The Prisoners Of Hartling

 

    As he read, Arthur lost the sense of his surroundings. He visualised the narrow sitting-room of the little Peckham house, and heard Somers’s voice telling him that he ought to be doing hospital work or getting varied experience as a general practitioner; that he was becoming soft, going to pieces from a professional point of view. He blushed like a student under the rebuke of the demonstrator.
    Then he looked up and the illusion vanished. He saw that all his circumstances were now changed. All that advice would be sound enough if he were forced to return to such a general practice as Peckham. But if the old man left him, say £10,000, he might have a shot for his Fellowship; try for a registrarship at one of the bigger hospitals; perhaps get on the staff of one and set up in Wimpole Street. With a certain amount of capital, this would be so much easier, and the war had given him a taste for minor surgery. Indeed, it had always appealed to him more than medicine. Meanwhile, it was true that he must not let himself get rusty. He ought to go on reading, order some books from town; or at least have the Lancet sent to him every Friday. He must keep himself up to date while he was waiting. At the outside he could not have to wait more than five years…

 

 

 

While stories of ‘The Lost Generation’ may represent the most public face of the phenomenon, the between-the-wars era naturally gave rise to a significant body of work dealing with the readjustment of returned service people to society—or their inability to do so. The British subset of this literature deals, almost invariably, with life in the country, and the passing into history of the “long summer” of the Edwardians. It tends to fall into one of two categories: either a soldier, filled with longing for home, faces disillusionment in discovering that home has irrevocably changed; or conversely, in the face of his old life he discovers that he has irrevocably changed.

One odd but interesting example of this form of novel is J. D. Beresford’s 1922 psychological drama, The Prisoners Of Hartling, which finds a young medico returned from battlefield service growing increasingly restless and dissatisfied with his life as a panel-doctor in London.

(A ‘panel-doctor’ was a creation of Britain’s first, well-meant but mostly unsatisfactory system of health insurance, established in 1911 under David Lloyd George: those contributing to the scheme were entitled to – limited – healthcare from one of a panel of doctors who attended a particular geographical area. The work could be thankless and the turnover of medicos in poor districts was high. However, a positive consequence of this situation was that quite a considerable number of female doctors, who struggled to secure positions in hospitals and more ‘prestigious’ areas, gained both employment and practical experience working on the panels.)

Arthur Woodroffe went straight into his partnership with his older friend and mentor, Bob Somers, upon being demobilised, and the nature of the work and, in particular, his surroundings are beginning to tell upon him. His feelings remain unfocused and unspoken until he receives an invitation to spend a weekend in the country…

During a dinner, an acquaintance mentions to Arthur that he has been invited down to Hartling, the country estate of the wealthy Garvice Kenyon. This prompts Arthur to reveal that he is a connection of Kenyon’s, one of the old man’s sons being Arthur’s uncle-by-marriage. This conversation is, evidently, repeated during the visit to Hartling: Arthur receives a letter from his Aunt Hannah, written on behalf of the elderly Mr Kenyon, offering him a weekend in the country.

Childhood memories of the beautiful country estate, mental comparisons of the Kenyons’ life of ease and relative wealth with his own narrow financial circumstances, and the unpleasant realities of his working-life trigger a reaction in Arthur; and what starts as a desire to get away for a weekend escalates into a wholesale rejection of his current life and circumstances.

Arthur’s passionate longing for space, and beauty, and cleanliness, after the filth and misery of war, is entirely reasonable. Something of a problem arises, however, with his expression of that longing:

