Resembling both McEwan's Atonement and Frayn's Spies in its plot, this 1953 novel, recently reprinted, tells of a pre-adolescent's naive meddling in the love lives of elders, with disastrous results. Set in the summer of 1900, when the hopes and dreams for the century were as yet untarnished by two world wars and subsequent horrors, this novel is quietly elegant in style, its emotional upheavals restrained, and its 12-year-old main character, Leo Colston, so earnest, hopeful, and curious about life that the reader cannot help but be moved by his innocence.
Leo's summer visit to a friend at Brandham Hall introduces him to the landed gentry, the privileges they have assumed, and the strict social behaviors which guide their everyday lives. Bored and wanting to be helpful when his friend falls ill, Leo agrees to be a messenger carrying letters between Marian, his host's sister, and Ted Burgess, her secret love, a farmer living nearby. Catastrophe is inevitable--and devastating to Leo. In descriptive and nuanced prose, Hartley evokes the heat of summer and the emotional conflicts it heightens, the intensity rising along with the temperature. Magic spells, creatures of the zodiac, and mythology create an overlay of (chaste) paganism for Leo's perceptions, while widening the scope of Hartley's focus and providing innumerable parallels and symbols for the reader.
The emotional impact of the climax is tremendous, heightened by the author's use of three perspectives--Leo Colston as a man in his 60's, permanently damaged by events when he was 12; Leo as a 12-year-old, wrestling with new issues of class, social obligation, friendship, morality, and love, while inadvertently causing a disaster; and the reader himself, for whom hindsight and knowledge of history create powerful ironies as he views these events and the way of life they represent. Some readers have commented on Leo's unrealistic innocence in matters of sex, even as a 12-year-old, but this may be a function of age. For those of us who can remember life without TV and the computer, it is not so far-fetched to imagine a life in which "mass communication" meant the telegraph and in which "spooning" was an adults-only secret! Mary Whipple
on July 22, 2004
On the surface this is a story about a boy's unwitting involvement in facilitating a love affair at the turn of the century (1899 or so), told retrospectively by that boy as a man in his 60s.
On a deeper level one could say it's about our capacity for self-deception, or about the agonies of going from the intense and uncomplicated pleasures of childhood to the tortuous emotions of adulthood. But this makes the book sound detached and overly literary, which it's definitely not. It's involving and dramatic instead.
Hartley's commanding style makes this story extremely gripping; because it's told in retrospect the narrator is as articulate as an adult, yet the emotions expressed (and somehow the ones the reader feels) are the intense and confused ones of a child. Everything seems vivid and yet nothing is completely understandable, just as it is for us as children.
This lends the book a very bittersweet feeling and a magnificent aura of mystery. It's hard to imagine this book will ever go out of style.
on November 28, 2000
This book is striking as a counterpoint to Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece "Brideshead Revisited". Both were written immediately after WW2, when Englishmen, exhausted, quite reasonably gazed back at a lost time of grace and innocence.
Both Hartley and Waugh saw the falseness of that innocence, but also its deeper truth.
Hartley's story is worth reading now, at the beginning of this century, for he places it at the dawn of the last one. Leo, his protagonist, is 12 years old. He has huge dreams for the century that is breaking on him. His faith contrasts with the bitter weariness of his older self, the alternative narrator, who in 1950 lays out this story from his memory, prompted by the discovery of a childhood diary.
"Has the 20th Century done so much better than I have?" the narrator chides the memory of his childhood self. "You were vanquished, and so was your century, your precious century that you hoped so much of."
1900 was the last hot summer of Victoria's England. Leo, the only child of a widowed mother, goes to stay with a much wealthier schoolfriend. He sees nothing but the glories of the Maudsley family and their special guest, the Boer war-scarred young nobleman Viscount Trimingham. He becomes enraptured in his friend's sister, the ethereal Marian, for whom he would happily die.
In an emotional sense, he will.
Marian is kind to Leo. She also uses him. How much her affection was false, how much was genuine, lies at the core of Leo's agony.
The boy acts as a go-between in Marian's illicit love for a tenant farmer, a man of physical force, a creation worthy of DH Lawrence. Leo learns that adults are not what they seem. And he takes it hard.
It is possible to quibble with this story. It stretches credulity that even a century ago, a boy on the brink of puberty could be quite so naive - or that the loss of innocence should bring so complete an emotional collapse. The young Leo seems too vulnerable, the older one, too stifled. What holds it, though, is the beauty of the writing, the evocation of a lost age - both the age of boyhood and the age when Class, with its immutable threads, bound every English soul to its own orbit. Two world wars, for better or worse, blew such certainties apart.
