The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley was made for the summer. First published in 1953, it is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. It’s one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

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As the novel opens, Leo Colston (a man in his sixties) finds an old diary from 1900 among a box of mementos from his childhood. The diary triggers a series of memories of a month spent at Brandham Hall – the Norfolk home of an old school friend – memories that Leo has kept buried for over fifty years. The events in question have left a terrible mark on Leo; they shaped his personality and direction in life in the years that followed. In some respects, this reawakening of old memories is an opportunity for Leo to finally deal with the fallout from this time in his childhood, to let go of the emotional burden that has haunted him ever since (albeit subconsciously). As he looks at the pages for July, Leo is powerless to resist the reopening of old wounds; it’s a classic set-up for the story to come.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like the effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with an effort that I can see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I can 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. (pg. 28)

Winding back to the summer of 1900, Leo is twelve years old. He is on the threshold of adolescence, and his 13th birthday is fast approaching. A sensitive boy at heart, Leo’s stock has recently risen at school. He is an inventive child with a keen sense of imagination, and recent mysterious events have earned him some kudos among his fellow boarders.

When he arrives at Brandham Hall to stay with his friend, Marcus Maudsley, Leo is somewhat daunted by his new environment. The privileged Maudsley family belong to a higher social class than Leo, and their ways of operating are very different from those of Leo and his mother. Moreover, he feels buttoned up in his fusty clothes — a thick jacket, breeches and boots, items which prove totally unsuitable for the scorching July weather. All this leaves Leo somewhat fearful of losing face; in short, he feels utterly out-of-place among the smart, well-to-do people of Brandham Hall.

Marcus’ older sister, Marian, can tell that Leo feels uncomfortable in his heavy clothes, so she offers to buy him something more suitable — the gift is tactfully positioned as an early birthday present. Leo is transformed by his light linen suit and summer shoes; his confidence is restored, and his mood lightened. Even Marcus’ mother approves of the change, the woman who seems to hold the reins of power at Brandham, directing the social agenda each morning after breakfast.

Leo is also befriended by Lord Trimingham, the man the Maudsleys consider as Marian’s rightful future husband. Trimingham is kind to Leo, talking to him and giving him verbal messages to deliver to Marian on his behalf. Leo, for his part, warms to Trimingham. In general, these grown-ups in their late teens and early twenties are a mystery to Leo, but Trimingham with his relaxed and friendly manner strikes a chord with the young boy.

When Marcus is confined to bed for a few days, Leo occupies himself by roaming the countryside surrounding the Hall. One afternoon, he cuts his leg quite badly and is helped by the local farmer, the rough-and-ready Ted Burgess. In return for bandaging the boy’s leg, Ted asks Leo if he will take a secret note to Marian at the Hall. Leo is keen to repay the favour, so he agrees to deliver the farmer’s letter. In effect, Leo becomes a kind of Mercury – the messenger, postman and Go-Between – as he finds himself passing a series of covert messages between Ted and Marian over the days that follow.

For I took my duties as a Mercury very seriously, all the more because of the secrecy enjoined on me, but most of all because I felt I was doing for Marian something that no one else could. She chattered to her grown-up companions to pass the time, she turned a smiling face to Lord Trimingham, sat next to him at meals, and walked with him on the terrace; but when she handed me the notes, young as I was, I detected an urgency in her manner which she did not show to the others – no, not to Lord Trimingham himself. To be of service to her was infinitely sweet to me, nor did I look beyond it. (pg. 94)

Leo looks up to Marian, viewing her as a rather god-like creature, standing as she does at the dawn of the 20th century, a new era full of hope and expectation. Ted, on the other hand, is a source of fascination for the young boy; Leo’s feelings towards Ted are a mix of part admiration and part aversion. Ted’s somewhat rough personality and physical presence cast a kind of spell on Leo; in some respects, he represents everything a ‘real’ man should be. But at the same time, Leo is a little wary of Ted’s apparent power over Marian. Nevertheless, Leo enjoys his role and status as a Mercury – certainly at first – mostly because he feels trusted by Ted and Marian. Moreover in return, Leo gets seduced by their charms.

