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.
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.