecil (1902-1986) and novelist C.H.B. Kitchin (1895-1967). Kitchin was to be mentor to a later friend – and fellow writer – Francis King (1923-2011). Both Kitchin and King were as honest and open about their homosexuality as it was possible for them to be during their lifetimes, and would attempt to enable Hartley to understand and live with his own ‘queer’ feelings and desires. During his trips to Venice, David Cecil joined him many times, leading many to believe that Hartley was homosexual, although he was not open about his sexuality until toward the end of his life. One of his last novels, The Harness Room (1971), would be his “one honestly homosexual novel” – and one which he originally toyed with leaving for posthumous publication. Suffused by memories of the long, hot, golden summers of his childhood, fifty years afterwards Hartley used his fiction to evoke (if not invoke) a still strongly-remembered Golden Age: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” As his biographer notes, for Hartley the child the new twentieth century had marked the end of a civilisation and the beginning of a “hideous century.” And as far as the adult was concerned, it had largely remained that way. As the century advanced Hartley found himself outliving many of his friends. His creative powers had waned noticeably, but still he wrote. His novels were respected – sometimes barely so – rather than embraced. His sense of being out of place in a world that held different values from him increased. His health deteriorated, and he remained for longer periods in his London flat, isolated and ineffectually cared-for by a succession of ill-chosen and unsuitable servants. L. P. Hartley died on 13 December 1972. Quietly, inexorably, his own travelling grave had caught up with him.

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