Needless to say, Leo is getting drawn into a world of secrets, duplicity and desire. When he reads a few lines from one of Marian’s letters, Leo starts to realise what might be happening between the pair, so he tries in vain to disentangle himself from the role. Plus, he is puzzled as to where this leaves Trimingham. Unfortunately for Leo, both Ted and Marian – the latter in particular – apply all kinds of direct and indirect pressure to persuade him to continue to deliver their messages. Poor Leo seems powerless to resist. As you’ve probably gathered by now, everything comes to a head in a dramatic dénouement, the event that shapes the young boy’s life in the years that follow.

The Go-Between is a superb novel, fully deserving of its status as a 20th-century classic. Plot, character development and a strong sense of period/place all come together in perfect harmony. Like Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, Hartley’s story captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world. Leo is exposed, caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. As such, Leo is totally reliant on the guidance of the people who befriend him, most notably Ted and Marian.

It is also a novel of many contrasts: the differences in class between Leo’s family and the Maudsleys; the contrast between the kindly, sophisticated, war-wounded Trimingham and the rough, tempestuous, manly farmer Ted. Marian is expected to marry Trimingham out of a sense of duty and social convention, but it is Ted whom she really loves. Some of these contrasts are captured in a marvellous central scene, a cricket match between the men of the Brandham and the local villagers. As twelfth man for the Hall team, Leo should be rooting for his friend Trimingham; but he is also keen to see Ted do well, especially when he turns out to be a rather nifty batsman.

Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also the 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. I knew which side I was on, yet the traitor in my gates felt the issue differently, he backed the individual against the side, even my own side, and wanted to see Ted Burgess pull it off. (pg. 124)

There are other contrasts too, perhaps most significantly Leo’s reliance on the trust he places in other people; it is this (along with his lively imagination) which guides him rather than experience, knowledge or certainty.

Finally, the novel perfectly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the Norfolk countryside at the height of July. There are hints of the danger to come in the rampant belladonna plant that Leo discovers in one of the outhouses near the Hall. I’ll finish with a short passage on the blistering heat, one that struck a chord with me.

Sounds were fewer and seemed to come from far away, as if Nature grudged the effort. In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person. (pg. 70)

The Go-Between is published by Penguin Books. #TBR20 Book 3.

71 thoughts on “The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

  1. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review Jacqui! It’s been so long since I read this but you’ve taken me right back to it. I’d forgotten what a beautiful writer Hartley is. Definitely time for a re-read, especially as you say, it’s perfect for summer :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madame bibi. I read it back in June when the weather was okayish but not great, and I’ve been waiting for a burst of sunshine to appear! (Not an issue in terms of my reviewing schedule as I have a backlog of posts to write/finalise.) Now’s the time for a re-read given the current mini heatwave. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay! Yes, a wonderful book with even more to give on a second reading. I loved the traditional nature of the narrative – it’s good, old-fashioned storytelling at it’s very best. Such a superbly crafted novel with everything working in harmony.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad you enjoyed it too, Karen! I can see this becoming a favourite of mine as well. It’s right up there in my top reads of the year, maybe even the last 3 years.

      Reply
  2. Poppy Peacock

    Oh, another for the must pile thanks to this review Jacqui😊 I already feel for Leo with an invested interest usually not found until I’ve started reading… 😯

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Trust me, Poppy – you will not regret adding this one to the pile. I had been looking forward to reading this novel for such a long time and it more than lived up to expectations. Your heart will go out to poor Leo, I guarantee it.

      Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    I read this as an A Level set text many years ago – you brought back fond memories. The film was a bit pedestrian, I recall, though Julie Christie was radiant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I can imagine it being on the curriculum as it’s such a classic story. Everything about it has that feel: the set-up with the discovery of the diary triggering all those memories; the way Marian and Ted win Leo’s trust; and then the betrayals and denouement. It’s all superbly handled. I’m glad my post revived some fond memories, Simon. I’ve been saving the recent BBC adaptation on the recorder so I’ll probably watch it in the next week or two. Haven’t seen the film, but a friend mentioned it the other day – Julie Christie cropped up in the conversation, so I might try to get hold of it just to see her performance.

      Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I’ve been meaning to read this for years but ended up watching the recent BBC version, which I liked by the way. The Go-Between seems to eclipse all his other works; I’m not sure if that’s justified or not.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m pretty sure you would enjoy the novel, Jonathan, even though you’ve seen the recent adaptation. Hartley’s prose is top notch, and the story itself is full of little subtleties and nuances (especially in the dynamics between Leo and two main players).

      I’m hoping someone might be able to offer a view on some of his other books. I agree – The Go-Between seems to be his best-known work, but there’s also The Hireling (another book adapted for the screen) and The Eustace and Hilda trilogy. I’ve been looking at the first novel in that series, the Shrimp and the Anemone, as a possible next Hartley.

      Reply
      1. Jonathan

        I saw ‘The Shrimp and theAnenome’ in The Works a little while ago and like an idiot I didn’t get it.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane. I’m sure a re-read would be very rewarding – plus it’s perfect for this mini heatwave we’re enjoying right now. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can’t recommend it highly enough, Karen. The adaptations are on on my list of things to watch – well, certainly the recent BBC version which is sitting on the recorder just waiting for an airing.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great review as alway Jacqui.

    This sounds so good. I tend to like stories involving a character looking back on their past. using weather and landscape to help shape a story is also something I tend to like as I find it can be effective in creating atmosphere. I can see how hot summer temperatures can be employed very effectively.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brain. You would enjoy this novel a great deal, I feel sure of it. The characters seem so real and fully fleshed out. The initial set-up gives the story that ‘classic’ structure of delving into the old memories and emotions from Leo’s childhood. The blistering heat of summer and the glorious landscape simply add to the heady mood Hartley creates in this novel. It’s handled with such precision and grace. A truly wonderful book.

      Reply
  6. susanosborne55

    Excellent review, Jacqui, and your last quote seems hand picked for today as we head towards 31 degrees! I’ve always thought Ian McEwan owed a debt of acknowledgement to The Go-Between for Atonement. Hartley’s novel is by far the better novel, for me. Much more depth.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been hoping for a blast of summery weather to tie in with this review! In some ways, it’s quite a straightforward novel to summarise as the plot and themes are fairly easy to spot. The characters, on the other hand, are full of depth – Marian in particular. Also, I’m sure there are additional layers and subtleties over and above those I’ve commented on here – mythological references for instance as my knowledge of the classics is pretty scant to say the least.

      That’s an interesting thought about the comparison with Atonement – it hadn’t occurred to me at all, but I can see what you mean. It’s been a while since I read the McEwan, but I much preferred The Go-Between as well.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    A great writeup of a novel that I too hold in very high regard. I first read it in my mid-teens or so and did so with reluctance: it was one of those cases of there being nothing else to read so I was stuck with this book I didn’t really fancy. By the time I was a dozen pages in, though, I was glued. An amazing piece.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, John. I’m really glad you rate this novel so highly. It’s the sort of book I would love my goddaughter to read – she’ll be 16 in six months’ time so maybe it would make a good addition to her birthday gifts. I kind of wish I had read it as a youngster too…

      Any thoughts on the 1971 film adaptation? Have you seen it? (I have the recent BBC version saved on the hard drive recorder.)

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Any thoughts on the 1971 film adaptation? Have you seen it?

        I think I must have. I know I’ve seen a screen adaptation and, according to the IMDB, the only one prior to the recent BBC version was the 1971 cinematic release. So it must have been that one I saw, even though my mind keeps saying “TV serial”! As you’ll have guessed, I don’t remember much about it . . . which is odd, because, well, Julie Christie. :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s the one. I’m wondering if I might have seen it in the very dim and distant past as the pairing of Julie Christie and Alan Bates rings a bell, albeit a fairly faint one. The cast list is pretty stellar, I have to admit – Edward Fox and Michael Redgrave too. It’s got to be worth a look.

          Reply
                1. JacquiWine Post author

                  Okay, I watched the recent BBC version last night, and as adaptations go it’s pretty damn good. Very faithful to the novel in terms of both the story and the mood/atmosphere. Jack Hollington excels as the young Leo, while Jim Broadbent is predictably good as his older incarnation. I really liked Joanna Vanderham’s Marian, but then again I’m also keen to see how Julie Christie played it in the 1970s film especially as it’s such a complex and nuanced role. Lesley Manville also deserves a mention for her marvellous turn as Mrs Maudseley, one of the stars of the piece for me. Definitely worth seeking out.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, that’s serendipity for you! There couldn’t be a better day for it – well, that’s if you’re in the UK or Europe, of course. :)

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    As I was reading your review I wondered why it was that the story sounded so familiar, but I knew I hadn’t read the book and then I remembered that the BBC recently did an adaptation which was pretty intriguing. So if you’ve not seen it, it might be worth watching just to see how it compares to your impression.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I recorded the recent TV adaptation when it screened last year. It’s waiting for me on the hard drive, so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares with my perceptions of the characters. (The novel left me with a very clear set of images of all the main players in the story, and I’m a little nervous that the adaptation might disturb these impressions – only one way to find out, I guess!)

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        Yes, I always think there needs to be a forgetting space between reading something and watching an adaptation of it, because one will invariably taint the other (and the book is always better). Maybe wait until Christmas!

        Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    Excellent review of a superb book Jacqui. The quote at the beginning about the nature of memory is spot on isn’t it?

    I see quite a few comments about books being perfect for summer. Does that mean you change your reading habits for those few months? I know some people do but I never have so I’m curious what people mean by the phrase

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, I love that quote on Leo’s memories – especially the chiaroscuro effect, the mixing of the light and the dark which seems so indicative of the shadowy nature of memory.

      I can’t speak for other readers, but as far as my own habits go, I don’t make any major changes to my reading over the summer months. I guess I might read one or two books like this one where the summer setting (or a holiday destination) is so integral to the story. (I’ve just been reading another seasonal book in preparation for the Women in Translation event biblibio will be running in August.) But apart from that, no significant differences. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s spot on. It would be a great book for a discussion group as there’s quite a lot for readers to get their teeth into. The characters are complex and fully fleshed out – for instance, there are positive and negative personality traits on show in the portrayals of Marian and Ted. They both have their good sides and less desirable ones, just like all of us in real life.

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    Very nice Jacqui, you make an excellent case for it. I’m reminded slightly of Zweig’s Burning Secret, though this sounds perhaps better due to the wider social aspects and the evocation of heat and summer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I think you’re on to something with the links to Burning Secret as it came up in the conversation when I wrote about Moravio’s Agostino, another story in which an innocent young boy (also on the cusp of adolescence) is exposed to the complexities of the adult world over a fateful summer. (An excellent novella, btw – highly recommended.) The Zweig is on my list of ‘classics’ to read in the next few years, so I might be a good one for the spring.

      The social context is key to the narrative in this one, which makes it interesting on a number of levels. Also, Marian is a terrifically complex character. I had a great quote about the way she operates, so I may as well add it here:

      No, it was her air of good-humoured impatience with things and people – her getting to a point before they did, and leaving it while they were still fumbling with it, her disturbing faculty of guessing what they were going to say before they said it, that made her seem superior to them. She arrived, while they plodded; her short cuts made them seem heavy-footed and prosy. She wasn’t superior in the sense of being patronizing; she took a great deal of interest in people, and never spoke to any of us as if he or she was someone else. But she had her own angle on us, and it was generally a slightly disconcerting one: she saw us not as we saw ourselves or as other people saw us. (pg. 182)

