Travels to a foreign country | Analysis and notes on L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between
If ‘the past is a foreign country,’ as the celebrated first line of L.P Hartley’s The Go-Between makes it out to be, then the novel itself amounts to a first-class ticket, transporting us to a world that is at the same time so distant yet so clear. To enter the world of Leo Colston, told through his older self, recalling memories from an enchanting summer in the year 1900 when he was all but a boy of twelve, is to awake from a dream, only to find oneself so fully engrossed in the world which one had imagined.
First, we must set the scene. The year is 1900. Britain has, for just under a year, faced the prospect of defeat in a bloody war against the two Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, a thought which taints the Empire as it does the Viscount Trimingham, returned from war after a serious injury leaving his face with a nasty scar. Yet with the new year came expectations of ever-lasting greatness, for the twentieth was to be a century ‘winged with hope,’ it was ‘the dawn of a Golden Age.’ It is in this context that a young Leo Colston — student at an esteemed preparatory school where, after a short spell of persecution (‘Are you vanquished, Colston, are you vanquished?’), he manages to regain the esteem of his peers — is invited to spend the summer of 1900 at the family home of his friend Marcus Maudsley.
Like any schoolboy, Leo has high hopes for what the summer and century would bring. The Maudsleys were, in his mind, reserved for the highest parts of his imagination. They are above the petty struggles and concerns of common people. What the Maudsley family represents to Leo is greatness itself, a greatness that captures the essence and fineness of the English upper classes; a greatness that encapsulates Britain itself and its role in the world that it had shaped in its image. At the very top of this hierarchy stands Marcus’ sister Marian. ‘So that is what it is to be beautiful,’ he exclaims after first seeing her, a scene which sets into motion the transformation of his life so that, until the very end, he becomes enraptured by her.
The Go-Between is first and foremost a novel about the innocence of youth and the stark reality that contrasts it. Like the grounds themselves, so beautifully described in those 300-odd pages, the reader is invited to see the world once again through the eyes of a child, not oblivious to the suffering occurring in distant places yet so focussed on its beauty and the nobility of one’s surroundings. One falls in love with a world never known to oneself and of Colston’s way of seeing it, always so refreshing and pure. He rejects the Christian view of man as a ‘miserable sinner’: ‘life has its own laws and it is for me to defend myself against whatever comes along, without going snivelling to God about sin, my own or other people’s. How would it profit a man if he got into a tight place, to call the people who put him there miserable sinners? … Life was meant to test a man, bring out his courage, initiative, resource; and I longed, I thought, to be tested: I did not want to fall on my knees and call myself a miserable sinner.’ That passage stood out as one that so perfectly encapsulates the view of so many in their youth, a view that, for many, withers away as the hard realities of life set in.
In entering Brandham Hall, Leo leaves behind the world that lies beyond. Dressed in a dazzling new green suit that Marian had bought him after overheating in the Norfolk Jacket that his mother had sent him in, he took on a ‘new personality’ and the life at the pinnacle of his imagination becomes his reality: ‘I now felt I belonged to the Zodiac’ he says early on, alluding to the myth that so captivated his young mind. ‘My dream had become my reality: my old life was a discarded husk.’ Drawn further and further into the life of Brandham, ensnared by his affection for Marian and his desire to please her, he takes on the role of Mercury, Roman God of communications, shuttling messages between her and her lover Ted Burgess, a farmer. Though Leo is unaware of the contents of these letters until much later in the novel, the realisation that he is caught between two contrasting worlds knocks his world upside down. In bringing Burgess these messages, Leo is aware that a great tragedy could ensue, bringing down either Burgess himself or the Viscount Trimingham, engaged to Marian and to whom he looks up so much. It is this realisation, this loss of innocence and Leo’s desire to restore the state of affairs that came before, that leads to their collective downfall on that fateful late July evening.
Adding to the shock of the novel’s young protagonist is an awareness of the inseparability of the two worlds, that of high imagination which he was now living, and that of the reality which lay beyond. Indeed, it is his own actions, innocent as they may seem, that led to the downfall of Ted Burgess on two occasions. The first, where Leo catches-out Ted Burgess at a cricket match, merely foreshadows the more dramatic events of the second. Brandham Hall may seem removed from the outside world, as may the lives of the aristocracy from that of Commoners, yet they are deeply interwoven. Hartley alludes to this fact throughout: from the cricket match where the Estate’s class lines melt away and the team becomes one against the village, to Lord Trimingham himself who Leo comes to think of as ‘two-sided, like Janus,’ the Roman God representing duality, the boundaries are never as clear-cut as in Leo’s mind. The effects of ignoring this reality are profound, they are visible in the face of Trimingham who returns from the second Boer War wounded with an awful scar, and in the two world wars that would claim the lives of the 10th Viscount Trimingham (who we discover in the epilogue is son of Lord Trimingham) and millions more. The theme of social class is central to understanding this work (and often makes for very amusing reading, as in the dialogues between Leo and his friend Marcus.)
The Go-Between is a highly emotive novel. Its landscapes invoke the same pleasure and nostalgia as Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; the forbidden love between Marian and Ted Burgess is reminiscent of that between Lady Chatterley and Mellors in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. More than that, it is gripping, original, and beautifully written. If you fancy a trip to a foreign country, The Go-Between may well be a perfect destination.