The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley (1953)

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“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Well written, this novel focuses on the memory of an elderly man who is reflecting on the summer of his twelfth year which he spent at the home of a wealthy family of one of his school friends.  (Another bildungsroman, it seems.) It’s contrasted strongly with his own home life (which is poorer) and Leo, the protagonist, is acutely aware of the “right” things to do and say. It’s also a balance between the social codes of his boarding school (which he and his friend attend) and what is appropriate for this summer visit. It’s a rather fraught novel, I think, which has the overall impression of impending doom. (This is clearly mentioned on the back blurb though, so not giving the game away.)

Hartley has done an excellent job of seeing through the eyes of a twelve year old at the beginning of the twentieth century in England. His recollections of how he viewed the world were spot on (to me), and his lush descriptions of endless summer days during school holidays is perfectly accurate: lengthy days, lassitude, and not much to do except mess around. Perhaps I had an odd childhood in the 1970’s, but this was very close to how I remember my childhood growing up (although it might be burnished with the glow of memory.)

These endless days of summer are also a great conduit for illustrating the impending doom (uncertain though that may be). The increasing temperatures (checked daily by the protagonist on the outbuilding’s thermometer) links with the perceived increasing pressure of whatever news is to come, and thunderstorms hang in the air like heavy clouds. It’s really well done.

mercuryLeo is very interested in things of an astral nature: the signs of the Zodiac, his nickname of Mercury (the messenger in Roman mythology who wore winged sandals) and he half-believes that he has the power to control external forces such as the weather and sometimes other people’s behavior and choices through magical curses (or spells, but mostly curses).

The title comes mostly from the fact that Leo is tasked with taking messages between the young lady of the house and a local farmer, a totally unsuitable match that can only be conducted in secret. At first, Leo feels privileged to have been asked, but as the summer progresses and things get more complicated, it becomes a burden and a political minefield. The reader also learns the event that caused all the upheaval and led to a troubled adult life for Leo, but I shall say nothing here. (Don’t want to give the story away. Suffice to say, it’s good.)

The Go-Between could also be interpreted to mean Leo’s having to move between social classes, uncertain of how he should behave with whom (not only with him having to adapt to the higher social class, but also having to balance his friendship with the local farmer, a working class guy. And class was everything at this time.)

Additionally, it might also be seen as Leo having to cross the social codes of the boarding school milieu (which he shares with only his friend that summer) and the social mores of the outside world. It was a lot to deal with for that young lad.

Although written in 1953, there are lots of echoes of other stories from earlier (and later times: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, for example, and McEwan’s Atonement. There are even overlaps with novels like The L-Shaped Room and The Backward Shadow by Lynne Reid Banks in terms of gender roles and expectations. Lots to think about here.

So – this story is packed with foreboding of horrible things to come. I felt it rather raised the bar a bit too much so when “it” (the event) happened, it was a little bit of a let-down. (Oh, that’s it? Huh.) Perhaps it was terribly shocking in the 50’s…

Overall, a good read with psychological under- (and over-) tones. Lovely descriptions of bucolic days in the English countryside (at a stately home sort of place), and good character development. It also had moments that were really rather funny, but I’m not sure if they were really supposed to be. It did add some levity though.

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