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L P Hartley: Facial Justice

Writing a dystopia has been something many literary writers like to do. Think 1984, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale. This one is far less well-known but still pretty interesting.

It takes as its premise England – specifically the Cambridge area – sometime after an apocalyptic war. Most of the country has been destroyed and the people have moved to underground caverns. Eventually they come out (though rumour has it that some still live underground) and create a sort of society. The society is a bit like the Big Brother of 1984, though run by a woman. Uniformity is all important but punishments tends to be relatively mild, the worst punishment being Returning Empty which no-one knows much about or even if it is used but it seems to mean being sent back underground. Like Big Brother, the Dictator makes pronouncements all the time but tries to have a certain amount of flexibility, sometimes positive, often not (people have to remember the expression of the day). Society is divided into three categories – the Alphas, Betas and Gammas. The Alphas are the smart, good-looking ones and they become inspectors. Those who are Alphas but not quite good enough to be inspectors are Failed Alphas. Male Failed Alphas become civil servants (primarily statisticians) but women are encouraged to become Betas. Betas have no facial expression and little sense of touch. There seems to be some sort of operation though it is not clear how this works.

At the beginning of the book, Jael (people are known by their first name and a number indicating where they live) is going to convert from a Failed Alpha to a Beta, as is generally required (she is too good-looking) but is dissuaded by her friend, Judith. However, she starts becoming (mildly) rebellious. Bus trips to the country are organised (but discouraged). In order to further discourage them, the Dictator warns that one of the six buses will crash on return. Instead of discouraging people, this only encourages them and the bus is packed. Jael takes the trip to Ely Cathedral, which is in ruins but its spire is still standing. Jael does something totally unacceptable – she looks up at the spire, with dire consequences for all. Not surprisingly her bus is the one that crashes on return and she is converted to a Beta in the subsequent operation (unbeknown to her).

Of course, Hartley gives us enough clues to identify the dictator, not least of which is the mild punishments and maternal caring that (s)he shows. The voice is male but the body female. Eventually, order breaks down; there are riots and the Dictator is killed in from of Jael. You can probably guess what happens next.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Hamish Hamilton