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…

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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

TBR Thursday 219…

Episode 219

No reduction in the TBR this week… but no increase either! Remaining stable on 213…

Here are a few more I’ll be butting up against soon…

English Classic

The Go-Between by LP Hartley

For my Classics Club list. During the last Classics Club spin, three of us – Rose, Sandra and myself – all put this book on our list at the same number thinking it would be fun to review it at the same time. The number didn’t come up but we decided to do a review-along anyway, all posting our reviews on 15th January if we can. Anyone else is welcome to join in, either with the reviewing or just the reading! It’s a long overdue re-read for me of a book I thought was brilliant first time around… and second… and….

Even if you haven’t read the book, I bet you recognise the first line…

The Blurb says: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

When one long, hot summer, young Leo is staying with a school-friend at Brandham Hall, he begins to act as a messenger between Ted, the farmer, and Marian, the beautiful young woman up at the hall. He becomes drawn deeper and deeper into their dangerous game of deceit and desire, until his role brings him to a shocking and premature revelation. The haunting story of a young boy’s awakening into the secrets of the adult world, The Go-Between is also an unforgettable evocation of the boundaries of Edwardian society.

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Vintage Crime

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

A seasonal mystery, courtesy of the British Library. I’ve never heard of Mary Kelly, but apparently she was well regarded in her time. Another gorgeous cover, and it sounds like fun…

The Blurb says: London. 22nd December. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes have been called to a gloomy flat off Islington High Street. An elderly woman lies dead on the bed, and her trunk has been looted. The woman is Princess Olga Karukhin – an emigrant of Civil War Russia – and her trunk is missing its glittering treasure…

Out in the dizzying neon and festive chaos of the capital a colourful cast of suspects abound: the downtrodden grandson, a plutocratic jeweller, Bolsheviks with unfinished business? Beddoes and Nightingale have their work cut out in this tightly-paced, quirky and highly enjoyable jewel of the mystery genre.

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New Crime

The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst

Courtesy of Penguin UK – Michael Joseph via NetGalley. This is the second in Horst’s Cold Case Quartet and for once I’ve actually read the first! And I enjoyed it – William Wisting is the kind of detective I like – dedicated, hard-working, with a stable family life and a life outside work. And the cover looks delightfully seasonal…

The Blurb says: It’s been fifteen years since Simon Meier walked out of his house, never to be seen again. And just one day since politician Bernard Clausen was found dead at his cabin on the Norwegian coast.

When Chief Inspector William Wisting is asked to investigate he soon discovers he may have found the key to solving Meier’s disappearance. But doing so means he must work with an old adversary to piece together what really happened all those years ago.

It’s a puzzle that leads them into a dark underworld on the trail of Clausen’s interests and vices. A shady place from which they may never emerge – especially when he finds it leads closer to home than he ever could have imagined.

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Fiction

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

This was the book that won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969. That’s not why I’m reading it though – I was recommended it to fill one of the tricky compulsory places on my Around the World challenge, the Suez Canal. The colonial aspects always appeal to me, so fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: It is 1956 and Townrow is in Port Said – of these two facts he’s reasonably certain. He has been summoned by the widow of his deceased friend, Elie Khoury. She is convinced that Elie was murdered, but nobody seems to agree with her. What about Leah Strauss, the mistress? And the invading British paratroops? Only an Englishman, surely, would take for granted that the British have behaved themselves. In this disorientating world Townrow must assess the rules by which he has been living his life – to wonder whether he, too, may have something to answer for. . .

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?