    “But you still avoid the real issue,” Somers persisted; “why this invitation has unsettled you.”
    “I don’t know,” Woodroffe said, settling himself a little deeper in his arm-chair. “I suppose if one analyses it, the thing set me thinking of—of the differences between Kenyon’s position and mine. Here I am with no decent clothes, and no money; sweating myself thin over a dirty job like trying to mitigate the sickness of Peckham, while old Kenyon’s got more money than he knows what to do with.”
    “Incipient socialism, this,” Somers confided to the wall opposite.
    “It isn’t,” Woodroffe said. “I’ve no sympathy with the greasy proletariat; not my line at all. It is that the whole thing has just set me wondering how I’m going to get out of it. It’s no damned good pretending, my dear Bob, that I wouldn’t sooner be lying snug in a clean comfortable bed than delivering women like Nellie Mason. And, oh! Lord, the accent is on the clean all the time.”
    “You don’t mean to imply…” Somers began.
    “My dear chap, of course I don’t,” Woodroffe cut in. “My bed here is clean enough for any one, but for about twelve hours of the day I am mixing with dirtiness of every sort and kind, and I had more than my fill of it in the war—lice by the yard and every sort of filth… I used to tell myself stories of getting clean, fantasy hot baths in exquisite surroundings, and picture myself going straight from them into brand new clothes and that sort of thing. Instead of which I’ve dropped straight into this…”

So much for the long-suffering people of Peckham—whose inescapable living conditions evidently resemble those of a battlefield. Yet having delivered himself of this comprehensive dismissal, Arthur is nevertheless startled and somewhat offended when Bob Somers responds to this not merely by releasing him from their partnership, but by telling him frankly that he wouldn’t keep him if he wanted to stay: that in his present state of mind, he’s not fit for the work.

The upshot is that Arthur departs for Hartling without any idea of where he is to go or what he is to do when the weekend is over—his vague future plan of emigrating to Canada notwithstanding. During his journey, he realises that the conversation with Somers, which was unplanned, brought into focus both his dissatisfactions and his desires; in particular, his resentful sense that the world owes him, if not a living, then at least a good time, in exchange for the years given up to the war. That good time will start with a weekend of luxury in the country; and should the weekend turn into something more, all the better…

He was beginning life again. Everything was coming right. He had visions of some delightful, improbable enlargement of his condition. Old Kenyon might take a fancy to him. Some one in the house, some special favourite of the old man’s, might be taken seriously ill, and Arthur Woodroffe, the brilliant young general practitioner from Peckham, would work a miracle at the eleventh hour. Old Mr Kenyon’s gratitude would take a practical form, and the thing was done. There were other variants of the dream, but this seemed to be the most promising.

Arthur’s fantasies take on a more concrete form when, during their drive from the station to Hartling, Mr Kenyon’s chauffeur reveals to him that the old man has a curious health complaint. Otherwise a surprisingly vigorous ninety-one years, Mr Kenyon is periodically afflicted by strange, almost catatonic seizures that the doctors have so far been unable to diagnose or treat.

Upon arrival at Hartling, Arthur is somewhat taken aback when he discovers that the people he assumes at first to be a houseful of guests are actually all residents of the estate: he meets his aunt, Mrs Hannah Kenyon, who he has not seen for many years; and he is introduced to Joseph, his uncle-by-marriage, and his cousins, Hubert and Elizabeth; to sixty-year-old Miss Esther Kenyon, the eldest daughter of the house; and to Charles Turner, who is married to Catherine, another daughter. He also hears of Eleanor, Mr Kenyon’s granddaughter, an orphan who works as his secretary.

Arthur immediately notices an attitude of only partly veiled suspicion amongst his relatives, and thinks he understands it when he has a talk with his rather hangdog young cousin, Hubert, who finally asks him tentatively if he is expecting to get something out of Mr Kenyon? – a recommendation for a job, for instance. Arthur puts Hubert in his place easily enough, summing him up in his own mind as a “feeble sort of rotter”, and concludes that the rest are jealous of their own privileges.

Meeting Eleanor, Arthur is immediately attracted to her. However, she too begins to quiz him about his presence at Hartling and his intentions for the future; while her attitude to his work is the last thing he wants to hear:

    “You’re a full-fledged doctor, aren’t you? Aunt Hannah said you wrote from Peckham. Were you practising there?”
    As they made their way to the terrace she had indicated, Arthur told her something of his work in Peckham and of his reasons for wishing to leave it. He expected sympathy from her, but he found none.
    “I dare say it was dirty,” was her comment—his insistence on that aspect had demanded a reply—“but it was work, real work. You were doing some good in the world.”

