The Go-Between by LP Hartley

The past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston is invited by his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend a few weeks with Marcus’ family at Brandham Hall. Many years later, in 1952, Leo comes across his diary of this year, and as he reads it, he gradually begins to remember the events of that summer, memories that his mind has suppressed throughout all the intervening time. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream.

Leo is twelve when the story begins, with the complete ignorance of all matters relating to sex which was commonplace for children in those days. His interior world, beautifully brought to life, is one where adults are mysterious beings who don’t seem to act in accordance with the unbreakable codes of the public schoolboy. The adults at Brandham, so far above middle-class Leo in social standing, so confident in their superiority, seem to him god-like, and he compares them to the images of the zodiac which are printed in his diary. So when Marian, the daughter of the house, chooses Leo to be her postman, carrying secret messages to a neighbouring farmer, Ted Burgess, he feels honoured. He is old enough to be enthralled by Marian’s beauty and capricious behaviour, but young enough not to recognise his feelings as sexual. She is a goddess, he her willing worshipper and slave. To serve her, to gain her recognition, is all he desires – and to avoid her wrath.

Book 58 of 90

His feelings about Ted are more complicated. Even Leo’s lowly class is higher than that of a mere farmer and so Leo can feel socially superior, condescending even, but Ted has an overpowering physical masculinity that elevates him too to god status in the fatherless Leo’s eyes.

Believing himself to be unseen by other bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well as it might. I, whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own beauty and strength? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?

To play Mercury to these superior beings is at first a delight to Leo but, as the summer wears on, gradually he becomes uncomfortable, vaguely realising that somehow – he’s not sure how – Marian and Ted are transgressing sacrosanct codes of behaviour which he is becoming aware of without fully understanding. In this society where adults and children inhabit separate worlds, there is no one whom he can consult, and so he must try to find his own way through the moral maze in which he finds himself, and must somehow save his gods and goddesses from the path of self-destruction he begins to believe they’re on.

The writing is beautiful with every word perfectly placed, and emotional truth pours from every page. There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged. The role of women as pawns in the marriage game is shown clearly through Marian, brought up to do her duty by making a socially advantageous match regardless of personal inclination. The ambiguity around Marian is brilliantly portrayed – she is victim of her class and gender, but she can also be cold and cruel, a harsh goddess who brooks no dissent. Is it possible to break the heart of someone so utterly selfish? Or does she exist simply to break the hearts of her adoring subjects? As a person, I’m ambivalent about her; as a character, she is a wonderful, unforgettable creation.

Still, whose fault was it? ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault,’ Lord Trimingham had said, thereby ruling Marian out, and I was glad, for now I had no wish to inculpate her. He had not said, ‘Nothing is ever a lord’s fault,’ but no one could hold him to blame: he had done nothing that he shouldn’t: I was clear about that. Nor had he said, ‘Nothing is ever a farmer’s fault,’ and lacking the benefit of this saving clause the fault, if fault there were, must lie with Ted. Ted had enticed Marian into his parlour, his kitchen, and bewitched her. He had cast a spell on her. That spell I would now break – as much for his sake as for hers.

LP Hartley

Behind the story of these characters is the darker story of a century that started in war and became a long horror of loss. Hugh, the man whom Marian is expected to marry, has been badly scarred in the Boer War but still believes that it is the duty of every patriotic Englishman to fight for his country. He is the 9th Viscount Trimingham, a title that thrills young Leo, elevating Hugh too to his triumvirate of deities. For Leo, the idea of the new century excites him – a blank page on which he expects glories and wonders to be written. In this summer of 1900 the rare event of a long heatwave descends on England, seeming to Leo to signify the beginning of this new golden age, and he becomes obsessed by the daily temperatures, longing for new records to be broken. The unrelenting heat gives a kind of mystical air to the summer, as of a long pause when normal rules don’t apply. But when the dazzling summer darkens to tragedy, Leo loses not just his innocence but his optimism. The end of the summer heralds the end of hope for the century, and this small personal tragedy seems to presage the much greater tragedies that were soon to follow on an unprecedented scale.

A wonderful book which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago. If you’ve never read it, give your soul a treat and do so now…

* * * * *

Because we all had this on our Classics Club spin a couple of months ago and it didn’t come up, Rose and Sandra and I all decided we’d read it anyway (we’re such rebels!) and review it on the same day – Wednesday! Unfortunately the internet gods had different plans and blew up my system again on Tuesday. Now with a new router and a promise or threat that if it goes down again they will have to do “extensive work”, whatever that means, so fingers crossed. Apologies to anyone who was concerned at my sudden disappearance, and especially to Sandra and Rose! As the poet Burns would say, the best laid plans of mice and bloggers gang aft agley…

Anyway, links below to their reviews, which I haven’t yet read but can’t wait to! I’m hoping my non-blogging blog buddy Alyson may have read it with us too, and will add her views on it in the comments below… and anyone else, of course! I should warn you, if anyone says they hated it I fully intend to splat them with a giant custard pie… 😀

Rose’s review             Sandra’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

51 thoughts on “The Go-Between by LP Hartley

  1. I must read this again – thanks for the review. There’s also a movie from the seventies with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. But the writing is so gorgeous. Reading the book is probably best

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    • I haven’t seen the movie but hope to soon. In general the book is always better though! This one is well worth re-reading – such beautiful writing.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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  2. Isn’t it great when the second time round is at least as good as the first time was, FictionFan? Some books are just…transcendent like that. And, perhaps it’s just because I notice it, but writing style really does matter. The best story can fall flat with a poor style. The most simple story can be sublime if the writing is excellent…

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    • Yes, I’m always wary of re-reading a book I loved long ago, but actually I often find that older me is quite in tune with younger me! The writing in this is so beautiful, and it really does make a difference. The story had kinda passed from my mind, but I remembered certain scenes vividly because of how well they were written. And the heat… it really captures how strangely a heatwave affects us chilly northerners. Great book!

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  3. First Sandra and now you – I almost feel a bit of a group pressure to read this! No, of course, I never give in to group pressure, but I am tempted. However, I’ve promised myself to read the books lingering on my Kindle before acquiring new ones. Let’s see how that pans out…

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    • Yes, we don’t let that Classics Club tell us what to do! 😂 This is a beautiful book – you should add it to your TBR instantly… one more can’t hurt… 😉 So far, so good with the router – I do hope that’s the end of the IT problems for a while. The thought of extensive work makes me shudder…

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  4. […] FictionFan, Rose and I agreed to each post our thoughts on this novel today and compare our responses.  Despite a three-month window in which to prepare, I am of course writing at the last minute with little time to reflect.  And perhaps this is a good thing because I know that I could reflect on this book for weeks and a post about it would be the subject of endless edits and revisions to the point where quite possibly it never got posted at all. […]

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    • Oh, you were lucky – most of the books they made me read at school weren’t half as good as this one! Mind you, sometimes “doing” a book in school can destroy it. I hope you find time to re-read it – I reckon adult eyes will see even more in it… 😀

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  5. Ha ha ha! Such a great review FF, though of course I expected nothing less, and I’m so glad you’re back and all is well. I was getting a tiny bit worried! You’ve included and/or amplified themes I wanted to add, but time (and wordiness) prevented it. Class, war, the position of women, the tragedy of the century as it unfolded, the gulf between children and adults – Hartley wove so many themes into an essentially simple plot.

    I read Hugh a little differently to you. I assumed that his encouraging Ted to enlist was his way of removing him from the area. I imagined he had his suspicions and sought a gentlemanly solution to a delicate problem.

    I’m so glad you loved it – we all loved it and that is a clear indication of its brilliance! 😂 I have a private ratings system out of 10 and gave TG-B 9.5 – docking half a mark because I read it in January. (Yes, I know – hardly the fault of the book!) 😂

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    • Yes, I couldn’t believe the internet gods had struck me down just at the crucial moment! I should get Leo to put a curse on them!

