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A young boy's Innocence betrayed
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.