THE GO-BETWEEN by L. P. Hartley

go-between-l-p-hartleyL. P. Hartley was a literary critic and writer, working in the first half of the 20th century.  He wrote The Go-Between in 1951.  The story is about a young English schoolboy, and is set in 1900.  It expresses  concerns with class,  memory, and the idea of outsider-ness.  The novel starts with that famous line:

The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.

The story centers around Leo, whose father was a bank manager, and who didn’t approve of the schools, so taught our young man himself.  Unfortunately, he died when Leo was eleven, and his mother sent him to public school (which in England is a private boarding school), where he meets the upper class Marcus.      In spite of their class differences, they hit it off and Leo is invited to Marcus’ large manor house, Brandham Hall,  in Norfolk for the month of July, which turns out to be a record-breaker for heat.   He is thrilled that his hovering and frugal mother allows him to go.

There, this middle-class boy wearing unsuitable clothes and studiously watching his manners and actions so that he will not be ridiculed, comes up against the moires of the upper class with its extraordinary rules and snobberies, and an interesting cast of characters.   This includes Marcus’ mother, an eagle-eyed, but quiet woman, the father, self-effacing and dull;  Marcus’ older brother, somewhat disliked by the mother, his older sister Marion, whom it is revealed is having an affair with Ted Burgess, a farmer at the other end of the class system., and the 9th Viscount Hugh, disfigured by the war, but back otherwise healthy, in the village, proposing to Marion.

Leo, the outsider in all ways, becomes the bearer of messages between the lovers Marion and farmer Ted while Marcus is laid up with the Measles and Leo is left to his own devices.

This is a story about place and relationships  — one’s place in society, weather to landscape, servant to master, village to big house, even England to Empire (this was the time of the Boer War).  And here we have Leo, out of place, subject to gentle mockery, used specifically because he is out of place.

Just a wonderful book, with a story that pulls you into it more and more, and that whole underpinning of the class distinctions in England at the turn of that century.

And a final thought about happiness:

I liked existence to be simplified into terms of winning or losing.  I thought of happiness as following naturally on the attainment of some aim, like winning a cricket match.  You got what you wanted and were happy:  it was quite simple.

If only it were that simple.




2 comments on “THE GO-BETWEEN by L. P. Hartley

  1. Deb Atwood says:

    I enjoyed your review. There’s also a movie of this book by Hartley with Harold Pinter as screenwriter. Here’s the link:

    It might be interesting to compare the book to the movie.

  2. Marti says:

    As often seems to happen with movie adaptions from books, the movie seems to be centered on the thing that is not predominant in the novel, “Tale of torrid and forbidden love between Christie and Bates in the English countryside.” In the novel, the relationship wasn’t torrid, it was hidden and sad, and the book was about being an outsider trying to fit it and how the narrator was used not only by the trysting couple, but by a number of other people at the manor house and town to further their own ends.

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