The Boat by L.P. Hartley

The Boat

When Rachel and I discussed trains and boats in novels in an episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ – you can hear the episode here – David had a few suggestions in the comment section, one of which was The Boat (1949) by L.P. Hartley. I was particularly pleased to see him mention it because it was on my shelves. John Murray kindly sent me all their L.P. Hartley reprints a few years ago, and I’ve been fully intending to get to them – better late than never, as The Boat is brilliant.

Timothy Casson makes his living writing articles, usually travel articles, and has spent happy, carefree years touring Italy and the like. But now he has been requested to write about England, to support the war effort, and it is partly this stricture that finds him renting a house in an English village – having chosen a house next to the river largely because of its boathouse. He has a passion for rowing and for boats, and has proudly brought his boat with him. But he discovers that the local gentry aren’t happy at the idea of disturbing the fishing, and the landowner – who also owns the river – has to decide whether or not to allow him his rowing.

Such is through-thread of this novel, which is over 450 pages long. Such, one might say, is the river running through it – at just the right moments, perfectly judged, Hartley returns us to this theme. A letter may be sent to the old lady whose decision it is, or Timothy might make a bold decision against his plan – it crops up just often enough to remind the reader that it is something of an impetus. And it pays off in a bold climax – but the novel is not really about climaxes. It is slow, observant, gradual – brilliantly paced, while not being remotely pacey.

I talked a bit about this in another podcast episode – it really is one of the most brilliantly structured books I’ve read. I had to read it slowly. It took months, and I read many other books at the same time, but that was how it worked – gradually finding my way through the hundreds of pages, letting this life ebb along beside me.

For it is mostly about Casson’s life – about his relationship with his maid and cook (who are hilarious; I loved every scene in which they appeared, particularly when they considered themselves affronted), about his gardener, about a fledgling romance, about confusing conversations with the vicar’s absent-minded wife, about failures to ingratiate himself with the local landowners. Most touchingly, about a pair of young boys who are briefly evacuated to his house. Hartley puts together a village world – but, unlike most rural novelists, we are not introduced to that world as a whole. We feel our way through it, alongside Timothy, learning more and more about it but feeling forever at a slight distance. He is nobody’s equal in this social hierarchy.

Lest this sound worthy but dull, I must emphasise that The Boat is an extremely funny – often, as I said, through Timothy’s baffled methods of living with servants, but also through Hartley’s dry tone. His observation often has the mildest of barbs, and the balance of his sentences makes them joyful. While this isn’t the most amusing part by any means, it’s a section I noted down as enjoyable…

Mr Kimball was a sweet-pea fancier, and knew more about them than Timothy knew of all of the rest of the world’s flora put together. Like most experts, he had an attitude towards his subject which no amateur could hope to enter into; the beauty of the flowers he took for granted; what interested him was their size, shape, colour, the difficulties attendant on rearing them, their habits of growth and above all their prize-winning capacities. But even this last was devoid of excitement for him; the thrill of the prize was subordinated to and almost lost in the various technical points necessary to secure it. The winning of the award was not so much a crowning glory as the logical outcome of having fulfilled all the conditions, and he expatiated at equal length on Mariposa which had taken several first prizes and on Wolverhampton Wonder which, owing to an exaggeration of certain qualities, attractive to the public but fatal to the true harmony and balance of the bloom, was never more than Highly Commended. Timothy listened, bored as one must be with an accumulation of details outside the grasp of one’s mind, but respectful, because he recognised in Mr Kimball’s dispassionate approach to his hobby the signs of an austere idealism which was lacking in his own art. From time to time Mrs Kimball supplied the personal touch that her husband had left out – “Mr Kimball stayed up until three o’clock the night he thought Bradford Belle had caught cold,” and so on, but he clearly deplored these womanly intrusions, and quickly elbowed them out of the conversation.

You see, perhaps, that Hartley does not rush. Mr and Mrs Kimball aren’t important characters, but nothing is hurried in Hartley’s prose – but it is a wonder to read each unhurried moment. And somehow the more eventful moments didn’t feel out of place, but almost earned by the mellow timbre of the rest of the writing. I could have done without the letters he writes and receives from two off-stage characters (who remain off-stage throughout); I suppose are there to help us work out Timothy’s personality, and give him opportunity to reveal himself in ways that he can’t to these neighbouring strangers. See, I even argue myself out of my criticisms.

This is such a leisurely book, and also an extraordinary one. Thank you for prompting me to read it, David, and I hope that – in turn – I might have prompted some others to do so.

