The Go-Between

After a discussion with my son recently about what he was reading in English class, I got to thinking about what I had had to read in school during the early to mid teen years and while there must have been many a book over the course of that time, I could recall only three. Hardly surprising really…mandatory school reading must surely be the bane of every child’s existence: if school asks it of you it will most assuredly be boring with a capital B and therefore must be eternally banished from recollection.

The Go-Between, however, by L.P. Hartley, managed to wedge itself firmly in my memory for two reasons. First, the main character Leo Colston is teased unmercilessly for using the word “vanquished”—a word that I have never heard since without thinking of this novel.

Second, it is set during a hot English summer and if you’ve ever lived in England you’ll know that those are three words which are rarely spoken together. But it is the heat which seems to heighten and highlight the power of this classic coming-of-age story whose opening line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” is considered one of the best in literature.

And so on a whim, and because the heat of a Southern summer had just crashed down upon me, I decided to re-read the book and see if it stood the test of time.

We first meet Leo as a man in his middle sixties who discovers a diary from his childhood and begins to reminisce. The diary begins in the year 1900, a date that held a magical promise for him, the dawn of a new century. When he uses the word vanquished he is systematically bullied by a couple of boys at his boarding school and so he turns to his diary and writes a curse in it against his tormentors. It seems to work, for the boys meet a non-fatal but serious demise and Leo becomes something of a hero…the boys were not well liked amongst his fellow students.

When school gets out that summer, Leo is invited to spend a few weeks at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, the home of his much wealthier friend, Marcus Maudsley. Here he is introduced to Marcus’ beautiful older sister, Marian, with whom Leo is immediately smitten, the man she is to marry, the gallant and war-scarred Viscount Trimingham, and Ted, a local tenant farmer who entrances Leo with his vitality but who also happens to be Marian’s lover.

It is at Brandham Hall where Leo becomes acutely aware of the social disparity between himself and his friend and, because he feels out of his depth and insecure by it all, he is rather eager to please. So when Marcus becomes ill and Leo is asked by Marian to take a note to Ted, Leo is happy to oblige. But as the days pass he senses that something is not quite right and sneaks a peak at one of Marian’s letters to discover that she is in love with Ted.

From here things go rather pear shaped. Leo, upset and disillusioned, is ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of an adult relationship as seen through the filter of his own innocence. He tries to disentangle himself from his role as the go-between and in an attempt to end the relationship between Marian and Ted, Leo resorts to casting a spell, which had worked so well for him back at school. Unfortunately the only thing this accomplishes is saddling him with the guilt of the tragedy that finally occurs.

The Go-Between is a quintessentially British story. It evokes a bygone era with its country house setting and people who can spend such glorious days lounging, swimming and partaking of tea on the lawn. The confines of class structure and the rules and manners of Edwardian England are all played out in the shimmering heat and, symbolically, on the cricket field. And as the mercury rises so does the tension for Leo who is cruelly manipulated by the charm and desperation of Marian and Ted.

This is a quiet read that builds slowly. It is at once wistful and sad, rich and majestic. Its greatest strength is in the beauty of the writing, luxurious in its ability to conjure up a time and place with such intensity you can almost feel it. And when the ending does arrive, it is subtle but crushing and as we find out in the epilogue, has had powerful and life long repercussions on the poor 13 year old Leo.

There is also a 1971 movie of The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie as Marian. It has that ethereal, dreamy quality that movies of the period tend to have and a rather annoying soundtrack that at times made me want to turn it off. It also has some rather strange flash forwards that were pretty incongruous. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a watch, if only for Julie Christie who is stunning. Last year a re-make was released starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jim Broadbent, which I would love to see if it becomes available over here.

And should you wish to further your knowledge of a great English summer, you could read The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson in which I was tickled to read this in the introduction:”During the long hot summer of 2003 I had been reading, for the first time in many years, L.P. Hartley’s wonderful novel of class conflict and heated adolescence, The Go-Between, and I began to wonder whether there was a real English summer like that.”

It’s an interesting read about the end of the Edwardian era and the June coronation of George V and examines the social climate of England, both upper and lower classes, all played out against an unusually hot English summer.

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