Arthur continues his attempt to win understanding, if not sympathy, from her, but in the end grows resentful of her lack of response, and what appears to him an interrogation of his intentions unwarranted by their degree of acquaintance:

He knew that he was not saying the things she wanted him to say. He could feel her longing to hear him disparage the delights of Hartling and enlarge upon those of what she had called “real work.” But her very urgency made it impossible for him to respond in his present mood. Also, he was aware of a curious desire to contradict her, even to hurt her. It was, as he put it to himself, all very well for her to talk about things she knew nothing about. He looked at her with a new criticism, and her youth and freshness seemed almost an offence. The whiteness of her hands, the spotlessness of her pale grey linen dress, the clearness of her complexion and of her blue eyes, even the lines of her firm, well-nourished young figure were all effects of the protected life she had led. It was not for her to find fault with him for wanting some share of the luxury that to the Kenyons had become commonplace.

When a message arrives from the as-yet unseen Mr Kenyon, asking Arthur to extend his stay from the weekend to “a few more days”, he accepts with alacrity; his defiance turning into giddy glee when he sees…his bathroom:

    He had a bathroom all to himself—a perfect bathroom with white walls above a tiled dado of pale green that curved round smoothly at its base to form a tiled floor of the same colour. The bath and lavatory basin were of white porcelain with nickel-silver taps, and the ample bossy towel rails, heated by hot water, were also of nickel silver…
    With a sudden whoop of joy he came back into the room and began to strip himself. He would have a bath at once, and another when he came to bed. Lovely hot water, nice soap, and splendid hot towels. Ripping house! Would he stay as long as he could? Wouldn’t he rather! He would stay altogether if he had the chance…

(It is perhaps worth pointing out that many English country houses, rich as well as poor, retained the most primitive of plumbing arrangements until after WWII, never mind WWI: running hot water and an – implied – flush toilet represent a height of luxury that few aspired to at the time. These details come of the back of the revelation that Hartling has electricity, another rare luxury in the country, generated by its own powerhouse.)

At dinner, Arthur finally meets his host, and is impressed with the power of his personality, which makes itself felt in spite of Mr Kenyon’s great age. However, during the meal he notices a strange, strained atmosphere: conversations seem to die for no reason he can elucidate. An unnerving distraction then occurs in the form of one of Mr Kenyon’s fits: he simply freezes, as if having fallen sound asleep with his eyes open. The others present, apparently accustomed, fall silent and wait for the fit to pass, as it duly does. Arthur notes that Mr Kenyon seems unaware of his withdrawal.

Arthur sees little of either Mr Kenyon or Eleanor over the next few days. During this time the others seem to pull back from him, their interaction settling into a sort of “boarding-house acquaintance”, as Arthur puts it to himself, a superficial passing of the time. This chiefly takes the form of games, at which several of his relatives excel: Elizabeth at croquet, Charles Turner at billiards and, most to Arthur’s surprise, Hubert at golf, at which he displays professional-level ability. The more he sees of his relatives, the more contemptuous of them he grows, interpreting their wary attitude towards himself as resentment of anyone sharing Mr Kenyon’s bounty. Their very passivity annoys him, with only the autocratic Miss Kenyon displaying any backbone—though that tends to take the form of a scornful and dictatorial manner. Arthur eventually becomes aware of the erection of a silent barrier between himself and the rest—as if the others all share a secret from which he is excluded.

It briefly crosses Arthur’s mind that the family secret which the rest seem to share, and are determined to exclude him from, might have regard to Mr Kenyon’s sanity; he even mentally casts Eleanor in the role of ‘keeper’. However, this suspicion is banished when Mr Kenyon surprises him one evening by visiting him in his room and settling in for a long talk. Arthur soon discovers a shrewd intellect behind the physical infirmities of age. Mr Kenyon questions him closely about his wartime experiences, his medical training and his intentions for the future. He then offers him a job: to stay on at Hartling as his medical attendant; although, as he admits, the main task would be to monitor his health so as to give him sufficient warning of his likely demise, so that he will have an opportunity to put his affairs in order, and write a proper and binding will—his current one consisting of, as he puts it, “a mass of codicils”.

