The Go-Between

If Mandy looks to the future, L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, published the following year, looks very much to the past. Written in the shadow of the Second World War, amid large-scale national disasters and the international tensions of the Korean War and the atomic bomb, the book is set in an aristocratic country estate in the hot summer of the year 1900. However, The Go-Between is not merely nostalgic: it is also about the difficult relationships between past and present, and about memory. Here again, the figure of the child brings into focus some of the underlying tensions of the period in which the book was written.

The story is told by Leo Colston, an elderly man who discovers a diary he has written in 1900, the year of his thirteenth birthday. He slowly pieces together his memories, looking back to a summer that he spent with the family of an upper-class school friend Marcus Maudsley at their luxurious country home, Brandham Hall. When Marcus falls ill, Leo is left largely to his own devices. He develops a crush on Marcus’s older sister Marian, and becomes a ‘go-between’, conveying secret letters between her and a tenant farmer, Ted Burgess, with whom she is having an illicit affair. Because of their class differences, the lovers can never marry; and Marian is about to become engaged to Hugh, Viscount Trimingham, the descendant of the noble family who formerly lived in Brandham Hall. Leo gradually begins to comprehend the romantic nature of the relationship between Marian and Ted. Eventually, Marian’s mother becomes suspicious, and forces Leo to accompany her to the farm, where Marian and Ted are making love. Ted eventually commits suicide, while Marian marries Trimingham. In the epilogue of the book, we learn that these experiences have had a traumatic effect on the adult Leo: he suffers from a ‘brain fever, an amnesia’, which means that he has buried the past and become emotionally ‘dried up’. When he revisits Brandham, his emotions unlocked by reading the diary, he meets an elderly Marian, who urges him to assure her grandson that she really loved Ted.

In a sense, The Go-Between might be seen as a ‘coming of age’ story: Leo’s thirteenth birthday, which he celebrates at Brandham, is clearly signaled as a point of transition to adulthood. Yet the book presents childhood as seen from the perspective of late adulthood: the narrator is the older Leo (just as Hartley himself was in his late fifties when the book was published). Leo pieces events together through the mists and arbitrariness of memory, attempting to construct his childhood perceptions retrospectively. However, the younger Leo’s diary is often seen as less than reliable, and its concluding entries are apparently written in a code that the older Leo can only partly decipher. Events are therefore seen through the eyes of both the child and the adult: the younger Leo clearly fails to understand much of what he describes, even if the (adult) reader is expected to do so.

This dual perspective generates a level of irony, for instance when Trimingham and Mr. Maudsley make suggestive insinuations about Ted that Leo cannot interpret. However, it is also somewhat muddied by the book’s pretentious use of symbolism. The child Leo is seen to be infatuated with the zodiac and magic spells, and there are also repeated references to ancient mythology and the natural elements. On one level, this provides a more elevated level of access for the literary-minded reader (it appears to excite many critics); but it also seems to imply that the telling of the story is somehow insufficiently profound in itself. Yet on another level, Leo’s own use of these symbols is seen to mislead and confuse him, again causing the reader to doubt his reliability.

We might say that The Go-Between is about a loss of innocence, although again it is not quite as simple as that. Even when he witnesses Ted and Marion in flagrante, it isn’t quite clear that Leo understands what he has seen. He is somehow both knowing and ignorant. He pesters Ted to explain to him about ‘spooning’ (that is, sex), but Ted refuses. His innocence is not so much corrupted as betrayed by the adults around him – although things start to become clearer when he reads one of the letters, against the express instructions of Ted and Marian. What Leo learns is not so much the ‘facts of life’, but the art of deception. Although he comes to understand about Ted and Marion’s relationship, he instinctively conceals what he knows right from the outset. His knowledge gives him power over them, but he doesn’t entirely realize the extent of that power, and is therefore unable to use it. The events are seen to precipitate a kind of ‘breakdown’, but Leo can only repress the memory: he cannot make the transition to adulthood.

