The Sixth Heaven is the second novel in L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The three books follow the lives of diffident, dreamy and self-absorbed Eustace Cherrington, and his older sister, the beautiful, resourceful but self-righteous Hilda. Their relationship is complex, moving, comic and, on occasion, troubling.
The opening chapter of The Sixth Heaven – set just after the First World War – sees Eustace in conversation with his new Oxford friend, Stephen Hilliard. Stephen is fascinated to hear Eustace speak of his childhood, and in particular to hear about Hilda, instinctively grasping that the key to understanding Eustace is in his relationship with his extraordinary sister.
Later in the evening, Stephen, an Oxford aesthete to his fingertips, decides that they must listen to some music. He begins to rifle through his gramophone records looking for something that would be in some way illustrative of the family life that Eustace had earlier described. He finally decides on Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Of the slow movement he says “this is just how I imagine you and Miss Hilda in your times of greatest spiritual … interpenetration”. They listen.
If Eustace did not understand music, he could appreciate and enjoy it, and the first phrase of that divine melody held him spellbound, not only to the spirit of the music, but for a time to the music itself; so that when Stephen, his impassive face transformed and softened murmured, “You see that you begin to repeat what your sister says,” he heard as well as saw what Stephen meant.
[…] The music went on, establishing in his mind its convention – if a mood so living could be called a convention – of flawless intellectual sympathy, of the perfected manners of the heart. The beauty was founded on the reasonableness of each utterance; it was born miraculously out of a kind of logic; the notes were not the parents of beauty, as with Schubert, but the children. This celestial conversation gave a sense of union no less compelling than the impulse to a kiss.
Eustace’s mind travelled back, looking for the moments when he and Hilda had been most nearly in accord […] The quality of these moments could be heard, he fancied, in the serene interaction of the two violins. But they were the outcome of emotional stress, in one or two cases of differences and hard words; how could they compare with this music, which was like a reconciliation without a quarrel?
I don’t know of any brother-and-sister violinists, but Oistrakh père et fils have the measure of the masterpiece here, and they’re particularly affecting in that central movement described so sensitively by Hartley:
When writing about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s description of the Machaut mass in her novel The Corner That Held Them, I remarked that, at the time Warner was writing – the 1940s – Machaut would have been a name largely unknown to the general public; his star, dimmed for five centuries, would begin to shine again more brightly only over the next few decades. Bach’s reputation, on the other hand, has been more resilient. It has had its ups and downs: Mendelssohn’s efforts to revive interest in the great man’s music are well-known, but, even then, Bach’s reputation had by no means vanished; his influence on the most important composers of the classical period (including Mendelssohn himself) had been profound, but he had come to seem old-fashioned and academic. Mendelssohn’s role was to help begin the process of elevating Bach’s music to its deserved position, now securely held, at the pinnacle of western culture.
Despite this, I do wonder about that gramophone record of the Bach Double in Stephen Hilliard’s Oxford rooms. Hartley was writing his Eustace and Hilda books in the 1940s (at the same time that Sylvia Townsend Warner was writing about Machaut) but the scene with the Bach concerto was set in 1919 or 1920. Certainly the work had achieved a high level of popularity by that time – it had been programmed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in London every year during the War (with the exception of 1916) and would appear in every season throughout the 1920s and 30s. But had it been recorded by 1919 (which would of course make it a pre-electrical, acoustic recording)? If so, who were the performers, and is it still available? I’d love to hear from anyone who knows about early recordings of Bach who might be able to shed light on this.
As for rising and falling reputations, that of L P Hartley himself appears, alas, to be on the wane. People still seem to remember The Go-Between, perhaps because of the celebrated film adaptation (and the irresistibly quotable opening sentence). But there is so much else in Hartley’s output to cherish. The Hireling, for example, is darkly engrossing, and the 1960 excursion into sci-fi, Facial Justice, is fascinating and original. Even earlier works such as Simonetta Perkins have much to recommend them. But the books that I return to again and again are those Eustace and Hilda novels. The first, The Shrimp and the Anemone, is an entrancing evocation of childhood with all its fretfulness and confusion, romance and impulsive joys. And if the remaining two volumes, The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda, don’t quite have the magic of part one, they are nonetheless wise, funny and warm. Besides which, after The Shrimp and the Anemone, we know Eustace and Hilda so well that we must read the rest of their story. They aren’t easy characters to love – Eustace is a snob and overly-ingratiating while Hilda is inclined to be puritanical, even bullying – but love them we do in all their paradoxical humanity.
UPDATE on 30 June 2013
…and a resolution: