Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Hireling by LP Hartley

These days Hartley seems best known for The Go-Between and its opening line, “The past is a different country: they do things differently there.” In his time, however, he was a renowned author, recipient of literary prizes and the CBE.

The Hireling, one of the more popular of a fairly prolific output and still in print, tells the story of Leadbitter, who has recently left the army after the war, and started out as a driver for wealthy customers. Misogynistic, uptight and doomed to a life driving the idle rich while paying the crippling hire-purchase on his car, Leadbitter becomes chauffeur for a bereaved young Widow, Lady Franklin.

Asked to take her to Canterbury, he drives her there from London, but declines to see the cathedral with her, which she is visiting in an act of remembrance for her dead husband. Instead, he sits in the car and mopes, before going for a quick sharpener:

Left to himself, Leadbitter turned on the wireless. A woman’s voice! The civilian world was a dull place, a tried three-piece orchestra, waiting for the word ‘fun’. Moodily he got out, locked the car and went to buy himself a coffee. On the way he passed a pub, and after a few moments hesitation pushed the door open. Few working men drink spirits in the middle of the day and Leadbitter was no exception, he couldn’t afford to and besides he didn’t want to smell of alcohol: he had his customers, and the police, to think of. But he felt very tired and the job with Lady Franklin would bring in several pounds, so he decided to take the risk. He chose whisky, a drink he didn’t often indulge in, for it made him feel ‘antagonistic’, as he put it. One double Scotch sufficed to set the hostility working in him, and looking round he spied a small fat man whose inoffensive expression irritated him. He stared at him until the man showed signs first of uneasiness, then of confusion, and at last, looking every way except at his tormentor, ignominiously scuttled out. But Leadbitter’s demon remained unappeased. Arguing the toss with himself whether he should have another whisky, he approached the bar and said the barman, who was a big, heavily-built, pasty-faced fellow, with a slight foreign accent: “Are you an American?” “No,” said the barman. “Well, what are you then?” “If you want to know, I’m Dutch.” “I thought you were an American,” said Leadbitter evenly. His voice made it sound like an insult, almost a threat: and a faint stir of interest went through the drinkers, the pleasurable anticipation of a quarrel, and they turned their heads, awaiting the barman’s answer. “It’s written Dutch on my passport,” he said expressionlessly. “Well, they should know,” said Leadbitter, inferring that such knowledge didn’t matter much, either way. The barman raised his eyes but didn’t answer and Leadbitter, dropping the subject as if any interest it might have had was now exhausted, decided not to have another drink. For a moment, while his will clashed with the barman’s, he had felt that life was worth living: it had been brought to the fine point of conflict that his nature craved.

It’s not set up to end rosily and when Lady Franklin later asks him if he has a family, he lies and invents a wife and children in an effort to give her satisfaction. As his stories get more and more involved, he unwittingly falls in love with his aristocratic employer, with tragic results...


  1. 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.

  2. That's a fascinating story, there's almost another book in your copy's history! I hope you enjoy reading it.