      Reply
  11. cleopatralovesbooks

    I only discovered this book recently and I absolutely love it – with the oppressive heat forever underlined by the endless checking of the thermometer. I read this thinking how Ian McEwan with another favourite of mine, Atonement, got his inspiration from… fab review – you’ve made me want to read it again!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just the most wonderful book? I can imagine returning to it at some point in the future as it feels quite nuanced, especially in its portrayal of the main characters. The heady atmosphere in the prickly heat of summer is so central to the story, all that tension just waiting to come to a head…

      I knew I’d seen another review of this novel last year but couldn’t remember where. It must have been yours, Cleo. For the benefit of others, here’s a link to Cleo’s review:

      https://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/the-go-between-l-p-hartley/

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline – you’re very welcome. Yes, the structure is so well thought out. It’s quite classical in its approach, I think – beautifully plotted. I would love to hear your take should you decide to revisit it. :)

      Reply
  12. Guy Savage

    I saw the film years ago, and I read this a long time ago too. The name of the author came up recently when I read Kitchin’s A Short Walk in Williams Park. The intro was written by his friend, Hartley.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll have to drop by to take a look (or possibly a second look) at your review of the Kitchin. The BBC produced a TV adaptation of The Go-Between last year, and I’ve been saving it on the hard drive. Will watch it this weekend, I think. Hoping to catch the 1970s film at some point too.

      Reply
  13. heavenali

    Wonderful – I have missed so much the last ten days or so – glad I just spotted this. I read The Go-between years ago and have been itching to re-read it. I think it would be a perfect summer read. I wish I had thought to put it on my #20booksofsummer pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s so hard to keep up with everything, especially when you’re busy with work and other stuff. So glad you enjoyed this novel too, Ali. I just knew it would be your kind of book. Couldn’t you just sneak it into your selection of 20 books for the summer? I’m sure Cathy wouldn’t mind. Even though the core of the story seems fairly straightforward, the level of detail and subtlety around the characterisation means that it’s rich enough for a second reading. Hope you get around to revisiting it soon. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely recommend this one, especially if you’re in the mood for something immersive and beautifully written. In fact I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get around to it myself.

      Reply
      1. crimeworm

        I will definitely get to it! It must have the most famous opening line – it or Anna Karenina. I notice on your shelf you have The Infatuations by Javier Marías – I’ve had that for a while and not got to it; I must see if you’ve reviewed it, so I can see if it’s worth a read…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’re right, The Go-Between does have a very famous opening: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (I didn’t use it in my review as I figured that virtually everyone who writes about this novel quotes that line!)

          Yes, I have reviewed The Infatuations. I see you’ve found my review, so I shall head over to read your comment. The short answer is, I loved it!

          Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. It’s similar to Agostino in its depiction of the exposure of an innocent young boy (just on the threshold of adolescence) to the complexities of the adult world. The set up is somewhat different of course, but the focus on the emotional impact of the situation reminded me of poor Agostino.

      The Go-Between would make a terrific choice for a book group when the time comes around again, that’s if you’re looking to do an English classic like this. The characterisation is richer here, especially Leo and Marian. I’ve been thinking of suggesting it as a future read for our one, but I strongly suspect that at least half of the group will have read it already (or seen the BBC adaptation which screened towards the end of last year).

      Reply
  16. Scott W

    One of those writers whose name I’d noticed in my peripheral vision for years but about whom I knew absolutely nothing Thanks to your review, I now know a little something, and find the idea for the novel immensely appealing. I’ll skip the film until I can get to the book, but – *plop* – there it goes (the book) right onto the to-be-read list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had been meaning to read this book for absolutely ages. Lord knows why I never got around to it before this year as it’s been on my radar for quite some time. (I strongly suspect that I must have seen the film when I was quite young, as the overall direction of Leo’s narrative felt eerily familiar.) It’s classic storytelling in a very traditional yet satisfying sense. When I think of it, I can see the countryside and feel the heat and humidity of a muggy summer. It’s evocative stuff. Think of a class-conscious version of ‘Agostino’ set in England at the turn of the century and you won’t be far off the mark.

      Reply
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