Vintage reads: The Go-Between
Browsers bookshop owner Rachel Pope finds a great 1950s novel on her shelves.
The Go-Between by L P Hartley
"The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there."
This is the opening phrase of the book and I was alerted to it by a staff member who told me the quote was often used in films. I was delighted to see it recently in the opening credits for Mr. Pip.
The novel was first published in 1953. I look at the back of my old Penguin edition at the author's picture and feel certain I would have less than nothing in common with him and suspect he talks with a considerable plum in his voice.
The novel is set in 1900 and the main character is 13-year-old Leo Colston who attends Eton and spends the summer holidays with an upper class pal at Brandham Hall in Norfolk. Leo says: "For the first time I was acutely aware of social inferiority." There he mixes with those distinctly above his station. He is awkward in the slightly wrong clothes and is a little lost on how to navigate his way around life in a posh house. There is a lovely scene where he goes to some trouble to divine how he addresses the Viscount. His pal's mother, Mrs Maudsley, is described as having "an Elizabethan ability to fix you like a pinned butterfly with her gaze". Daunting to say the least! Leo's pal is largely absent throughout the novel but his beautiful sister, Marian, takes a shine to Leo. She intuits that Leo is feeling awkward and shows him some kindness, including going into Norwich to buy him a lovely cool green suit. Leo of course is grateful and predictably forms an adolescent crush on her. Anxious to please, he does Marian's bidding and becomes the "go between". Despite being engaged to the Viscount referred to earlier, Leo passes notes between Marian and her lover, the lower class tenant farmer, Ted.
This is the heartbreaking part of the book. Leo begins doing this innocently and naively but increasingly becomes aware that he is involved in something beyond him. L P Hartley is superb at illustrating 13-year-old Leo's dawning awareness, his confusion and loss at how to handle the situation. Regardless of the past or the foreign country, this could be a little brother or a son that we know.
Not unsurprisingly the situation comes to a head with drastic consequences. We become increasingly distressed at Leo's situation and angry at Marian for being selfish and manipulative.
Sadly, the book indicates this episode affected our hero for the rest of his life.