The Go-Between – L P Hartley
It’s a writer’s dream to come up with the perfect opening line. Often so much effort is put into creating that stunning beginning that the rest of the book seems a bit like a damp squib. L P Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, has delivered one of the most famous openers in English literature, although many of us would struggle to identify the author; “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Mercifully, after such a great start, this exquisite novel does not disappoint.
We first meet the protagonist, Leo Colston, as a man in his sixties in the drab 1950s, going through some old things from his childhood. He comes across a diary for the year 1900, the so-called start of the new “Golden Age”. Leo opens the diary and out of it comes tumbling the story of a traumatic period of Leo’s youth, culminating in a visit to Brandham Hall in Norfolk where he saw his equivalent of Stella Gibbons’ Aunt Ada Doom’s something nasty in the woodshed. It had a traumatic effect not only on Leo, it is fair to say it blighted the rest of his life, but also the other participants.
In some ways the story is a re-run of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, a posh bird, Marian Maudsley, faced with the prospect of a loveless and unwanted marriage with the local Viscount, horribly disfigured in the Boer War, having a tempestuous affair with the local bit of rough, Ted Burgess. The rather innocent, Leo, is suborned by Marian and Ted to run messages to them with arrangements for their next tryst. He is their go-between.
The book is redolent with symbolism. Leo has an obsession with the temperature of a warm summer. He goes to view the thermometer in the outhouse which records how hot it is and he religiously records the temperature in his diary. The heat of the sun is marked by a rise in mercury and, of course, Mercury was the messenger of the Roman gods.
When we first meet Leo, he is at the height of his powers. He is bullied at school and he puts his principal tormentors under a curse. When they both fall and seriously injure themselves, Leo’s reputation as a necromancer is established. But that represents the height of his powers and from then on his story is one of a rapid and sorry descent. “You flew too near the sun and you were scorched” is an apt summary of his story. It also epitomises the crushing of the hopes and dreams for the 20th century.
The story is beautifully crafted and Hartley uses the principal characteristics of Leo, his inquisitiveness, innocence, willingness to please and naivety, to counterbalance the longings, subterfuges and plots of the adults. Towards the end of the book, Leo realises that Marian’s overt friendliness was just a ruse to get him to deliver her messages but despite that he finds himself drawn into Marian and Ted’s plans. The signs of the zodiac, which decorate the cover of Leo’s fateful diary, provide symbols and imagery that appear throughout the story.
Hartley finds time to explore the tricky subjects of class and gender, mainly through set pieces. The cricket match between the house and the villagers is little more than the playing out of the class war, a theme repeated in the after-match concert until their mutual antipathy is laid aside in admiration of Leo’s singing voice. For me the standout scene was Leo’s battle with the deadly nightshade, Atropa Belladona, a scene and motif stuffed full of Freudian associations.
This wonderful book works on so many levels as well as just being a good read. I’m ashamed it has taken me so long to discover it.