This trilogy about a brother and sister was written in 1947 by the British writer, L. P. Hartley. The three volumes are The Shrimp and the Anemone, the Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda, but frankly, they are not really stand alone works. To make any sense of them, you really need to read all three. Think of them as one long book.
There have been all kinds of scholarly’ analysis of this book, just as there was of his 1953 work, The Go-Between. And it is interesting to read these in-depth looks, but I read it just to read it, just for the pure enjoyment of it. Because Hartley is a masterful story-teller. And me? I’m all about the story.
The tale is set in pre-World War I England, and in the decade or so following the war. So for me, a lot of the enjoyment came from the setting, where once again, as in The Go Between, we have the middle class Eustace and Hilda, motherless since their mother died not long ago giving birth to their young sister Barbara, 9 years younger than Eustace, who is 4 years younger than Hilda, contrasted against the monied upper class children they occasionally play with, against the wealthy family of Staveley’s whose lineage goes back into the dark ages, and and against the wealthy but ill and crippled Miss Fothergill.
The children live with their father, his unmarried sister, and the nanny Minney, and we first meet the three children at a resort town of where the family has taken a small house for the summer season. Eustace and Hilda are on the beach where they spot an anemone trying to eat a shrimp, and the moral dilemma occurs as to whether they should try to save the shrimp, which would do the anemone out of its meal. The ensuing debate sets the tone for us to understand the relationship between the two: loving, but with strong dynamics. Hilda is the dominant force, ever vigilant over the actions and behavior of Eustace, partially because of his poor health. He has a weak heart, and his basic personality is passive and submissive. He likes to please, and is never offended by Hilda’s bossy ways. She works quite hard at creating a kind of ideal in Eustace.
Hilda is forever trying to improve Eustace’s moral fiber, and insists he go up and speak to elderly Miss Fothergill, crippled, in a wheelchair. He is terrified to do so because of her appearance, but eventually the pressure from Hilda is too great and he succumbs. Miss Fothergill invites him to tea and he goes, totally against his wishes, but finds he likes the old lady and her great house filled with treasures, and they strike up a friendship.
The first volume is quite dense, with Eustace going off on a paper chase with Nancy, one of the upper class children, during which, because of the exertion, he has what appears to be a heart attack out in the fields, and the college age son of the wealthy Staveley’s carries him back to the house, and thus begins the acquaintance between the two families.
Eventually, Miss Fothergill dies, and to everyone’s amazement, leaves a tidy sum to Eustace, which will enable him to go to boarding school and then to college at Oxford.
The second volume is concerned with his college years, and the coming into adulthood of his sister, her doings, his friends from Oxford. We learn that during the war, he worked in the war office in some office type occupation. We see the continuing bond between Eustace and Hilda, and how that affects their actions.
In the third volume, Eustace is invited to stay in Venice with an older aunt of the Staveley clan whom he met while at a houseparty at the Staveleys. There in Venice, he writes a book, Hilda falls in love with Dick Staveley, who jilts her, and she suffers a mental breakdown. And there’s more. Lots more.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because in spite of the various ‘in-depth’ reviews and examinations of the work, it is an extremely readable thing, and I am certain you will enjoy it too. It is not something you have to struggle to get through, in spite of the length.
How about some quotes:
And everyone assured him that he would never be a man until he learned how to drive. Indeed, the future was already dull and menacing with the ambitions other people entertained on his behalf.
The pleasures of vindictiveness, once tasted, are not easily put aside.
You can’t give people too much. People are only capable of assimilating a certain amount of generosity — the rest is wasted, worse than wasted; it will make them think you live in a fool’s paradise.
Human nature is awful the moment it’s left to itself, it sinks into the lowest rut or drainpipe it can find.
Do read it.