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.