Book Review | The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

Has there ever been a more famous or sublime opening line in literature than the first line of The Go-Between? ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s a surprise discovery of an old diary in the present day – the 1950s – that transports our narrator, Leo, back to the sultry summer of 1900, spent at his friend Marcus’s Norfolk estate. It’s a fateful summer that set the course for the rest of Leo’s life. What is so accomplished in this novel is the way it draws us into that ‘foreign country,’ painting an intricate and evocative picture of a late Victorian world that seemed far gone in the 1950s – and couldn’t seem more foreign to readers today.

Twelve years old at the time, Leo is haplessly naive and tentatively inquisitive about the world. Educated at a boy’s boarding school, he nonetheless feels conscious of his social inferiority in the midst of the Maudsley’s grandeur. Swept up into the pomp and circumstance of life at the manor, Leo is desperate to make a good impression – and none more so than on Marcus’s sister, Marian Maudsley. So infatuated is he that he agrees to become messenger boy for her and Ted Burgess, a farmer in the village. Sworn to total secrecy, of course. And Leon revels in his secret mission; ‘my place was here,’ he reflects, ‘here I was a planet, albeit a small one, and carried messages for other planets.’

As guileless as he is, he has no reason to suspect anything untoward in the communication between the two parties. Marian is to be engaged to the Viscount Trimingham, an injured soldier just returned from the Boer war. The thought of the stately Marian entering into a union with a lowly farmer is unthinkable to Leo, who has yet to understand the dynamics of adulthood desire.

The turn-of-the-century concerns of class, Englishness and social propriety are never far from our protagonist’s mind, distilled into the afternoon that the family up at the Hall meet with the commoners down in the village for a game of cricket. Leo observes –

‘Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also a struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution, between one attitude to life and another.’

The narrative is richly multi-layered, aided in part by the way in which it is refracted through the lens of memory, as the older Leo looks back on the events that came to pass: ‘Those early days were a time of floating impressions… Scenes linger with me – generally in tones of light and dark, but sometimes tinged with colour.’ Immersed into Leo’s inner thoughts and feelings, we feel it all – his nervous yet unshakable devotion to Marian, his painfully self-conscious donning of his new green suit, his incomprehension at that which he cannot understand.

But we all know that the novel will reach a cataclysmic conclusion; that the climbing heat of the languid summer will reach boiling point.

‘I was now dizzily whirling round in a tiny flaming nucleus like a naptha flare in a street-market, impenetrable darkness all around me, my sole prospect my own imminent destruction.’

It is an utterly absorbing read, and a fascinating portrait of a bygone era. It examines psychological conflict, loss of innocence, the nature of memory and the ripple effects of a single event – and much more than I could ever do justice to here. After I finished my degree in English Literature, I took a long break from the classics. This served as a good reminder, six years on, that so much of what I read and love today is inextricable from what came before.

****.5

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Read if you enjoyed: Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro 

4 thoughts on “Book Review | The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

  1. Rose, thanks so much for your sensitive review of one of the books I loved most in my life. I read it for the first time on holiday over 10 years ago and your review has brought it back into my mind. It feels like a good book for lock down-now that the past seems indeed like another country. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mandy! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the review, especially considering it’s a book that means a lot to you. You’re so right, even just a few months ago now feels like a foreign time. Such a beautiful and elegiac book, I can’t believe it took me this long to read it – it must have been on my shelf for 10 years!

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