The Go-Between

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

“Do you remember that book in which this boy saw two people having sex and then lost his memory?” This is how my friend introduced me to this book during a conversation. After wrongly guessing Lady Chatterly’s Lover, google provided the name of the book: The Go-Between.

Published in 1953, The Go-Between is a book by British writer L.P Hartley and it is set in 1900. The book opens with the iconic opening line quoted above, and we are introduced to the protagonist; sixty-something year old Leo Colston as he comes across a diary from his childhood, which brings back memories of a traumatic incident that he has repressed for decades.

The memories are from fifty years prior in 1900, when as an almost 13 year old he is invited by the family of his schoolmate, Marcus Maudsley, to spend the summer at their country estate. At Brandham Hall, Leo is transported from his middle class life with his widowed mother, to the grand upper class life of the Maudsleys. Even his clothing is out of place, and for the first time he is aware of social inferiority.

Hitherto I had always taken my appearance for granted; now I saw how inelegant it was, compared with theirs; and at the same time, for I was acutely aware of social inferiority. I felt utterly out of place among these smart rich people, and a misfit everywhere.

Leo becomes completely infatuated with Marcus’ older sister Marian, who he sees as his first encounter with beauty, a pure goddess in human form. Marian is to be engaged to the Viscount of Trimingham; a disfigured war veteran named Hugh (this sparks numerous Hugh-You misunderstandings throughout the book).

So that is what it is to be beautiful, I thought, and for a time my idea of her as a person was confused and even eclipsed by the abstract idea of beauty that she represented.

She was not of our clay, she was a goddess, and we must not think that by worshipping her we could lower her to our level.

Leo comes into contact with Ted Burgess-a tenant farmer-and he soon starts passing messages between Ted and Marian. It is (or should be) immediately clear that there is a clandestine relationship between Ted and Marian, but sweet naive Leo is completely clueless. He assumes there must be some business between the two, and his imagination even goes as far as to contemplate the possibility of them being involved in a murder legal case. Upon realising the true nature of the correspondence, Leo becomes quite uncomfortable with his role as a go-between, and he worries about how the illicit affair will affect Hugh. Though Leo is aware that Ted is from a lower social class, he does not understand why Marian and Ted cannot be married.

“Not Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, could have been more upset than I was.”

Leo seems to slowly break down from the weight of the secrecy and deception. His experience at Brandham Hall which had been relatively pleasant and even incredible in some parts, is now tainted by all this pressure and he just wants to go home and leave all of this behind. He makes up his mind to stop passing the messages but his resolve is shot down and he is persuaded to continue. Childishly, he thinks that if he stops passing the messages then they will have to quit their relationship and Marian can focus on her engagement to Hugh. Of course this does not happen, and in reality the lovers are caught. This leads to disastrous consequences and Leo’s full nervous breakdown and repression of memories of the summer.

In the epilogue, the older Leo reflects on how that summer altered the course of his life, and shaped the man he is now. He decides to go back to Brandham Hall which has changed in the time since he was there. Marian is still there, much older and estranged from her grandson who finds it difficult to come to terms with the events of half a century ago. Marian once again asks Leo to act as a go-between and talk to her grandson.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. First off, it was really easy and pleasant to read, and I only skipped past a few descriptions (which is a big deal for me because I have little patience and always skip right past long flowery descriptions). Because it was set in 1900 I assumed it would be full of a language of another time but while there were references to that age, the language itself was fine. The writing is gorgeous and the story is interesting so every time I picked up the book I was completely enraptured by the story.

Thanks to my friend I knew that Leo was going to see some people having sex and I spent the whole time eagerly anticipating this climax. Every time he went on a walk I thought oh boy this is it! It came right at the end. I wanted more! I wanted to see in detail the full fallout and scandal rather than just references to it in the epilogue. But I guess that would have been another book.

I very much enjoyed entering Leo Colston’s little world, watching his little idiosyncrasies and moral dilemmas. It was interesting to see the inner workings of the mind of a 12 year old Victoria schoolboy and I was amused by his constant references and adherence to the schoolboy code. I also liked the glimpse into upper class Victorian life; the general fuss and flair of that time. One of the things that fascinates me about that age is their dedication to dressing up and how much of a ceremony it was. Nowadays you see people just wearing whatever-tracksuits to dinner, biker shorts to funerals-which makes it funny to see Leo agonise so much over his wardrobe and being teased over packing the wrong outfits. The existence of distinct social classes and resulting prejudice is the crux of the story. The class prejudice still exists today of course, but it was much more enforced back then and I got Bridgerton vibes.

I was sitting with mama pretending to be a villager-poor dear, she didn’t want them on both sides of her-and she was convulsed, and so was I… (This line had me laughing so loud at 6am)

I did feel sorry for Leo at some points. Poor boy was so naïve and this was preyed upon by the adults around him. He internalised so much and sadly took more blame than he should have, which is why the experiences of one summer when he was barely 13 years old was enough to alter his life. This is the real age of innocence (no shade to Ms. Wharton). Leo is so blissfully naive that he did not even know what spooning was or how a horse comes to be pregnant with a foal. Thirteen years olds of today are definitely more aware.

With the completion of The Go-Between, I am pleased to announce that I read three books in January 2021! I am quite proud of myself and I am already on my fourth book of the year. Though I said I wouldn’t buy anymore books until I have read every book in my collection, I did go ahead and buy two books. I was looking through some quotes from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine which reminded me how much I related to the protagonist. My sister had lent me her copy to read and I decided I needed to have my own copy. Of course the eBay bookstore was doing a sale so I got another book as well.

I will end this with another quote from The Go-Between, one that so perfectly encapsulates the book.

“Was there a telephone here in your day?”
“No,” I replied. “It might have made a great difference if there had been.”

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