Alexander Lucie-Smith on L. P. Hartley, the Eustace and Hilda trilogy

Social Climbing Is Risky

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When my old English master died, I was lucky enough to have the first pick of his library. Most of the standard works of English Literature were there, including many beautiful old Oxford University Press editions, all bearing the signs of much use, and annotations in his instantly recognizable handwriting. Because JFM (as we called him) had taught me to love literature – I was young then, and how I wish I had listened more, and learned more! – I feel now, as I turn the pages that he once read, and look up quotations where he once searched, that he is teaching me still.

Like all enthusiastic readers, he had his favourites (Jane Austen, for example) as well as those whom he politely but firmly termed ‘overrated’, such as D. H. Lawrence. Among his books I found, as expected, no Lawrence, though I did come across (and instantly commandeered) the complete works of Graham Greene. He had never mentioned Greene: perhaps, as a strict Catholic, he thought him a touch too heretical for Catholic schoolboys.

I took books that I knew would be useful, and so they have proved. And almost as an afterthought I took three old Faber paperbacks – L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy: The Shrimp and the Anemone, The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda. I was conscious that this was unfashionable literature, but thought the books might tell me more about JFM’s reading tastes. He had never mentioned them; perhaps they were another secret enthusiasm.

Naturally, I knew of L. P. Hartley; many of my contemporaries had had to ‘do’ The Go-Between for O level. I had read this later book – published in 1953 – and seen the film, but we never ‘did’ it in class, and I can now see why. JFM wanted us to think for ourselves. The Go-Between is not dull, but it is formulaic, heavy with symbols, inviting stock responses. JFM did not believe in ‘set answers’ or in rote learning. So I wondered why this trilogy was

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About the contributor

Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest who writes on cultural matters.

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