The story lives up to the mystery and the promise of its rightly famous opening line, the haunting and teasing truth: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
on February 10, 2002
I first read The Go-Between in my English class in my last year of high school. Returning to the book some 20 years later, I found it an even richer text than I did as a schoolboy.
The author's use of the older Leo's retrospective narrative provides flexibility to alter recollections and timelines in a way that allows him to introduce symbolism to the text - the heat as a guage of the sexual relationship between Marion and Ted (he first notices its destructiveness at the moment he finds out of the true nature of their relationship by glancing at the unsealed letter) - the belladonna / deadly nightshade (even the two names provide contrasting meanings) as a symbol of Marion which he eventually destroys - phallic symbols such as the cricket bat and the gun for Ted (the latter which destroys him both physically and metaphorically).
Hartley's text is also a critique on the 20th century. The story is placed in 1900 and the great hopes of Victorian/Edwardian Britian - the progress of science, the progress of human society and the height of Empire. The shattering of Leo's life and hopes evokes the reality of the 20th century West. Denys and Marcus are killed in WW1 and the 10th Vicount and Vicountess Trimington by WW2. The signs are there at the time of the illusion of this sense of progress for the new century, with the frequent references to the Boer War and the disfigurement of Trimington.
There are some minor quibbles with the story. The emotional collapse of Leo seems disproportionate to what he saw - he may not have known what "spooning" was but he was aware of the intensity of Marion and Ted's relationship. However, it adds dramatic impact and does not detract from the brilliant integration of the text - its use of language, symbols and narrative patterns.
on March 31, 1999
Every time this book is read, another aspect comes into view. Written in the context of a middle aged man finding old letters and a diary in his attic, it quickly becomes clear that this man is a batchelor who has lead an emotionally shallow life. He is Leo, a boy of 12, invited to spend his summer school break with a more affluent friend and finds himself taken into a world where there are no longer any rules or structures to support him. In the chaos that he triggers he tries to find order in amongst his world and the results in doing so are catastrophic to him and the people around him. Imagery is strong, and wonderfully intertwined between the lines. Hartley's skill lets us see the characters through the eyes of a boy, standing on the precipice of adulthood and yet still living within a life of childhood fantasies where his world does make sense. He does not understand the machinations of the adults around him. Passion, deception and innocence are overlaid with stong imageries; the Zodiac, Leo is Mercury, messenger of the Gods, mercury also gauging the ever rising heat of the summer, and of those passions of the adults circling around him. Being Robin Hood in his suit of green to his Fair Maid Marian, but green also meaning innocence and naivety. Misunderstandings, the hero, disfigured, his face unable to reveal what his heart feels. The story pulls you through each humid emotion filled day to its climatic end. And at the end, what becomes of the characters, of those 'planets' circling around Leo and the virgin? Is she a calculating woman, ruthless and insensitive to the feelings of a 12 year old boy, or should a woman never be blamed for what happens? Is Leo the author of his own misfortune, despite his age? What is the use of blame? Arguably the last chapter, may be a dissapointment to some readers, for perhaps it reveals too much. There are no questions left unanswered for us afterwards. The mystery is gone. Perhaps that is what Hartley was trying to achieve.
on September 25, 1999
When you start to this read the novel you may, initially, be overwhelmed by the elder Leo's adult persecptive. Do not let that put you off this tremendous novel. The author uses a Dickensian technique to allow the aged narrator to build a narrative full of suspense and drama. The Young Leo is exploited by adults who ought to know better...The most marvellous aspect of this book is L.P. Hartley's writing which is perfectly tuned. You cannot read this novel without becoming embroiled in young Leo's dilemna.
on December 20, 2011
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." And thus begins L.P. Hartley's classic novel, "The Go-Between," a breathtaking piece of literature that I somehow missed during my younger years, but placed near the top of my reading list this past June after hearing Ann Brashares' You Must Read This essay on NPR (KQED-FM in San Francisco).
Invited by a school mate to spend the sweltering summer of 1900 on the great English estate of Brandham Hall, thirteen-year-old Leo Colston finds himself immersed in the world of the Victorian-era upper class. But, when his school mate's older sister enlists him as an unwitting messenger in her illicit love affair with a lower-class farmer, catastrophe becomes inevitable and, for Leo, devastating.
Told from the vantage point of fifty years on, Leo's narrative of himself as a 13-year-old boy wrestling with issues of class, friendship, morality, and love, while inadvertently causing a tragedy from which he never recovers, is an emotional tour-de-force. Hartley's writing is intelligent and complex; "The Go-Between" is a true masterpiece.
