L P Hartley


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

Middle-aged chubby-faced man with moustache, wearing a suit, collared shirt and tie, smoking a pipe.

LP Hartley (Wikimedia Commons)

These are the opening lines of The Go Between by LP Hartley, probably some of best known of any novel. Leslie Poles Hartley was born in Cambridgeshire in 1895, the son of a solicitor who also owned a brickfield.

LP Hartley was a pupil at Clifton College, Bristol, for three months from April 1910 where he enjoyed golf and tennis. One day he was walking with the headmaster, Dr John King, who pointed out an elephant in the middle of the road (presumably going to or from Bristol Zoo) which the unobservant Leslie had not even noticed. After a few months in Bristol, Leslie developed a chesty cough and his parents moved him to Harrow. There may have been some romantic or sexual involvement with another boy but no evidence has survived.

During his short time at Clifton College, Hartley did strike up a friendship with another boy who was also gay. Novelist CHB Kitchin was only two months younger and they had much in common, having a shared love of literature and the knowledge of financial family security. Both were middle class, Hartley’s family being considered “in trade” whereas Kitchin had a family fortune going back several generations. With Kitchin, Hartley enjoyed an enduring lifelong friendship and he found an engaging companion with money, social poise and totally at ease with his sexuality, all of which Hartley coveted.

Hartley went up to Oxford where his studies were interrupted by military service in 1915 but because of a weak heart he never saw active duty. While at Oxford he met up again with Kitchin. He left in 1921 and the same year proposed to Joan Mews, but their engagement was soon broken off and the next year Hartley had a nervous breakdown.

In 1919 Hartley met Lord David Cecil, the biographer, historian and scholar who was to become the love of his life. Cecil was the son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury and grandson of the 3rd Marquess who was three times Prime Minister. Hartley and Cecil spent much time together in the 1920s and enjoyed holidays in Venice. Hartley saw Cecil’s marriage in 1932 as an act of betrayal from which he never completely recovered. But their friendship survived with Hartley being Cecil’s best man, godfather to some of Cecil’s three children, and sharing family holidays and Christmases.

Hartley and Kitchin met Lady Ottoline Morrell and her famous literary circle including writers such as Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. In 1923 Woolf wrote to a friend saying “Lord David is a pretty boy” and how she had met “a dull fat man called Hartley”.

In 1924 Hartley published his first work but it was to be another twenty years before he published his first full length novel The Shrimp and Anemone when he was 49, the first of a trilogy of books inspired by the relationship between him and his sister Enid.

On a visit to Bath in March 1946 Hartley first saw Avondale, a tall handsome 18th century house at Bathford with gardens sloping down to the River Avon. Hartley bought the house and moved there in July 1946, dividing his time between there and his London flat until his death. While at Avondale he attended the local Anglican church, St Swithun’s Bathford, sitting alone in a pew at the back. He was a member of the Parochial Church Council and also vice president of Bathford British Legion.

Despite being a hypochondriac he enjoyed swimming and rowing. Hartley lived with and was dependant on live-in servants his whole life. It was said he did not even know how to turn the radio on. He became close to some of his staff, some of whom took advantage of him.

In 1953 Hartley published his best known work The Go Between, memorably filmed in 1971 starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie. Many believe the central character of the boy, Leo Colston, is based on Hartley himself, an innocent stuck between a middle class upbringing and a high class social circle. His 1957 novel The Hireling (filmed in 1973) is set in and around Bath in the 1920s.

Hartley was never open about his sexuality until the end of his life when he published The Harness Room in 1971 in which the underlying fact of his homosexual adoration that had been hinted at in much of his work found full expression. In the novel a 17 year old boy has a homosexual relationship with his father’s chauffeur but, despite being set in the present day of the 1970s, it is rather dated and unbelievable.

Hartley died at his London flat on December 13, 1972, aged 76.

Jonathan Rowe 2021

Biography: Foreign Country: The Life of LP Hartley by Adrian Wright (1996)