Simonetta


No, today’s title doesn’t suggest a foray into the world of female impersonation (for the record, Simone is my preferred equivalent) but rather the beginning of what I will whimsically call Hesperus Week!

Hesperus have been mentioned a few times on here before, but it’s worth doing again. A while ago they sent me four books, and I gobbled up Jerome K. Jerome’s The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow very speedily, loving every word. It’s taken me a while to read the other three, since I decided I’d finish them all before I wrote about them individually. Before I get onto the first of those, I’ll remind you a little bit about Hesperus Press. They specialise in reprinting the neglected works of famous authors, and also translations of modern foreign novels. It is the former in which I am especially interested, with authors including Austen, Woolf, Bronte, Alcott, Pope, Balzac, Dickens, Defoe… etc. etc.

On the train to London I read L. P. Hartley’s Simonetta Perkins. My first experience with LPH was The Go-Between, which I read last year and was a very close contender for my favourite ten books of 2007. Simonetta Perkins was also an absolute delight, told with panache and a wry wit. The novella opens with Lavinia Johnstone perusing a book in Venice, a book which makes bold statements such as “Love is the greatest of the passions; the first and the last”. She cannot agree, having turned down several suitors and felt little more than irritation towards them. It is not long, however, before the romance of Venice persuades her otherwise – but she is attracted in an inconvenient and unsuitable direction. Through this slim volume Hartley explores a hypothetical relationship of unequal power, obsession and self-exploration. Think the scenario of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the hands of an author who is Lawrence’s opposite.

What of Simonetta, you ask? Well, she takes a while to appear in her own novella, but is quite significant and intriguing when she does.

Hartley’s work is subtle, sensitive and, above all, extremely funny. We can laugh at Lavinia because she laughs at herself, and not compromise pathos. For example, Lavinia’s proper, dignified, insensitive and gently xenophobic mother warns her against letting any situation, especially of the male variety, get the upper hand of her: ‘[Lavinia] sighed, realising from past experience how improbable it was that any situation would put itself to the trouble.’

Do go and enjoy Simonetta Perkins – there is a wonderful novella waiting for you.

The Answer Is…

Well, I sort of cheated, because I’ve already talked about this book this week – but not a I’ve-finished-it review yet. The book was…


The Go-Between. It was rather hiding on the shelf too, wasn’t it. This split posting gives me a chance to answer some of the questions you lovely people put earlier! The anonymouses are confusing me rather, as I try and work out which is whom… would help if anonymous people signed their name, though of course they may prefer the intrigue and mystery… your prerogative! So, anonymous numero uno, yes I do shelve my tbr (to be read) books and my read books together… well, since most of my books are in Somerset I’ve brought tbrs, favourites, and books I want to blog about. I know it’s methodical to shelve them separately, but I like the idea of them mingling – the books I’ve encountered jumbled up with ones which are yet foreign countries.

Which leads me nicely to the opening line of The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. As I read somewhere else this week, what makes this sentence so memorable and evocative is the present tense for the past – ‘they do’, not ‘they did’. Clever, LP Hartley.

And from the first line onwards, this novel was a delight. Hartley breaks all sorts of rules – don’t have the main action of your novel take place after a huge preamble; don’t have it all as flashback etc. etc… and he still produces a wonderful novel. The prologue begins with a man finding his old diary, and reminiscing from there, remembering more and more of what happened decades ago. I knew vaguely what the plot was, so I knew that the schooldays bit couldn’t last for very long – from the picture of Julie Christie on the front, if nothing else. And soon enough Leo heads off to Marcus’ for the holidays, in a very upper class house and family to which he feels foreign and inferior. Gradually he finds his role in the web – as the go-between, taking notes between Marian and her two love interests; Hugh (think Mr. Bingley) and Ted (think Mellors without the accent).

Shan’t spoil the ending of the main novel for those who don’t want to know, but will just say that it manages to be a big surprise without sacrificing emotion to sensation. Ditto the epilogue. Throughout Hartley writes so well – that quality which I can’t put my finger on, but can only describe as thick, treacley, substantial… Oh, and there is documenting of a cricket match which Ian McEwan should have read before he wrote the interminable squash match in Saturday.

Carole askes why I love this sort of novel so much – well, the 1900-1950ish domestic novel, I suppose. Ermm… Good question. The period was the first when ordinary lives and ordinary incidents became fodder for novels, and good domestic novels tread the line between whimsy and common sense perfectly, and often very wittily. Ideal.