Despite his enjoyment of Hartling, Arthur is repelled by the mental image of his future conjured up by this offer—passing the days as the others do, making a profession out of games, and waiting for an old man to die. Mr Kenyon sees his reluctance, and assures him quietly that he is sure within himself that Arthur’s attendance would be a matter of six months to a year at the outside; and of course Arthur would be properly recompensed for his services: there would be a legacy in that will.

They are interrupted by the dinner-gong before Arthur can respond, and he is given time to reflect. He is annoyed later to discover that everyone else seems aware of his situation, and even more annoyed by the general assumption that he will accept the offer. Once again he is conscious of a sort of unspoken conversation going on about him, an exchange of significant looks and cryptic remarks. He concludes, in his anger, that these battening relatives resent the possibility of having to share their presumed legacy with an outsider. Even Eleanor, whom he consults expecting honest advice, seems to have an ulterior motive behind what he views as her over-urgent insistence that he not only refuse the offer, but leave Hartling at once. They part coldly, with Arthur left nursing feelings of mingled disgust and hurt pride:

    It had come to him that he had an honourable purpose to serve by remaining: he might be a true help and support to the aged head of the house. Old Kenyon was so pitiably isolated from his family. He must always be aware that he was marked down, that the circle of harpies was forever closing more tightly about him, that the only interest his descendants took in him was in the search for symptoms of his approaching death. He would surely welcome some one coming from the outside, who would have no selfish object in view, who would give him real sympathy and understanding.
    Arthur felt a glow of self-satisfaction at the thought. He would make it quite clear, of course, in the coming interview, that no question of any legacy must complicate the arrangement. That should be absolutely definite; and yet—it was just a whimsical fancy, and he shrugged his shoulders—what fun it would be to cut out the rest of the family, to be made one of the principal heirs and disappoint those ghastly birds of prey! The disappointment would be only momentary. He would take the fortune solely to hand it back to them, but in doing that what an admirable lesson he might read them; what contempt he might show for the pitiful gaud of wealth. (He might possibly retain just enough to give him a small—a very small independent income?)

He stays, of course; though as it turns out his intention to demand – or at least request – a regular salary rather than a legacy comes to nothing. This causes him increasing worry, as his own resources are dwindling—his weekend at Hartling having stretched to five weeks…

The first break in the unvarying daily routine at Hartling is the arrival of Kenyon Turner, the only son of Charles and Catherine, which sends ripples of unwonted anxiety through the relatives. It emerges that Ken is in severe financial difficulties and, both in search of help and to avoid his creditors, has returned to his family. Arthur is present during a curious conversation between Ken and Hubert:

    Turner almost whimpered. “He’s got to put me right,” he protested, “absolutely got to.”
    Hubert rocked silently from foot to foot. “He hasn’t,” he said quietly, “and you can’t make him. You know that well enough. What did Eleanor say?”
    “She promised to do all she could,” Turner replied unhopefully, and added: “I’d sooner emigrate than come to live down here.”
    “Got the money for your passage?” Hubert inquired.
    “I suppose I could get that somehow,” Turner said. “Trouble’d be to dodge my creditors. Besides, some of the money must be paid—fellows in the office and so on. I couldn’t let them down.”
    “You’ll be living here before you’re a week older,” Hubert decided. “Safe as houses.”

Left alone with Hubert, Arthur becomes the recipient of confidences. He learns that Hubert is engaged, or would be, if either he or his intended had any money, or saw any opportunity for earning some. This coming out into the open in the wake of the revelation of Ken’s difficulties engenders a mood of suppressed panic amongst the Kenyons, which exasperates Arthur. He sees a revolting selfishness in their reluctance to rock the boat by supporting Hubert. Rashly, he promises to speak a word for Hubert to the old man—preening himself upon being above the petty financial considerations which he assumes are holding the others silent.

