The Go-Between by L P Hartley

FictionFan, Rose and I agreed to each post our thoughts on this novel today and compare our responses.  Despite a three-month window in which to prepare, I am of course writing at the last minute with little time to reflect.  And perhaps this is a good thing because I know that I could reflect on this book for weeks and a post about it would be the subject of endless edits and revisions to the point where quite possibly it never got posted at all.

A number of things conspired to suggest that I would not enjoy this book, principally it being the wrong book at the wrong time.  Leaving myself insufficient time to read at my natural pace is never wise.  Reading a book in January in which the primary story occurs in a blistering hot summer goes against my strong preference to read seasonally.  There were dark resentful mutterings going on as I finally got going with it.  I mention these things to illustrate that Hartley had an uphill battle to win me round.  But he did so and he did it magnificently.

This is a novel where I imagine that everyone knows the story.  Certainly I knew it, although I’ve not (yet) seen the film or the 2015 tv version.  On a rainy evening mid-century, Leo Colston – now an isolated man in his mid-sixties – is forced to look back at an episode which culminated on his thirteenth birthday, in July 1900.   He had for years suppressed the memories of this time but is now forced to face them again by the discovery of his boyhood diary.

Leo’s thoughts as an impressionable young boy, interpreted and augmented by his perception as a repressed older man, create a multi-layered account of the time he spent as the guest of the family of his fellow pupil, Marcus Maudsley at Brandham Hall.  Leo was a sensitive, imaginative and impressionable boy.  Life with this wealthy family was a dramatic contrast to the more prosaic life he led with his widowed mother.  Leo is dazzled by the house, the family, the servants and by the long rounds of lazy days and house guests.  But most of all he is dazzled by Marion, the older sister of his school friend, Marcus, who takes pity on him as he swelters in his thick Norfolk jacket with no lighter summer clothes in his wardrobe.  She takes him into Norwich and kits him out with a green summer suit, and Leo is set upon a path of adoration enflamed by Marion’s beauty and glamour, and by her baffling, intermittent kindnesses.  Marion also meets with someone whilst they are in Norwich.  Leo later realises this must have been Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer. Leo gets to meet him for himself not long afterwards and is persuaded by Ted to take a message to Marion concerning some ‘business’.  Thus begins Leo’s role as ‘The Go-Between’.

Events build slowly, inexorably, inevitably.  How innocent Leo is when first he becomes involved; how eager he is to help and be praised for his efforts; how confused and fearful he becomes as he begins to realise that ‘business’ may not be quite what he thought.  But what did he think?  Leo’s confusion is compounded not only by his innocence but by his conflicting loyalties towards the beautiful, languorous Marion; Ted, the burly, earthy farmer; and Hugh, Lord Trimingham, the eighth Viscount Winlove and owner of Brandham Hall.  Facially disfigured in the Boer War, Hugh’s engagement to Marion was due to be announced at the ball on the day after Leo’s birthday.

This was a golden summer at the beginning of what Leo firmly believed was to be a golden century.  Tension builds, temperatures soar, until finally – on the evening of the much-anticipated birthday – the heatwave breaks, the heavens open and the golden lives of the Maudsley family – so carefully managed and so closely monitored by Mrs Maudsley, the family matriarch – are in turn broken open to the elements and to public scrutiny.  Some lives are shattered.  There are other casualties: Leo himself has a complete breakdown from which he never fully recovers.  And there are survivors.

Having pieced together these long-ago events, Leo cannot help but wonder what became of the family.  His diary of course, ended abruptly with his breakdown and only a single fact remained with him from the immediate aftermath.  He had never allowed himself to think back since but now he feels compelled to go back, to return to the village and learn more of the family’s fate.  The epilogue is an account of his return to Brandham and his meeting with Marion, now very elderly, who has her own interpretation of what happened in that golden summer.  And true to form, she has Leo agree to one final task as her Go-Between.

There is so much to enjoy in this book.  The writing is unhurried but never leaden.  Much of the time it is sublime.  Sometimes I felt frustration at the slow pace and the seemingly unnecessary diversions but as the chapters passed I veered between the desire to reach the dreadful climax and get it over with, and the desire to put off the inevitable for as long as possible because I didn’t want the book to end.  And despite knowing the bones of the tale, the climax, when it could finally be delayed no longer, was still shocking.

