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.