However, there is a delay before he can. As he stares at the rain falling in torrents outside, Arthur feels his moment of self-confidence giving way to doubt; all sorts of doubt:

    It was not a day, he reflected, remembering many such days, to spend going from house to house through fountains of London mud; nor in receiving poor patients at the surgery. How their wet clothes reeked! They brought all the worst of the weather in with them, the mud and the wet invaded the consulting room; one was never dry or clean on such days as this.
    Instinctively he rubbed his hands together, and then looked down at them. They were better kept than when he first came to Hartling; it had been impossible to keep his hands like that in Peckham. He liked the brown of their tan, deeper on the back than at the finger tips, and his nails were rather good. It was worth while now to spend a little time on them.
    Were the Kenyons to be pitied? They were not free, of course, but no one was free. They were certainly more free here than he would be if he went back to Peckham… If the old man turned him out for interfering in a matter in which he was not concerned, he would have to go back to Somers for a night or two. If he were not very careful with the little money still left to him, he would have to give up the idea of Canada altogether. Living in a place like this for five weeks changed one’s scale of values. He did not look forward to “roughing it” so much as he had before he came away from Peckham.
    Was he pledged in any way to plead Hubert’s cause with his grandfather?…

And indeed, it is very likely that Arthur’s “word” would never have been spoken, had he not encountered Eleanor on his way in to see Mr Kenyon. Even though he considers their fears exaggerated and probably unjust, the sincerity with which the others try to dissuade him from speaking, their conviction that he will be turned out if he opposes the old man’s will, all have their effect. He is putting it to himself in terms of doing more harm than good when he encounters Eleanor: clearly, she wants him to speak; and even more clearly, she thinks he won’t:

    “You admit that I shan’t do any good to Hubert,” he said. “Why are you so anxious that I should get myself into trouble by interfering—unless it is that you want to be rid of me? Because if that’s all, I can go any time of my own free will.”
    “I don’t want you to go,” she said coldly.
    “Then why are you so keen on—on my taking the chance of offending Mr Kenyon?” he insisted.
    She faced him with a cool, ready stare. “You can’t seriously believe,” she said, “that I should be so mean and small as to persuade you into this for any purely selfish purpose of my own? Why, none of them would be as paltry as that.”
    He blushed, but he would not drop his eyes from hers. “I’m to respect your motives, of course,” he said defiantly; “But you’re at liberty to impute any sort of cowardice to me?”
    “Isn’t it cowardice then?” she asked, returning his stare without flinching. “Haven’t you changed your mind because you’re afraid of having to leave here?”

In the face of that, Arthur’s wounded amour propre propels him into Mr Kenyon’s presence. Once the leap is taken, to his astonishment and relief, the old man takes his intervention in good part. Arthur learns that the old man’s objections to the engagement are, in his own view, entirely reasonable: Miss Martin has no money, no more than Hubert himself; and as the daughter of the agent of a neighbouring estate, she isn’t quite quite: a position with which the snobbish Arthur sympathises. So calmly reasonable is Mr Kenyon that Arthur, not for the first time, finds his entire way of thinking swayed by a conversation with him; while the apprehensions of the rest of the family come to seem foolish, even hysterical.

Mr Kenyon, meanwhile, is very far from wanting to turn Arthur out for his boldness:

    “I have taken a peculiar fancy to you, Arthur,” he continued after a brief pause, “and I need not be ashamed to tell you why; it is because I admire the independence of your spirit. I liked the way you spoke to me just now; your disregard of what might have been against your own interests; your championship of Hubert. I could wish—I have often wished—that there was more of the same spirit in my own family.”
    Arthur flushed with pleasure. But it seemed to him that he understood now, finally, conclusively, the secret of the Kenyons.
    They were all cowards, and Mr Kenyon despised them for their cowardice; not one of them had ever had the courage to stand up to him. If he had, in a sense, bullied them, it was because he had tried to stimulate them into some show of active response…

The flattering conversation then embraces Arthur’s future intentions. He has already been led into into holding himself up as a contrast to the others on the basis of his greater life-experience and need to earn a living; but he is more alarmed than pleased when Mr Kenyon takes it for granted that he must be “pining to get back into the struggle”:

    “And yet, Arthur, I should be so glad if you could stay with me—till the end. I gave you my reasons when we first talked the matter over together. I can add still another, now; I’ve taken a great liking for you… I wouldn’t ask you to make the sacrifice if I were a younger man. But as it is what difference will a year, two at most, make to you at your time of life? Come, now,” he smiled with a flash of roguery, “let’s make a bargain! Your friend Hubert shall have his Miss Martin, if you’ll promise to stay with me…”
    “Oh, of course, sir, rather,” Arthur said, blushing with pleasure and embarrassment. “I would promise that in any case. There’s no need for any—any quid pro quo, I mean.”
    Mr Kenyon still had his hands on the young man’s shoulders, and he gave him a gentle shake as he said, “Very well, that’s a bargain then; and I may tell you that you’ve taken a very great weight off my mind…”

Arthur’s sense of triumph soon fades when the others hear of the agreement. There is astonishment over Hubert’s engagement, but no sense of gratitude. If anything, the wariness with which the rest regard him increases. Arthur thinks he understands, and is nettled into a blundering assurance that he has no intention of accepting a legacy from the old man, at least, not an unreasonable one; and his offer to sign an agreement to that purpose only makes things worse. There is an embarrassed scattering of the relatives, with Charles Turner and Uncle Joe left to reject any such arrangement as unnecessary—assuring Arthur that they trust him to keep his word, should it become necessary:

    There was apparently nothing more to be said, and Arthur was on his feet preparing to go when Turner remarked casually to his brother-in-law, “Totting ’em up pretty fast just now, isn’t he? That’ll make three more of us if poor Ken has to come in.”
    Joe Kenyon’s only reply was to draw down the corners of his mouth and raise his eyebrows.
    Arthur did not want to hear any more. He was sorry he had heard so much. These petty criticisms of old Kenyon made him despise Turner and his uncle; they represented another aspect of their cowardice.

Nor is Hubert’s attitude to his grandfather at all altered, despite his excitement over his engagement. Rather, he complains that he has had no chance to see Miss Martin since the edict was handed down, being instead dispatched to do a job on the estate:

    “Probably he did it just to tantalise me a bit,” Hubert complained; “teach me that I couldn’t have everything my own way.”
    “Oh, surely not!” Arthur protested. He was offended, again, by this imputation of unworthy motives to old Mr Kenyon. “I don’t believe any of you understand him,” he continued warmly. “We had quite a long talk this morning and he rather came out of his shell. He may seem a bit hard and inhuman at times, you know, but underneath, I’m sure he’s trying to do the best for everybody.”
    Hubert looked faintly surprised. “Oh! that was the way he took you, was it?” he remarked.

When the family reconvenes for dinner, Arthur is surprised to find himself the object of Elizabeth’s attentions. Though she is attractive in an obvious sort of way, he is not at all drawn to her—and annoyed to realise that Eleanor’s image keeps getting in the way. This instinctive choice receives reinforcement the next day when Eleanor, albeit rather ungraciously, invites Arthur to accompany her on a long walk on the Downs—intimating that she has something to say to him which cannot be said under the roof of Hartling. The miles they cover, a simple lunch at an inn, and a rest on a hilltop overlooking the beauties of the countryside combine to bring down the wall of misunderstanding that has grown up between them, and finally Eleanor brings herself to say what she feels she must: that one of them must leave Hartling immediately.

To Arthur’s astonishment, Eleanor speaks bitterly of her grandfather’s intention to use her as bait—an added attraction to hold him, Arthur, at Hartling. He protests instinctively, yet cannot help remembered the old man’s urging of a closer relationship between the two of them. Seeing his resistance to the idea, Eleanor allows herself to speak frankly of herself and her family for the first time: her own father’s defiance in the matter of his marriage, which led to his banishment from Hartling, and ultimately his death under conditions of unrelieved illness and destitution; and her own, strange upbringing after being orphaned, isolated from the world to the point of barely knowing that there was a war. All the rest, too, trapped in a web of financial dependence and a failure of willpower: turned into the playthings of the old man’s selfishness and need to dominate…

In spite of Arthur’s lingering incredulity. Eleanor continues to insist upon the departure of one or the other of them: in that, at least, she is determined that Mr Kenyon will not get his way. Appalled by what he considers her unrealistic plans for herself, in securing either an office job or undergoing nursing training, if she can afford it, Arthur determines that if one of them must go, it will be him. Recklessly, he promises to write immediately to Bob Somers and accept an offered partnership, in a slightly better practice and at a slightly increased income—albeit still in Peckham. He will depart Hartling within the week.

