I preceded Friday’s performance of The Go-Between in Northampton (reviewed on today’s arts pages) with a visit to Peterborough, home city of its creator L. P. Hartley (who appears thinly disguised in the novel and is played on stage by James Staddon, above).
I, too, was brought up in Peterborough where Hartley was considered one of the city’s two claims to literary fame (the other was John Clare). Though Hartley had long since shaken off the dust of the Soke, his two sisters Enid and Norah were significant figures on the local scene, still at the family home, Fletton Tower. Norah was noted as a breeder of huge Rotherwood deerhounds — grey, long-haired, lovely.
Hartley’s introduction to more fashionable society came through Oxford and visits with his friend (probably more than friend) Lord David Cecil to Garsington. With typical bitchiness Virginia Woolf referred to “a dull fat man called Hartley”.
The suggestion of a gay pash between the men was the cause of annoyance (when it was made in Adrian Wright’s 1996 life of Hartley) to Lord David’s son, the actor Jonathan Cecil. Cecil, who died recently, was a nastier piece of work than was generally realised: he did his best to have the book suppressed and snobbily dismissed its author, in an Evening Standard interview, as “a chorus boy”.
Hartley’s homosexual enthusiasms occasionally spilled over dangerously into his relations with his servants. This was a class he had a lifelong difficulty dealing with, a topic touched on in The Go-Between. One female domestic he dismissed dragged in her child to see him before she left: “There you have him,” she said, pointing. “An Oxford man and a cad!”
I suppose many might consider these categories far from mutually exclusive.