How I missed it until now, I'll never now.
on August 27, 2009
If you admire Ian McEwan's Atonement and are also a reader interested in literary antecedents, I recommend The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. McEwan has spoken of his admiration for this novel, and his debt to it is unmistakable. Both novels are set in an English country estate, and both deal with the unfortunate consequences of a young person's involvement in the sexual transgressions of his/her elders. Hartley's youngster, Leo, is a boy enlisted to carry messages between lovers, whereas McEwan's Briony is an eye witness who misinterprets what she sees. In both novels, the lovers defy class distinctions.
Although the adults are the primary offenders, Leo's self-concept is partly to blame for the misfortunes that follow. He's a bit of a social snob, and he also fancies himself to be a magician capable of casting spells. McEwan thinks about Briony in a similar way, although Briony's interest in story telling is a stronger force in the plot than is Leo's interest in magic.
Hartely's novel was published in 1953 and was evenually translated into a fine movie with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and with Julie Christie starring. The story is set in 1900, with the elderly narrator (the go-between grown old) recalling his childlike enthusiasm at the thought of the beautiful new century to come. As with Briony's story in Atonement, Leo's story takes us into the future to glimpse the long-range effects of the snake's first appearance in the garden of childhood. WWI looms on the horizon for the young Leo, as does WWII for Briony.
"The past is a foreign country," Hartley writes: "they do things differently there." This opening statement is not meant to be dismissive. If the past is a foreign country, it is nonetheless a country that casts an influence with which the present must come to terms. This is a theme English writers have pondered in many of their finest novels. Great Expectations and Brideshead Revisited also come to mind. Perhaps as America grows older, this theme will become increasingly important to our own novelists.
on December 20, 2008
A story of lost innocence, "The Go-Between" is also about the introverted, relatively impoverished Leo trying to fit in with his friend's aristocratic family. But, above all, it is about misplaced trust, and a trust betrayed.
Bored and left to his own devices when his friend becomes ill, yet eager for acceptance by his friend's family, Leo develops a schoolboy crush both for his friend's sister, Marian Maudsley, and for Ted Burgess, a tenant farmer, who use the boy to convey messages enabling their illicit liaison--an affair complicated by the fact that Marian is to be married to a local viscount. Leo eventually divines the import of his mission, and it's a heavy burden for a young boy: "It seemed to me that if I went away, and only if I went away, the relationship between Ted and Marian would cease. I didn't ask myself how it had been kept up before I came."
In his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Colm Toibin notes the autobiographical elements of Hartley's novel: the yearning for a lost (and largely imagined) paradisiacal England, the nostalgia for his boyhood, his status as an outsider. A more subtle autobiographical intrusion is the author's censorious fascination with "forbidden" love: he meant readers to disapprove of Ted and Marian's affair and was somewhat surprised when they didn't. Hartley himself was both homosexual and a bit of a prude, and it doesn't take a Freudian therapist to understand the tensions that compelled the author to fall in love with his own "wayward" characters without realizing he was doing so. (The jilted viscount, in contrast, seems almost buffoonish.) Yet the most sympathetic portrait remains Leo himself, who is treated as both a pliable pet for the family's patronizing manners and a credulous pawn of their household machinations.
What truly distinguishes this coming-of-age tragedy is the elegiac simplicity of its prose. Hartley's style is reminiscent of the later, more serious Waugh, combined with a Proustian (but more easily readable) attention to detail. It's a luxurious and deceptively quiet read, with a startling climax and an ironically poignant denouement. In the end, Hartley successfully re-creates the paradise of a pollyannaish childhood at the turn of the last century, only to expose its purgatorial foundation.
on October 5, 2005
Leo Colston is an exceptionally naive 12-year old when he goes to spend many weeks one early 20th century summer at a friend's English country home. Soon he becomes caught up in the comings and goings of two lovers with a world of class differences between them. Yet he still manages to retain his innocence, a situation author L. P. Hartley makes completely believable. Hartly pulls off the enviable trick of making Leo three-dimensional and fully fleshed-out despite his youth and his obtuseness. This ability to be unruffled by the passions around him is employed as a devastating counterpoint to the emotional implosion that rocks the family when the lovers are exposed.
My only real complaint with the book was the introduction of Leo as a grown man towards the end. It felt tacked on, and as though the book would have been better without it--as a sort of fever dream, beautifully written and left alone to stand on its own without the hard addition of reality and adulthood.