'...the party at the Rectory would initiate Timothy into exactly the kind of social life he liked - the society of rather staid, elderly people of set manners and habits, who kept engagements and to whom he would appear almost young...'
The outbreak of World War II has brought forty-nine year old Timothy Casson back to England from his beloved Venice. Thankfully his livelihood as a journalist writing stories about Britain for The Broadside can only be enhanced by his change of address. Upton-On-Swirrel, within viewing distance of the Welsh hills, offers the attraction of a river running through the village; just the thing for a keen oarsman with a boat. Locking into a five-year lease at the Old Rectory, Timothy's next challenge is dealing with the hired help, Beatrice and Effie, who seem to regularly grumble and complain and when not doing that they weep into their aprons. Frankly, it would seem that the servants just about forget that they are the employees and not the other way around. Their antics are far from frustrating though and had me smiling almost every time a situation wasn't to their liking. Mr Wimbush is the perpetually filthy gardener but also the closest thing to a sounding board, or friend, Timothy has at the moment.
As you would expect from a book over four hundred and fifty pages there are plenty of sub-stories to enjoy. Except for the fleeting appearance of two young evacuees and the occasional visit from the local air raid patrol about a crack in the black-out curtains you would barely know a war was being waged. The attraction with this book has little to do with plot but everything to do with characterization and relationships, something Hartley pulls off with stellar success. I'm not sure how much of Timothy Casson is Hartley himself (issues with servants certainly plagued him) but there is barely a sentiment left unexplored. From his feelings of vulnerability as a new arrival in the village or lonely bachelor seeking the attention of the beautiful Miss Cross...or more apt 'Miss Double-Cross' I felt sympathy for Timothy's plight. And he had it bad for that minxstress...
'The lilt of her voice traced a pattern on the air; it stopped like a painter's pencil in midstroke, leaving her innocent, almost babyish face softened by a sweetness strangely at variance with her words. The power of her beauty stole over Timothy bringing a delicious quickening of every sense; and at the same time the intimate moral comfort of having found an ally warmed those places in his heart in which love grows and courage springs...'
I loved the way the writing brimmed with richness. It felt as though Hartley had all the time in the world to write this book and I took my time reading it. Unlike some other chunky novels that have you itching to move on after three hundred pages, The Boat is like sinking into a nice hot bath. I even went back and read over again the first fifty pages which initially failed to grab hold. Perhaps it was the swift appearance of letters from Timothy's somewhat eccentric and politcally-minded friends, Tyrone and Magda, that threw me before I had a grasp on just who everyone was.
This paragraph is just me being a bit self-indulgent but the Rector's wife, Mrs Purbright, and her relationship with Timothy was such an intriguing one. A favourite passage in the book has the Rector commenting on his wife's appearance and I simply want to have it handy to enjoy once again...
'He saw the pearls, the rings, the bracelets, and the brooches, the lavender silk dress with its lilac fringes - all the concrete reminders, which she so seldom wore, that the money had been Mrs. Purbright's. She wore them so seldom that they did not seem to belong to her, yet they made their effect, in the dim light she glimmered like a stained-glass window.'
So where does the boat come into it all? Senior members of the village who were willing to sacrifice life and limb during World War I steadfastly hang on to the belief that their river is solely for the occupation of fishing. The risk that a pleasure craft may scare off a food source or source of entertainment is not to be trifled with. Raising the ire of those you seek to become friendly with would hardly be a wise move. But should the belief system of one section of a community override another? On a much larger scale isn't that how Hitler came to have such a frightening grasp over a nation? There were many, many times when I felt L. P. Hartley was exercising metaphor in certain situations and wished that Harriett Gilbert from her BBC 4 Open Book podcast could stop by and chat it all out with me. Anyway, Timothy Casson comes to a conclusion about the whole situation towards the end of the book but with disastrous result.
The Boat is an excellent novel for those who enjoy village settings and interesting characters. The added attraction of a bit of 'upstairs/downstairs' will surely be the icing on the cake. This is the third novel I've read by this author and each one has left its mark. The Hireling is my favourite but The Boat is certainly hot on its heels.