Staff Review by Chris Saliba
L.P. Hartley is best known for his modern classic The Go-Between. In Facial Justice Hartley tries his hand at dystopian fiction, with interesting results.
In John Sutherland’s useful introduction to this dystopian novel by L. P. Hartley, first published in 1960, he notes that science fiction isn’t so much prophetic as backward looking. Sutherland says Facial Justice (written between 1953-1959), the action of which takes place after a nuclear third world war, is really a satire on 1950s Britain: “The 1950s in England were blighted by state-imposed egalitarianism, excessive bureaucracy and uniform.”
The novel centres around a young woman named Jael 97. It is post-nuclear war Britain. In an attempt to impose egalitarianism, women’s faces are equalised. Those too good looking (Alphas) must be reduced to a Beta status. This involves having a synthetic face fitted on and the real face removed. Gammas (the lowest rung in the looks department) can upgrade to a Beta face. Jael 97 has been reported to the Ministry of Facial Justice for being "facially over privileged". She’s been causing much envy amongst other women. Meeting her friend Judith at the Equalisation Centre, where she intends to get a Beta face, she lets her friend talk her out of the operation. This state of affairs doesn’t last long, however, and later Jael 97 is operated on without her consent while on a short hospital stay. She’s given a Beta face.
The political backdrop to all of this is a regime run by the Darling Dictator and his administrative staff, the Inspectors. His voice booms out decrees and rules. It’s considered that he’s a misogynist, a woman hater, and hence the rules about women’s faces. (Men don’t have to change their faces at all.) It’s a rather anxious world the Darling Dictator rules, as everyone is worried about causing too much envy. Life is rather colourless and dull, as you’d expect.
I read this novel rather quickly and quite enjoyed it. Hartley keeps his dystopian tale rollicking along, with engaging dialogue and descriptive passages. You can see the influences of novels like Brave New World, The Time Machine (the novel features a whole underground society) and Nineteen-Eighty Four in Hartley’s novel. For this reason Facial Justice feels more than a little derivative.
When I’d finished Facial Justice, I couldn’t figure out how all the aspects of the novel integrated into a philosophical whole. Hartley creates many interesting effects and situations, but I couldn’t see what ideas they served. The most puzzling aspect was why it was only the women who had to have their faces altered. I thought at one stage maybe the story was taking a feminist angle, when we learnt the Darling Dictator was a woman hater, but then that fizzled out. In fact, you’d think the novel demands some sort of sexual politics, but there were none that I could detect. Perhaps the meaning is obvious to readers like John Sutherland, who suffered the uniformity of the 1950s, and could see that women were its greatest victims.
This is an intriguing read, one that paints a picture of a boring, paranoid and confused Britain in the 1950s. For science fiction buffs, it would surely make essential reading. Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) was a big fan of Facial Justice, writing it was one of the best English novels since 1939, “A brilliant projection of tendencies apparent in the post-war British welfare state ... Hartley was a fine writer with a strong moral sense".
Facial Justice, by L. P. Hartley. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN:
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