Eustace and Hilda by L P Hartley

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Reviewed by Harriet

Leslie Poles Hartley was forty-nine when he published his first novel, The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944). It was followed by The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947), As they made up a trilogy, all three were subsequently combined in one volume, as is the case with the new edition by W&N Essentials. It remains possible to read them singly, of course, as I did some ten years with The Shrimp and the Anemone. I’d always been curious to find out how the lives of the two young protagonists would turn out, so this edition was very welcome.

The title of The Shrimp and the Anemone refers to the episode that opens the novel. Two children, Eustace, aged nine, and his fourteen-year-old sister Hilda, are playing on the beach near their home. Eustace is staring at an anemone in a rock pool:

Its base was fastened to a boulder, just above the water-line. From the middle of the other end, which was below, something stuck out, quivering. It was a shrimp, Eustace decided, and the anemone was eating it, sucking it in.  A tumult arose in Eustace’s breast. His heart bled for the shrimp, he longed to rescue it; but, on the other hand, could he bear to rob the anemone of its dinner?

A small moment in a young life, you might think, but it already reveals essential features of the boy’s reactions to life. He’s kind-hearted, indecisive, imaginative, wastes time wondering what to do, and finally calls on Hilda to help. Briskly and efficiently she removes the shrimp, but it proves to have been too late: neither creature will survive. This episode is never referred to again, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how well it applies to the children’s present and future relationship. Gentle, sensitive, imaginative, Eustace lives much of his life in a dream world, from which he often has to be dragged unwillingly by his older sister. Their mother having died a few years earlier, Hilda has taken it upon herself to bring Eustace up according to her own strict and puritanical standards. Generally speaking Eustace is willing to comply — his occasional inner rebellion against her educational policies is usually tempered by his own sense of guilt and unworthiness. In fact the only time he does really rebel, going off on a long cross-country run with lively, pretty Nancy Steptoe, ends in disaster as he has a weak heart and becomes seriously ill as a result. In retribution he has to obey Hilda’s demand that he go and have tea with an old lady, Miss Fothergill, of whom he is terrified on account of her appearance and her inability to walk. Once he does overcome his fear, though, he takes great pleasure in his visits to her house, and after her death he gets a legacy which changes his entire future.

The subtleties of this novel in its depiction of these two children are impressive. We see Hilda only through the eyes of Eustace, who adores and fears her, but her motives are clearer to the reader. This is particularly true of her unwillingness to accept the frequent invitations she gets from wealthy, privileged Dick Staveley, who has noticed her beauty and tries to persuade her to go to tea or to go riding with him. Eustace thinks Hilda dislikes Dick and hates horses, but in fact the opposite appears to be true: her refusal seems to combine her puritanism with an instinctive feeling that any relationship with Dick will turn out badly for her. The two following novels will explore this more fully.

In The Sixth Heaven, Eustace is an undergraduate at Oxford, and Hilda is running a clinic for disabled children. Miss Fothergill’s legacy, which Eustace has insisted on sharing with his sister, has enabled them both to have comfortable lives and a good education. But, as had already become apparent in the first novel, Eustace is irresistibly drawn to people richer and more sophisticated than himself, though he often feels out of his depth with them. He is delighted to encounter Dick Staveley, now a successful politician, and even more so when Dick invites him to a weekend party at his home, Anchorstone Hall. There’s just one condition: he must bring Hilda. With great unwillingness she agrees to come, and Eustace is soon deeply immersed in a fantasy in which Dick and Hilda are happily married. He also encounters Dick’s attractive, sophisticated aunt, Lady Nelly Staveley, who invites him to visit her in Venice. It is this protracted visit that forms the subject of the third novel, Eustace and Hilda.

Eustace is overwhelmed by the beauty of Venice, and equally so by Lady Nelly’s kindness, a feeling that is intensified by his certainty that he will soon be related to her by marriage. He lives more and more in a world of dreams and fantasy, eagerly awaiting an announcement of Hilda’s engagement to Dick, and when he starts to receive rather desperate letters from her he assumes she simply needs money, which he sends. But things get less and less comfortable for him in Venice as Lady Nelly gets tired of him, and a chance meeting with Dick finally opens his eyes to what had actually happened between him and Hilda. Following a letter from his aunt, revealing his sister’s serious condition, he returns home hastily and reunites with her, but things do not turn out well for either of them. It seems that, like the shrimp and the anemone, neither can survive without the other.

While the final two parts of the trilogy are less magical than the first – I got rather tired of the effusive descriptions of Venice –  it was good to find out what the future held for Eustace and Hilda. Though undeniably sad, it’s completely believable. Hilda, whose inner life we have only had to guess at, is finally revealed to be a very different person from her brother’s fantasy of her. Her strong-mindedness and passion, which she exerted over her little brother when they were children, has been her downfall when she allows herself to be drawn into the relationship she was so keen to avoid as a child. As for Eustace, his weakness and inability to see reality, evident from the start, do not fit him well for an adult life. The ending, I’m afraid, is quite sad.

L P Hartley is a superb writer and this is a very welcome reprint of three important novels.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

L.P. Harley, Eustace and Hilda (W&N Essentials, 2021). 978-1474616485, 768pp., paperback original.

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