On the face of it, The Go-Between might be accused of harking back to an imaginary ‘Golden Age’. However, its portrait of the turn-of-the-century social world is far from idyllic. Hartley is implicitly critical of the class tensions and snobbery that make it necessary for Marian and Ted to continue their relationship in secret. Meanwhile, her fiancée Hugh is permanently disfigured by injuries sustained during the Boer War. The tensions between the worlds of the village and the Hall are very apparent in the climactic scenes featuring a cricket match and the party that follows it. In this respect, the book is oddly reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Hugh resembles Clifford Chatterley, who is also injured by war; while Ted plays the part of Lawrence’s gamekeeper Mellors, the embodiment of working-class masculinity, and Marian (like Connie Chatterley) is torn between respectability and desire.

Nevertheless, Hartley’s other writings suggest that his own political and moral views were firmly conservative. As the critic Daniel Williams describes, he distrusted the modern ‘collectivist age’, and saw the welfare state as a symptom of moral deterioration and a devaluation of individual responsibility. Coming from an upper-middle-class background, he played no part in the more rebellious literary movements of the later 1950s and 1960s. Despite the tensions it identifies, The Go-Between also seems to buy into a view of the twentieth century as a period of cultural decline, in which the nation lost its ‘moral conscience’. It is by no means a coincidence that the book is set in the summer of 1900, at another point of transition: it evokes what Hartley describes in the introduction to a later edition of the book as ‘the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the sense that all’s well with the world, which everyone enjoyed or seemed to enjoy before the First World War’. Nostalgia is used here as the basis for a critique of the present, but it also represents a turning away from contemporary realities towards a more secure and comfortable past.

The Go-Between clearly touched a nerve at the time of its publication, but it has also sustained a long after-life in a range of media. The most well-known adaptation is the 1971 feature film, although recent years have also seen a BBC radio play (2012), a television version (2015) and even a West End musical (2016).

The film, directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and has attracted a great deal of critical attention – perhaps even more than the book – yet it makes for rather uneasy viewing. Inevitably, a great deal is ‘missing’ from the novel, and Pinter’s famously economical dramatic style could not be further from Hartley’s rather overblown prose. The sense of discomfort and foreboding that is apparent in the novel is conveyed as much through music, disorienting editing and (strangely static) camerawork as through the action and dialogue. It is not always clear whether shots are presenting a particular character’s point of view, or a more ‘objective’ one. At times there appears to be a tension between the film’s underlying social critique of this upper-class world (which feels stronger than that of the novel) and the picturesque, chocolate-box settings.

However, the most unsettling aspect of the film is its handling of time. The film retains the book’s famous opening epigraph: ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. This line is delivered at the very start in a voice-over, yet it is unclear who is speaking. The same voice intrudes briefly at a couple of points later on, yet it is not until quite late in the film that we come forward to the present, and see the adult Leo. Again, some of the ‘flash-forwards’ here are initially hard to decipher; and some incidents (most notably Ted’s suicide, and the final resolution, in which Leo may or may not confront his past) are shown very briefly. The sense of the film as a recollection of the past remains obscure.

Some critics have seen this as a kind of ‘alienation effect’, distancing us from the drama in order to encourage a more rational reflection; while others have argued that the shifting between objective and subjective points of view, and the ‘non-linearity’ of the narrative, are modernist devices. Personally, I find the chronology of the film confusing, and the ending quite garbled.

There is some evidence that this may have resulted from disagreements between Pinter and Losey: one wonders how much ended up on the cutting-room floor. However, the film’s awkward handling of time may also reflect some of the genuine awkwardness of the original source: the relationship between past and present (and between adult and child) is by no means straightforward for Hartley either.

Reassuringly or not, much of this difficulty appears to have been ironed out in the 2015 BBC adaptation. Here, The Go-Between is presented as ‘a nostalgic tale of lost innocence’, a ‘timeless love story’ in which ‘a young heart [is] corrupted by an adult world’. The screening was appropriately scheduled to compete with ITV’s historical costume drama Downton Abbey – a massively popular programme whose sentimental view of the past somehow epitomises contemporary Conservatism. For all its difficulty and discomfort, The Go-Between is more than this.


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