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L P Hartley: The Go-Between

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The opening sentence of this book may well be the most famous quote from a twentieth century English novel. It certainly is the most famous quote from Hartley. It is, in fact, triggered by the hero, Leo Colston, rummaging through an old box when”sixty-odd” and finding a diary he had kept when he was a twelve-year old schoolboy. Like Proust‘s madeleine, it triggers off memories of his youth and, in particular, that summer in 1900 when he was invited to Brandham Hall by a school-friend, Maudsley.

It is a hot summer that year and Leo is soon bored as Maudsley (he cannot remember his first name fifty years later) falls ill and has to stay in bed. Leo becomes the go-between between Maudsley’s sister, Marian, and her lover, Ted Burgess. Burgess is a local farmer and therefore, from the family’s point of view, quite unsuitable for Marian. However, for Leo being a go-between is a game, reminiscent of spies and secrets and adventures, beloved of twelve year old boys. However, it all ends in tragedy and Leo is scarred for life. He is scarred because of his complicit innocence. Marian seemed to be his friend and she used him. He, of course, had a schoolboy crush on her and is, he feels, eventually betrayed. But is also represents his loss of innocence (and, as it is 1900, by extension, England’s loss of innocence as the Victorian era is drawing to a close), as he finds out that the adult world, which he is about to enter, is far more treacherous than the childhood world – something which, fifty years, later, he still has not fully grasped.

There are many other loss of innocence novels – Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited and William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies being obvious ones. Like the boys in Lord of the Flies, Leo grows up too quickly but, unlike the boys in Lord of the Flies, who, you feel, will soon get over their ordeal, Leo remains scarred for life, betrayed, as he feels, by an entire sex (he remains a bachelor) and maybe by all adults.

Publishing history

First published 1953 by Hamish Hamilton