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Hartley, L. P. (1895-1972)  
 
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L. P. Hartley, whose writing has been compared to that of Henry James, authored both novels and short stories. The latter include psychologically subtle horror fiction. A recurrent theme in his writings is the danger of abandoning oneself to physical love. In his fiction those who do often pay with their lives.

Leslie Poles Hartley was born in the town of Whittlesea in the fen country of Cambridgeshire on December 30, 1895. His family soon moved to an estate near Peterborough, where his father at first practiced law but then became the chairman of a very lucrative brickworks company.

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Hartley enrolled in Harrow School in 1910. Upon his graduation in 1915 he went to Balliol College at Oxford but suspended his education to join the army in 1916. Appointed a second lieutenant, he remained in Britain until he was granted a medical discharge in 1918.

Hartley viewed World War I, with its horrific loss of life, as a watershed moment in history, after which society lost its connection with a better past and began to deteriorate. His longing for a happier time is reflected in the famous opening line of The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

After leaving the military Hartley returned to the university, earning a degree in modern history in 1921.

The same year Hartley proposed marriage to a woman named Joan Mews, but the engagement was soon broken off. Biographer Adrian Wright believes that Hartley's contemplation of marriage was motivated primarily by the desire to conform to the norms of society. He further states that "Hartley almost certainly questioned his ability to achieve a satisfactory heterosexual relationship, or indeed to maintain any sexual relationship whatever its nature, with all the demands it would make on him." In any event, Hartley had some sort of nervous breakdown in early 1922, probably due to the stress of the situation.

The following summer Hartley, at the suggestion of his college friend Clifford Kitchin, who was openly gay, went to Venice. Hartley fell in love with the city and returned to it regularly except during the years of World War II. He was fascinated by the strong and handsome gondolieri, and both they and the city itself would figure in his later writings.

Hartley began his career as a reviewer of modern fiction in 1923, writing first for The Spectator but soon for other publications as well. His work drew widespread praise because of his insightfulness and integrity. Hartley continued writing reviews throughout his life.

Hartley's own first work of fiction, Night Fears and Other Stories, was published in 1924. It introduced themes that would recur in later books: the past is seen as a simpler and nobler time; love is fraught with danger and may indeed be lethal; and the ordinary may suddenly turn into the stuff of horror. Although the collection received some favorable comment, it was not a financial success.

The following year Hartley published the novella Simonetta Perkins. The central character, Lavinia Johnstone--Simonetta Perkins is an invented friend on whose behalf she pretends to seek advice--is a prim and proper wealthy Bostonian who, on a visit to Venice, becomes strongly attracted to a virile gondolier. Although Hartley cast the tale as one of heterosexual desire, commentators see a gay subtext with Hartley himself as Lavinia. Just as she is unable to defy convention and declare her love for a partner seen as unsuitable--in her case because of his economic status--so was Hartley reluctant to risk society's censure for failing to comply with its strictures in matters of the heart. Lavinia invented Simonetta to shield herself from criticism, and Hartley invented Lavinia.

If Lavinia saw the object of her affections as ultimately unobtainable, Hartley for a while cherished greater hopes. One of his closest friends was Lord David Cecil, whom he had met at Oxford and who would become a distinguished critic, biographer, and Professor of English at Oxford. They became boon companions, and Cecil joined him in Venice on a number of occasions. After one such holiday in 1932, however, Cecil wrote to Hartley announcing his engagement.

Although Hartley regarded Cecil's marriage as a betrayal, the two remained lifelong friends. Hartley served as best man at Cecil's wedding and as godfather to his son. He spent holidays with the Cecils and even occasionally shared houses with them. In his later years Hartley confided to a friend that Cecil had been the love of his life, but it seems that the love was unrequited.

After another collection of horror stories, The Killing Bottle (1932), Hartley published no more fiction until 1944, when the first volume of his acclaimed trilogy, The Shrimp and the Anemone, appeared. The subsequent portions, Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda, were published in 1946 and 1947, respectively. The three novels follow the lives of siblings Eustace and Hilda Cherrington, characters loosely based on Hartley and his sister Enid.

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