But even this is hardly good enough for Eleanor: if he is going, why not go at once? Why wait? – risk it…?

Eleanor’s evident unselfish fear for him – her willingness to stay, if only he will make his escape – puts a new idea into Arthur’s head: why should they not both go—together?

Before he can act upon his new resolve, there is upheaval at Hartling. Far from “coming in”, as his father feared, Ken bolts—borrowing enough to pay the worst of his debts and to secure his passage to South Africa, where he has the offer of a job. In the wake of this, Mr Kenyon makes one of his exceedingly rare journeys away from the estate, a paraded departure that means only one thing: a visit to his solicitor in London and an alteration to his will…

In his absence, Arthur and Eleanor come to an understanding. They will depart together, and immediately. Arthur takes upon himself the task of telling Mr Kenyon their intentions upon his return…and finds it even more difficult and unpleasant than he anticipated:

    “Have you had it in your mind that you might be married quite soon?” he asked.
    “I think so, sir; yes, quite soon,” Arthur replied, andf then frowning and keeping his eyes averted from the old man’s face—he went on quickly. “As soon as ever we can find somewhere to live, in fact. Flats and so on are fearfully difficult to get just now. And in Peckham, where I shall be practising…”
    He paused and looked up. The old man had changed neither his position nor his expression. “But I know of no reason why you shouldn’t be married while you are still here,” he said, apparently missing all the implications of Arthur’s speech.
    “We—we thought of leaving here—at once,” he replied, making an effort that even as he made it seemed gross and brutal. “In fact I meant—that is, I’m leaving today.”
    Mr Kenyon’s keen blue eyes slowly concentrated their gaze with an effect of extraordinary attention on Arthur’s face; and as they did so, their lids, which commonly drooped so that the iris was partly hidden, were lifted until the pupils, completely ringed by white, stared with the cold, intent watchfulness of a great bird.
    “But that’s impossible,” he said quietly…

At its best The Prisoners Of Hartling is an unnerving psychological drama, particularly in its slow revelation of the domineering monster behind the kindly if autocratic façade of Garvice Kenyon, and of the various means of progressive entrapment by which he claims and holds his victims. As we watch in detail his manipulation of Arthur, we become aware that similar tactics have worked in the past—certainly the plea for companionship “until the end”. There is a subtle if morbid humour about the way Arthur’s likely “term” increases every time the subject is raised, from six months to one year, then to two, then to five… At the same time, the novel’s most chilling moment is Charles Turner’s response when Arthur tells him that he will be extending his visit from a weekend to a week—that he too once came to Hartling for a week’s visit…thirty years ago…

(In retrospect, we are able to appreciate that to Mr Kenyon, Dorothy Martin’s lack of money probably makes her a more, not less, suitable bride for Hubert.)

The main problem with this novel is that we have to see everything from the perspective of the distinctly dull-witted Arthur. Now, I do not need to like or admire a novel’s protagonist in order to like the novel, and were this a story of the drawing in to his destruction of Arthur Woodroffe, that would be just fine. Unfortunately, there’s a sense in The Prisoners Of Hartling that we’re supposed, at least, to sympathise with Arthur and worry about his fate—though for the life of me, I can’t think why. Despite his medical training and having served in war as both a soldier and a surgeon, Arthur’s dominant trait is his emotional immaturity; and that, combined with his conceit, and his snobbery, and his total lack of perception, makes him a thoroughly exasperating companion.

