Facial Justice by LP Hartley

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.  So, famously, wrote LP Hartley at the beginning of his most famous novel, The Go Between. But what about the future?

Facial Justice, published in 1960 but written, so Hartley carefully tells us, between January 1953 and September 1959, is the last kind of novel you would expect from this author. Hartley’s novels are typically set in English country houses, and deal with the complicated lives of the English upper middle classes. Here, though, we have what can only be called a dystopian fantasy, taking place in some unspecified time in the future. All we know is that the Third World War has taken place within living memory, and has caused countrywide destruction, making Britain initially uninhabitable. For a long time, people made their homes underground, but then a splinter group emerged and the New State was set up in what is still called Cambridge, though it bears no relation to the town of that name as it is today. Ruled by the benevolent Darling Dictator, the inhabitants are forced to dress in sackcloth, and any divergeance from the norm is strictly forbidden. Politics, class, and family no longer exists, children (if born at all) are brought up by ‘kiddy-kuddlers’, food consists of different coloured tablets. Each inhabitant is allowed five minutes a day for laughter and another five minutes for serious talk. And the uttering of certain words – Equal is one of them – forces the speaker to engage in a ritual dance, which is taught at special dancing classes.

Done well, it was a beautiful and touching pas de deux, but the movements had to be so precise and identical that very few could do it justice.

One of the most serious crimes in this benevolent dictatorship is Envy (Bad E), which is kept at bay by Equality (Good E). But equality doesn’t just mean wearing the same clothes, living in the same houses, doing the same kind of jobs. Anyone who is too beautiful (any woman, that is – men are exempt) is forced to undergo an operation to bring her down to the level of everyone else. So, at the beginning of the novel, two girls are seen heading towards the Equalisation (Faces) Centre. Judith, who is a Gamma (the lowest level) has been persuaded by her boyfriend to upgrade, and Jael, a Failed Alpha (she deliberately scarred her face slightly) has been talked into downgrading by her civil servant brother. Both will end up as Betas, the most common grade, or would, except that Jael has second thoughts and decides to keep her own face.

This is the beginning of Jael’s rebellion. Slowly she comes to want to break the boundaries, to disobey, and to persuade others to do so too. Her first act is to participate in a bus trip to Ely, during which the other passengers are whipped up into such a frenzy by looking up, at Jael’s instigation, into the last remaining tower of the cathedral that a riot ensues and several people die. Jael herself ends up in hospital, where she is visited by a sweet old lady Visitor, and where her doctor falls madly in love with her, or rather with the Beta face he has constructed for her and imposed on her without her knowledge. As the novel progresses she becomes increasingly assertive and increasingly determined to hunt down the Dictator, who nobody has ever seen, since his commands are given out over a loudspeaker in a voice that Jael is fairly sure is not his own.

Published two years before The Clockwork Orange, whose author Anthony Burgess admired it enormously, Facial Justice is obviously a satire on what Hartley saw happening to England in the 1950s. As Burgess wrote, it is a brilliant projection of tendencies already apparent in the post-war British welfare state. Hartley, who despised what he called the W.C. (working class), unless they could look after him in which case they were the S.C. (servant class), and who loved country houses and luxurious living, felt that the still memorable Second World War, and the threat of a Third, was reducing Britain to a grey, dull, classless society dominated by bureaucracy, uniformity and egalitarianism. He was not, of course, alone in this, and the novel was published on the brink of a decade that would rebel against all that with a vengeance, the colourful, individualistic and rebellious 60s.

All this may make the novel sound as if it is dull and didactic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Facial Justice is an absolute delight, perceptive and extremely witty,  with a sharply satirical thrust and a central character whose development from a rather unsure young girl to a strong campaigning journalist is a great pleasure to participate in. Her first attempts at writing, egged on by the besotted Dr Wainewright, really made me laugh:

‘Suppose I make mistakes in grammar?’ ‘I’m not sure there are any rules now,’ said Dr Wainewright, drawing his chair closer to hers. ‘Didn’t you read that correspondence in the Daily Leveller – all about “who” and “whom” and the tyranny of the Objective Case? Lots of people thought that the cases should be standardized – it wasn’t fair for a word to be governed by a verb, or even a preposition. Words can only be free if they’re equal, and how can they be equal if they’re governed by other words?…They want to standardize the language so that no-one should be better at writing than anybody else’.

It’s great that Penguin has reissued this excellent novel in their Modern Classics series, so contemporary readers can get a change to enjoy Hartley’s wonderfully beliveable and utterly bizarre vision of the future. The edition has an excellent introduction by John Sutherland, who concludes with this reflection:

It’s too bad that the author of Facial Justice, in his mid-sixties, was too set in his ways, too old, and too sozzled (he was by this period wholly alcoholic) to enjoy the swinging decade to come.

Indeed. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

L.P. Hartley, Facial Justice (Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2014) 978-0141395067, paperback, 240 pages.

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