I first read The Go-Between when I was studying for my English Literature A-Level (a massive fourteen or so years ago). I remember enjoying it, which to be perfectly honest is not always the case when I study a book. I often find, as I’m sure many others do, that studying a book at school or university can take an awful lot of enjoyment out of it, but this wasn’t true of The Go-Between. So when my friend Jen mentioned that she was planning on reading it again, I thought I’d follow suit, and I dug out my old, battered copy, and got reading.
The Go-Between tells the story of Leo, a young boy who, in the first summer of the 20th Century, is invited to stay with a school friend at his home, the grand Brandham Hall, in Norfolk. The story actually begins with the adult Leo finding an old diary that he kept during that time, and reminiscing on his time with the Maudsley family, and thinking about the events of the summer changed his life forever.
Developing a crush on his friend’s grown up sister, Marian, Leo finds himself engaged as a go-between, a postman between Marian and Ted, a local farmer. At first Leo doesn’t understand the nature of the letters passing between the two of them, though the reader is quickly clued in as to what is going on. Despite being promised to the local Viscount, the man from whom the Maudsleys are actually renting Brandham Hall, Marian is engaging in a passionate affair with Ted.
The most famous quote of the book is the opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This is said from the perspective of the older Leo, a man who is looking back, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Although it is the younger Leo’s story, we are regularly reminded that the story is from the memories of the older man, and it provides us with a perspective on a series of events that a twelve-year-old couldn’t have been expected to understand at the time.
Hartley uses the figures of the zodiac and various gods throughout the whole novel, with Leo likening Marian to Virgo (ironically, as it turns out), Ted to the water carrier, and himself to Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Viscount Trimingham, with the disfigured face he obtained during the Boer War (happening in the background of the novel), is compared to Janus, with his two faces.
As it has been so long since I first read this book, I can’t remember all of my feelings on the book. I can’t remember if I felt as sad for Leo then as I did this time around. The story of the summer of 1900 is bookended by the older Leo, now in his fifties, reminiscing about that summer, and at the end of the book, he actually returns to the village to try to put some of his demons to rest. The whole thing left me feeling sad for this character whose life is essentially wasted because of the actions of adults who manipulated and used a child for their own means. Hartley himself was said to have been surprised when people sympathised with the relationship between Marian and Ted, as he himself had intended for them to be seen to be in the wrong. From a 21st Century perspective, it’s even easier to empathise with Marian; a young woman who is essentially being sold to the local landowner, when she is clearly in love with Ted. But her actions (and Ted’s too, he is not blameless in the slightest) regarding Leo, and her attitude at the end of the novel, mean that for me, she is not a particularly sympathetic character.
I would have to say that I enjoyed The Go-Between even more this time round. Reading it as a seventeen-year-old was fine, and I’m glad I did, but I think as an adult, I was able to enjoy it on another level. I feel as though it’s going to be one of those books that I am going to read every couple of years.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
First Published: 1953