And that, finally, is where this novel really fails—the realisation that almost anyone would have made a more interesting protagonist than the one we were given. There are so many stories here: that of Miss Kenyon, living the life of a Victorian spinster more than two decades into the 20th century; or of Uncle Joe, the oldest son, kept from a career because he will inherit the estate…eventually (and maybe: there’s no entail); or even the Turners, finding a welcome refuge at Hartling from their struggles against the world, hardly noticing that the gates have closed behind them… And Eleanor; particularly Eleanor, clear-sighted and intelligent; raised in ignorance of the world but ironically learning about it from novels; holding hard to her resistance to her grandfather’s grip—even as she fears that her own willpower might fail when the crisis comes…

That crisis is another failing: there’s no earthly reason why Arthur and Eleanor should fall in love, except that it’s necessary for the plot. We can appreciate that Eleanor might fear for and even pity Arthur, seeing him walking unresisting into the Hartling trap; but that such feelings should turn to love is wholly incredible, particularly given the mixture of rudeness and petulance with which Arthur treats her whenever he realises that she doesn’t share his high opinion of himself. The idea that the two of them might provide ballast for one another, and together create the impetus for escape, is sound but the working out of it certainly is not.

Still—there are some devastating touches in The Prisoners Of Hartling, even if most of them exist outside of Arthur’s limited perceptions. The idea of this group of people being drawn into financial dependence through acts of seeming generosity, and their lives being reduced to waiting in helpless passivity for an old man to die, is a disturbing concept, and all the more so since none of them have any knowledge of the contents of the will dangled in front of them whenever Mr Kenyon is in any way defied—still less any guarantee. The possibilities of this situation are exploited to the full as The Prisoners Of Hartling builds to its climax: this is a story with a vicious sting in its tail…

 

 

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9 Comments to “The Prisoners Of Hartling”

  1. From your description I get a vibe that sounds half like the old-timey novels and half like a modern one. It’s as if the English novel is trying here to throw off its own preoccupation with inheritances and feudal privilege as the rightful due of decent fictional characters.

    Sounds interesting… but not quite interesting enough.

  2. Interesting observation—another interpretation of “the post-war novel”.

    No, not quite enough. I’d’ve liked it better if Beresford hadn’t thought that Arthur needed / deserved rescuing.

  3. I guess this helped crystallize for me the accumulating annoyance I was feeling when you summarized book after book in which, for any character to have a happy ending, they have to end up with a form of wealth or income which requires no work.

    • Well—there’s a measure of wish-fulfillment about that. It also depends on when the book was written. One of the really interesting aspects of 19th century English literature is watching the attitude to work changing, with a radical shift away from “no gentleman would / should soil his hands”, and the army / church / law trichotomy of exceptions, to an acceptance of the worth of work and a feeling that men, gentlemen or not, ought to be supporting themselves.

      But the old impulses died hard, as we see from a book like this one.

      (Of course, women working was a different kind of story…)

  4. Ah yes, that forced romance just because the people are about the right age and thrown into each other’s company: “why, I’m an omnivorous mammalian biped too! We have so much in common!”

    I like the idea of the old man trapping people into his orbit and gradually breaking their spirits, though, and I’ll probably use it some time.

    • It’s odd and a bit creepy that Beresford and Mr Kenyon have pretty much the same attitude to that.

      I hope you make better use of it. 🙂

  5. This plot, of the head of the family controlling everyone, is similar to an Agatha Christie mystery with Hercule Poirot, where he meets the family in the Middle East. In that case, the head is the family’s stepmother, who used to be a prison warden. When someone asks Poirot if she became that way because of her job, he replies that she took the job because of her innate personality.
    Spoiler alert – she’s killed, and the whole family thinks one of them did it, but they don’t know who.

  6. I just read this on the Hathi Trust website, and I think I’ll have nightmares tonight.

    Arthur finally grows up a little by the end of the novel, but he is a smug idiot for most of the book, isn’t he?

    • Sorry, missed these!

      Yes, I actually thought of Appointment With Death, too! Possibly Christie is more realistic in envisaging how such a situation is likely to end. 🙂

      As I say, it so much that he’s a smug idiot as that Beresford seems unaware of the fact…

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