      There is so much in the book – even more than I remembered. In fact the things I did remember vividly from my first long-ago reading were odd – the scene with the deadly nightshade, the century turning, the cricket match. The actual climax scene and that wonderful last chapter had gone completely from my mind, so I was still on tenterhooks for the end. I think you’re probably right about Hugh wanting to get rid of Ted, but I got the impression too that he just believed in men doing their patriotic duty too. I did like Hugh…

      Haha – I think that’s totally unfair! Anyway, since it’s usually freezing and wet up here even in July the timing didn’t seem to matter. I would have given it 6 if I wasn’t so OCD about ratings! I may one day have to have a 6 rating for those few special books that take up permanent residence in my heart… 😀

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  6. I was worried, thought you had run off with Rafa to Melbourne for the upcoming AO!
    Yours is a lovely review. After reading Sandra’s review I had blogger’s regret for the things I didn’t say and now I’ve got it again with yours! I think this is a book that will remain a classic for all time with such timeless themes, the hopes for a new century (I’m feeling it for this new decade), nostalgia for childhood, loss of innocence, social differences, war and more… and the beautiful, beautiful writing.
    I thought Hugh was trying to get rid of Ted by sending him to war, too, since he wasn’t going to challenge him to a duel!
    So glad we all enjoyed it 😀😀😀

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    • I’m deeply worried about the Open – I can’t decide whether it would be worse if they cancel it or have the players all collapsing on court! Hope the air clears…

      Thank you! Haha – I always feel that way when I read other people’s reviews too, but I do think we all reacted in very similar ways to this one, which must surely be the mark of a great book! There really is so much in it, and I loved the stuff about the new century. When I was a kid the idea that we were just about to start a new millennium seemed the most exciting thing ever and I expected wonderful things from it (secretly I still do, being an incurable optimist, but don’t tell anyone…) The writing is fantastic – although I remembered loving it, I was bowled over by it even more than I expected.

      I think you and Sandra are probably right that Hugh was looking for a way to get Ted out of the way, but I do think he also had that patriotic belief that every man should do his duty too. If I’d been Marian I’d have chosen Hugh…

      Me too – wasn’t this fun? 😀

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      • Yes, I much preferred Hugh, too, but Marian got her cake and to eat it, too! That seems very typical of Marian…
        We started the new millennium with so much anxiety, along with some additional tins of baked beans in the pantry in case of the Millennium Bug causing the world as we knew it to come to an end. The story of young Leo captured the excitement of looking forward to a golden century perfectly.
        It is still slightly hazy in Melbourne. We’re expecting rain this afternoon but it all depends on the wind strength and direction at this point. If matches are delayed tomorrow and I see Rafa around town filling in time I’ll tell him you said hello 😉

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  7. When I was at high school, our English teacher brought in a pile of novels and told us to choose one each and read it. I can’t remember what I read but I do remember that the title of one of the options was The Go-Between. Looks like I missed out on reading a good one and will have to finally catch up on that! Thanks for a great and enticing review 🙂

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    • You will – I am 99.999999999% certain you will love this one, Christine! The writing is so beautiful, and much though I loved it in my youth I think having the sort of nostalgic perspective of age actually made it even more wonderful this time round. I could empathise with older Leo as well as younger Leo, and I could realise that Marian was so young too, whereas last time round I thought she was an adult because I thought I was an adult! If you do read it, I’d love to hear your opinion… 😀

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  8. I did wonder why you’d disappeared. Glad you’re up and running again…fingers crossed it stays that way. This book sounds intriguing. Maybe I’ll add it to my ever expanding list 😂

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  9. I read this in my late teens and reading your review makes me think I should definitely re-read it. I think I’d appreciate it a lot more now, much as I enjoyed it then. Great review FF – I hope ‘extensive work’ proves unnecessary!

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    • I think I was about 20 when I read it and much though I loved it then I do think I got much more out of it now. The perspective of age made me able to empathise with older Leo more, and also made me appreciate that Marian was little more than a child herself – last time round I thought she was a mature adult because I thought I was a mature adult! Ha – so far, so good with the new router. The idea of “extensive work” brings me out in hives… 😉

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  10. I was wondering where you had disappeared to the other day, but my own Internet has been a bit temprimental this week also, so hopefully we both have better luck from now on.
    The thing I was really struck by with this book is the notion of middleness in relation to Leo. His role as the Go Between is the most obvious example of this, but his social status is also between two social classes, and he appears to be on the cusp of growing up, but is still in many essentials a child with the child’s perceptions and beliefs. I began to think more generally about the devision between innocence and experience, even in today’s society. Many children I have come across seem much more aware of certain aspects of life than a child such as Leo, or even than I did when I was growing up, and I am undecided how I feel about that.
    I also began to think quite a lot about memory while reading this, and wondering as I always do with first person narration how accurate Leo’s recollections were, and remembering that to a certain extent, we are only really seeing the other characters through Leo’s lens and perspective, so how much do we really know them?
    Perhaps most important for me however is the language, which is quite stunning and I think ellivated the story and prevented it from descending into melodrama. It works very well as an audiobook, as do most classics for that matter, so I would say the audio version is worth checking out.
    It has been interesting reading all the reviews, as we have all picked up on different things, which I guess is one of the best things about reading. I certainly think I will read the Go Between again in the future and am sure it will continue to linger in my mind for a while.

