“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So runs the epigraph, probably more famous than the book itself, of L. P. Hartley’s wonderful novel of 1953, The Go-Between. I was fortunate enough to study the book at school but others may have come across the story via the film adaptation, written by Harold Pinter. For those who haven’t encountered this delicate story yet, let me lay out its happenings.

In the 1950s, Leo Colston, a dried up man in his sixties, comes across an old diary which has been hidden away in his loft for countless years. The discovery leads Leo to retrace the extremely eventful summer of 1900, which he spent at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, home of his school friend Marcus Maudsley. Arriving at the Hall just days from his thirteenth birthday, young Leo is a naïve and superstitious child who fixates on the Zodiac and has, in the past school year, warded off bullies with invented spells of his own creation.

He may feel able to bend events to his own favour following the success of his spells but Leo is plunged into an adult world he barely comprehends at Brandham as he holidays among the well-to-do people that pass through. He is quickly dubbed Mercury, the messenger, as he carries notes between the adults, and becomes captivated by Marcus’s older sister Marian, who pays her brother’s school friend special attention. Marian is promised to Lord Trimingham – Hugh – a veteran of the Boer war who carries the scars of warfare and who owns the Brandham estate. It is an opportune marriage for the Maudsleys but Marian has, it appears, taken up with a local farmer named Ted Burgess with whom she has secret liaisons whenever she can steal away. Leo, of course, fails to see the relationships for what they are and, through the shroud that separates him from his own burgeoning adulthood, feels an attachment to Marian that teeters between sexual and platonic. In his naivety, young Leo facilitates Marian’s liaison through carrying notes; he bonds with Ted, too, who begins to represent a father figure for him. But as the heat rises, marked by the mercury in a small thermometer that Leo consults daily, catastrophe lurks, biding its time and ready to shatter the lives of those who dwell at sleepy Brandham in the summer of 1900.

As Leo the elder looks back over the “the most changeful half a century in history,” it becomes very apparent that his own fate is tied, significantly, to that of the new twentieth century. In 1900, Leo, like many of his compatriots, hopes for the dawning of a century so magnificent that it might be the most glorious to have existed. Hindsight tells us that hopes for a peaceful century, full of progress, were to be dashed by The Great War and later by the competing ideologies that would tear the world apart as ideas were defended from behind bullets and bombs. Thus we have the clash of experience/cynicism and innocence, the new century and the old.

At Brandham Hall, the Maudsleys and Trimingham represent a class that would be largely swept away in the first part of the twentieth century and Hartley is also alluding to a change in the structure of British society that would be accelerated by the wars of the twentieth century. As Leo observes of his younger self, his summer with the Maudsleys was “the first time [he] was acutely aware of sical inferiority.” He elevates those around him to the status of gods, separate and untouchable from his own self, and in tone, The Go-Between reminds me a great deal of The Remains of the Day, in which Stevens – butler to Lord Darlington – places his life in the hands of his employer who turns out to be a Nazi-sympathiser, an upper-class amateur who ought not to meddle in the complexities of global politics. Here Leo is in the position of Stevens, his fate, to a significant extent, in the hands of the ruling class in whom he places his faith.

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Leo does not understand either the complexities of adult communication or the social strictures under which his hosts exist. As such his abrupt realisation of this proves a particularly haunting loss of innocence that will affect him for the remainder of his life. Even as Leo, in his ignorance, contributes to his own, and the household’s, downfall by carrying messages, one cannot help but pity and warm to this boy who is so out of his depth. As he struggles to pronounce the name ‘Hugh’, frequently causing confusion by pronouncing it closer to ‘you’ or ‘who’ than ‘Hugh’, or guesses blindly at the contents of the notes he carries, Leo is so overwhelmingly green (a colour that is consistently associated with him throughout) that the reader’s urge is to protect this naïve and lonely boy from all that is to eventually come his way.

Hartley draws his leading man and his world beautifully, his understated style so wonderfully languid and yet sharply perceptive. It is easy, as the warm summer days to slip by, to be lulled into a false sense of comfort by the rolling, calming prose and remove oneself from the violence of the catastrophe that threatens always to come upon the players of this tale. This plain, comfortable style put me in mind of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – both examples of very ‘English’ writing. That is to say, unadorned and quietly ticking along – not showy but steeped in the Grand Tradition all the same. Hartley’s use of metaphors – the Zodiac, Leo’s green suit, the Atropa Belladonna, etc. – is obvious and frequent, which is no doubt one of the reasons why the book has found its way onto the English Literature syllabus. It is a near-textbook example of how to construct a novel without confusing the matter with indulgent flourishes.

In The Go-Between we have a story of knowing and unknowing, the tragedy of innocence when it rubs up against knowledge reserved for the adult world, and of social strictures that once governed our land so tightly. All this is told in a deceptively simple form that disguises the more sophisticated pressures going on beneath the surface. For, like the doublespeak of the occupants of Brandham Hall, the novel itself conceals meanings deep within it. Hartley explores the novel as a form and the pressures placed upon (English) novelists to create their work very much to this template (and not forgetting, of course, that books themselves are the love notes passed between author and reader). There is also an argument to be made that Leo is as much enamoured with Ted’s virility as with Marian’s delicate charm. It takes no great leap, then, to suggest that the story has undercurrents of homosexual desire, particularly given Hartley’s own biography. What appears a perfectly poised if rather simple English story takes a more interesting turn considered in these terms and the fact that it works on several levels almost ensures that The Go-Between is a novel that will be studied for years to come. For my part, I think it is the kind of quietly masterful novel that pulses with Englishness in all of the best ways.

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