L.P.Hartley: The past is a foreign country

The Go-Between

The winged messenger

I said that I would return to the topic of The Go-Between and so I have (with a certain amount of delay admittedly). I enjoyed the novel a great deal, which is set in a period and in a milieu that has always had a particular fascination for me. The Penguin Modern Classics edition (1997, 2000) has an excellent scholarly introduction by Douglas Brooks-Davies which I read before the novel, but that I wish I had left until afterwards as it gave away the details of the plot. Bearing that in mind, I will attempt to do no plot spoiling myself. Suffice to say that at one point I was irresistibly reminded of Aunt Ada Doom seeing something nasty in the woodshed at Cold Comfort Farm.

The novel recalls memories of a hot summer in 1900, in which Leo Colston has been invited to stay with his somewhat grander school friend Marcus Maudsley at Brandham Hall. Twelve-year-old Leo is the go between of the title, in his role of secret messenger between Marian Maudsley and Ted Burgess, a local farmer. These messages are mirrored by the errands he runs between Marian and the man her mother wishes her to marry, Viscount Trimingham.

Leo, as an old man looking through childish souvenirs in an old Eton collar box, recalls the details of that summer from long ago. The discovery of the box and its contents prompts memories that Leo has suppressed for his entire adult life. The book deals with loss of innocence (Leo’s) and class issues, as well as love, loyalty and friendship. The class barriers of the pre-war years are neatly encapsulated. The set pieces of the local cricket match and the post-match concerts show clearly the ‘them’ and ‘us’ aspects of the social life of the village. Against this background is set the affair between the lovely Marian and the attractive, but socially inferior Ted.

The Go-Between

First edition (1953) cover

The focus of the novel is on Leo’s naivety and the drastic effect that the discovery of adult sexuality has on his subsequent emotional development. He clearly at first has no idea of the nature of the relationship between Marian and Ted. It is hard to imagine that such innocence existed from our twenty-first century perspective. However, the narrative makes clear that life was very different then. Adults and children lived almost separate lives; indeed at first, Leo did not even realise that Marian was the sister of his school friend. All the adults seemed indistinguishable from one another. They even seemed to speak a different language from the public school patois he shared with Marcus. Leo, being of a humbler background than the Maudsleys (yet not lowly enough to be excluded from the delights of Brandham Hall) has at times to submit to being corrected about what is appropriate behaviour or language by the often insufferable Marcus. It has to be said that Marcus is (in my view at least) a very unappealing child in his snobbery towards the lower orders. No doubt however, his attitude to the villagers was common enough at the time.

If Marian fascinated Leo, then he was almost terrified of her mother and lived in dread of doing the wrong thing. Manners and behaviour were very important and obedience was expected from children. It was however, a time when children were left to their own devices for long stretches so the boys could escape adult supervision for hours on end. This of course facilitated Leo’s mission as Mercury, flying between the hall and the farm bearing messages with nobody being any the wiser.

I said I would try not to plot spoil The Go-Between, so I will leave it there and hope that my notes have whetted your appetitite if this is a novel that has so far passed you by. My only remaining task is to point out that the copy I have been reading actually belongs to ‘He who put the shelves up’ (with many thanks). 

Happy reading! 


One comment on “L.P.Hartley: The past is a foreign country

  1. It says:

    Si you did!
    Thank you so much to share such a lines to us.
    I am looking forward to read that novel.
    Best regards,



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