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    • I suspect Storm Brendan may have been playing havoc with internet connections generally, but so far the new router seems to be holding up – fingers crossed, since the idea of “extensive work” makes me shudder!

      Excellent point about the “middleness”. All those aspects of Leo – his class, age, and status as postman all made him a kind of outsider so that he was observing a bit like a naturalist examining a different species. I do remember how different it was when I was young and I rather liked that children were kept more innocent although it had some drawbacks. But I don’t remember so many children being depressed or committing suicide or taking to drugs as such a young age, though maybe I was just too young to be aware of it. I was telling Rose that when I was about ten, the girl next door who was a couple of years older than me told me how babies were made. I drew myself up and said in my most hoity-toity voice “Your parents may behave like that but I can assure you mine don’t!” We didn’t speak again for two years… 😂

      I thought he did a wonderful job of showing how older Leo was reassessing young Leo’s impressions as he told the story. It kind of gave a double perspective, and the last section when you learn what became of them all afterwards added another layer. Marian is so wonderfully complex – I found myself wondering how she would have turned out if things had been different. Last time I read it I was only a couple of years older than Marian so I thought of her as an adult. This time I realised how very young she was…

      Who did the narration? It’s one I’d certainly enjoy listening to – a good narrator can bring out things that I can sometimes skim past in a straight reading. A great book – I think that the fact we all enjoyed it so much despite our various tastes is a real indication of its quality. It’s been a lot of fun doing this! Glad you joined in… 😀

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      • The narrator was called Sean Barrett. It’s not the first time I’ve come across him, as he has read quite a few classics, including some Dickens. The tone of his voice certainly suited Leo.

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  11. Is it terrible that I’ve never heard of this… or the author?? You’ve intrigued me enough that I’ve added it to my wish list.

    Welcome back to cyberspace. 😉

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    • Haha, no! I think it’s a terribly English book so it doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s not so well known “over there”! Even here it’s not as well known as lots of the classics which is a real shame, since it’s as good as anything I’ve read. The beautiful writing alone makes it worth reading – I’m glad it’s got onto your wishlist! Hope you love it if/when you get to it – I think you will! 😀

      Thank you – it will be nice if the new router solves the problem! “Extensive work” does not appeal!

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  12. I think I’d really like reading this one actually-it seems a bit ahead of its time, the way you describe it. Like a true literary novel that people would fall over themselves praising nowadays, you know what i mean?

    Sorry to hear about your internet troubles-that’s the worst!!!

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    • I think you would enjoy this – it’s so beautifully written apart from anything else. But that Rose, Sandra, Alyson and I all loved it despite our different tastes must say something! I’m sure it’s a book people will still be reading a hundred years from now – so you’ve got time… 😉

      Grrr! It’s been temperamental for months now, and driving me mad. However, so far, so good with the new router…

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    • Oh, and (just read the other comments, out of nosiness), luckily the weather seems to have cleared up in Melbourne, but I’m already stressed about the 4th round matches – I really cannot face the idea of Rafa losing to Kyrgios!

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      • Haha – I’m having severe difficulty staying awake for the Open this year but I must make sure to see that one! Rafa will win – he’d better! I keep trying to grow to like Kyrgios but then just when I’m getting there he behaves like a brat again… 😉

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    • That’s good to hear – I remember being put off several books at school that I think I’d probably have enjoyed if I’d read them later on my own, so I always have mixed feeling when I see a book I love on school curricula!

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        • Oh no! I love David Copperfield because I read it on my own as an adult, but they destroyed Great Expectations for me – I’ve never been able to enjoy it as much as his other novels because we were forced to analyse it to death. I wish they could find a way to teach literature without ruining books!

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