Other books pushed in from the wings.  ‘The Edwardians’, which I read quite recently; McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, which is a personal favourite; and of course ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.  For me, The Go-Between trumps each of these in its description of the Golden Age and in its ability to portray its characters.  It includes some marvellous set pieces: the concert and the cricket match; and the descriptions of the heat had me wanting a cold drink in January.  The frustration I felt sometimes at the pace of the writing or the dwelling on one small thing, melted away as I came to appreciate how skilfully the writing allowed me to see more than Leo is telling.  Of course events and characters are presented through Leo’s eyes, yet there is room enough for the reader to see what Leo cannot: the book is airy enough for the reader to see past both younger and older Leo’s restricted worldviews.  I found the characters complex and rounded; I felt sympathy for each of them and felt concern for their well-being.  Decay of the old order and disillusionment with what follows are evident.  Sadness at the loss of innocence, the loss of lives, the loss of hope permeated older and younger Leo’s thoughts and my own.  The stories we tell ourselves to cover the cracks, and the twist we put on the truth become painfully clear as elderly Marion begs older Leo to intercede with her grandson.  Much has changed since that fateful summer in 1900 and the rainy evening half a century later and life today.  But some things, it seems, never change.

There is so much more I could say about this book.  I’m confident that Rose and FF will expand on the themes I’ve neglected.  I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts and I’m sure we’ll have plenty to discuss.  And I’m looking forward to reading more from Hartley – another writer who has undeservedly fallen from public notice.  His star now shines for me at least, as brightly as the sun in his remarkable book.



31 thoughts on “The Go-Between by L P Hartley”

  1. Well, I loved this book as a teenager, but haven’t picked it up since. Your review suggests to me I should, though I’m not a great re-reader (so much to read …). Have you won me over? My next visit to the library may decide that …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review makes me want to read this all over again! I laughed at your ‘resentful mutterings’ getting started as I felt exactly the same way, just couldn’t get started, but once I did, was enthralled.
    Your review is terrific, as always, I’ve officially got blogger’s envy! Looking forward to reading more by this author too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember seeing the movie version of this. If memory serves, it came out in the late 1960s, when I was in college. The story has stayed with me ever since, and I should read the book. It also reminded me of Atonement, which is due for a reread soon. A very perceptive reading of what looks like a fascinating novel, Sandra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have yet to see the movie but it is iconic I believe. Interesting that you too thought of Atonement, Mary. McEwan has apparently said that his book was influenced by The Go-Between.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nope, apparently I don’t belong to ‘everybody’, certainly I do not know the story. Reading your amazing review, seriously made me want to get to know it though, and I am seriously intrigued by the shocking climax! Glad you didn’t give any spoilers. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was clearly much to sweeping in my judgement of ‘everybody’! But how nice not to be a part of the crowd. I hope you find the book, Elizabeth, and if you do, I hope you enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The weather has been truly wild this week! I’m in Kent at the moment and it’s been pretty grim here but not as bad as back home. The Go-Between gave me summer in January 🙂


  5. I saw the Julie Christie movie years back and I remember the painfulness of betrayal by deceit experienced by the young boy. Somehow I never got around to reading the book, although at one point I did have a copy. I enjoyed your review, and I understand your observation that the pace of the writing can be at odds with the trajectory of the plot. I have a history of dealing with such tensions by swiftly and spottily reading ahead and then going back and enjoying the writing for its own sake. Of course for a book to carry this weakness-of-character in me as a reader the writing has to be good for its own sake 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An author I have never got around to reading Sandra, although I know the story from the film ( that’s sad, isn’t it?). A wonderful review and subsequently a must for my ever-increasing reading pile!xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fab review, Sandra! (First, my apologies for disappearing – my dodgy internet system blew up again, and may not be fully fixed yet.) You’ve picked up on all the stuff I loved too – the writing, of course, and also on how the golden summer seems especially tragic because we and older Leo know how the twentieth century turned out. That last chapter is even more of a heartbreak than the actual climax, I think. I did go on and read more of his stuff in my youth and loved it almost as much, although this one is undoubtedly his masterpiece. I now want to re-read the ones I read before and also find out what ones I didn’t. I think all the characters are so good and so well developed – Marian especially is wonderfully ambivalent. Half of me felt sorry for her and the other half wanted to slap her and tell her not to be so selfish. And Leo – oh, poor Leo! Hold on till I get my hanky out again…

    So glad you loved it! So glad Rose loved it! So glad I loved it! Aren’t books great? 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aren’t they just! And every so often one comes along that is just exquisite. I love that we all three loved it, because we each favour different styles and genres in our reading and yet were in full agreement here. The mark of a classic I think 🙂

      And yes, the climax of the book is tragic but the pathos of elderly Marion in the epilogue is heartbreaking.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I watched the more recent adaptation starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jim Broadbent – can it really have been 5 years ago? It didn’t inspire me to read the book, but your review has. You draw out the richness of the story Sandra and make me want to experience it for myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book is an experience, Jan: immersion in a world long passed, evoked by superb writing. Interesting that the ‘recent’ tv adaptation didn’t do too much for you. I’d not been aware of it at all until I started reading the book and I plan to search it out if I can along with the Julie Christie film.


  9. This really does sound a great read, I’ve enjoyed all the reviews and love that you organised to read it together! The thought of summer in January is certainly appealing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying, Jane. I tend to match my reading to the seasons so it was quite a stretch for me. But I was totally pulled in. Summer in January worked a treat!


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