Friday, May 08, 2009

The Hireling

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

That memorable opening from the brilliant novel, The Go-Between, was my introduction to L. P. Hartley’s lyrical, exquisite prose. Julie Christie and Alan Bates, who starred in the film adaptation by Harold Pinter, decorated the cover of my old Penguin (found in a musty bookstore and lost somewhere in the house). Years elapsed without my reading more Hartley: book-buying was different in pre-internet days. Happily, Hartley is in print again. NYBR has reprinted the Eustace and Hilda trilogy. And Capuchin Classics has reissued another gorgeous Hartley novel, The Hireling, an elegant, disturbing, complex, psychological masterpiece which examines class barriers, isolation, and sublimated desires.

One of the most striking aspects of The Hireling is the number of scenes which take place in a car, where the relationship develops between Leadbitter, a bitter ex-solider who makes his living as an independent hire-car driver, and Lady Franklin, a fragile young woman recovering from a breakdown after her husband’s death. This tale of a driver and a lady is vaguely, slyly reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though Hartley’s ex-soldier, Leadbitter, is a sexless mercenary, and Lady Franklin is an ingenuous, sexless widow.

Lady Franklin, obsessively, excessively grieving for months because her husband died while she was enjoying herserlf at a party, hires Leadbitter to drive her to various cathedrals (as a homage to her husband, who loved architecture). During their first meeting, she pushes class boundaries by sitting in the front seat, which slightly irritates Leadbitter . And, as often happens in such situations with strangers, she finds herself confiding in Leadbitter rather than a friend, focusing on her depression, guilt, and solitude since her husband’s death.

Leadbitter, who dislikes women, is not overly moved. But when Lady Franklin, attempting to keep the conversation going, asks him about his life, he makes up a story about his imaginary family, a wife, Frances, who resembles Lady Franklin, and three children.

Both become addicted to these conversations.

And eventually things get out of hand, because Leadbitter blurs the image of the imaginary wife with the real Lady Franklin, after she gives him a large sum of money to solve an imaginary problem. And, ironically, as Lady Franklin begins to withdraw, he believes that that Lady Franklin’s interest in him is more than superficial.

The Hireling was made into a movie in 1972, starring Sarah miles and Robert Shaw. I'm looking forward to renting it.

5 comments:

Ellen said...

Hireling is such an ugly term -- like gobetween. (Austen uses it for musicians hired to play in a concert. Yuk.) I admit I've not yet read _The Gobetween_, though I'm familiar with the famous line. Is Lady Franklin a snob?

This also to say that I finished my Sutherland & hope to begin Beauman on Taylor tomorrow night; we tried the Met at the movies yesterday and enjoyed it much (you do have to like opera) and I've succumbed to putting a photo of myself Jim took recently on my website.

E.

Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

Lady Franklin is ambivalent: not a snob until reality breaks in. This novel would make a fascinating study: a kind of Lady Chatterley's Lover where sex breaks rather than cements a relationship between chaste Lady Franklin and misogynist Leadbitter.

Lady Franklin never uses the term "hireling": it is used once in the novel by an obnoxious friend of hers. It shows the ugliness of the class attitudes.

I'm off to look at your photo!

Danielle said...

I have The Go Between and it is one of those books "I really want to read" but never seem to get around to. I will have to check these others out and would love to see one of these Capuchin classics up close as I keep hearing about them!

Mad Housewife said...

Danielle, these are such gorgeous books. I've decided I want a complete set of these, Penguins, Oxford Classics, Viragos... no worry about overlap because I can always give duplicates away...

Chele Gallardo said...

A few months ago I happened to come across the first edition of The Hireling (London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd, 1957), a beautiful hardback old English book, clothbound, the dust jacket a bit worn out. I bought it in a second hand stall in a very small town in the south west of Spain. How did it get there? Nobody will ever know, but it seems that the book has travelled quite a lot: The previous owner left her signature, along with the date and place where she got it: "Ruby Peter, Hotel Excelsior, Montreux, Switzerland, Sept. 1957." I like finding traces of the people who read the books I buy, and I reckon has got an interesting story to tell (and I don’t exactly mean the plot of the book). It is like a message in a bottle. It left Britain as soon as it was published, came to the continent and has remained here for 55 years. I’m glad to know that the book is back in print. I’ll start reading it tonight.