L. P. Hartley’s THE HARNESS ROOM (L.P. Hartley, 1971; 2022)




Thanks to Gregory Woods for his recommendation and for his introduction to the new edition, a model of clarity and concision: a lot’s packed into a few pages. It’s a very brief book, an easy read, and a potent evocation of a particular type of Englishness. Colonel Alex Macready, a widower with a 17 year old son fears his son Fergus lacks the aggressiveness necessary for the career in the forces he would like him to pursue. As the Colonel goes off on a honeymoon with Sonia, a much younger bride, he turns his son over to Fred, his chauffeur, a brawny, good looking, ex-Guardsman. They begin their exercises in what used to be the harness room in the stables, where Fred sleeps. The book is matter of fact about Fred’s bisexuality (and deploys marvellous expressionist imagery to convey his seduction of the maid in the stairwell, spied on by Fergus). Fred’s been showing off his body while polishing the car and Fergus has been looking. So when they begin their exercises….Well, you can imagine what happens. It’s a plot one sees often in porn. What you get here, however, is a very vivid considerations of class, power, position, and the consequences of actions that the main protagonists ponder but do not speak of, even as they pursue their desires, which none of them are ashamed of. What Fred and Fergus do in the harness room is illegal. The servants think Fergus might be disinherited if the father gets children from a second marriage. Fred wonders what will happen to him if Fergus says anything. Fergus thinks Sonia’s sweet on him and this will cause trouble unless he leaves. Sonia’s married the Colonel for many reasons, one of them material comfort for herself and her mother, a position whose security she overestimates once her marriage takes place. Fergus wants Fred; Fred has fallen for Fergus. There’s an exhibition bout between Fred and Fergus to show the Colonel how Fred has taught Fergus to be a man. Sonia doesn’t want to go. How will it all end? It was published in 1971, before E.M. Forster’s Maurice L.P Hartley’s last novel, and the only one to deal openly with homosexual content. It’s only 143 pages, I enjoyed it very much and am glad to have read it.

José Arroyo

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