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Revaluation: L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between: Leftover Life To Spoil

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. lxxi-lxxiv | 10.1353/sew.2013.0092

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For a novel that few Americans seem to have read, the opening line of the prologue of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953) is surprisingly resonant and enduring: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." To earlier generations human nature must have seemed constant, human experience an unbroken sequence of development, and the past verging on the present. In contrast Hartley's haunting tale of lost innocence underscores the modern experience of broken time, a paradox in which humanity is alienated from the past, yet not free from it, a past that continues to exist in and to control the subconscious. The Go-Between is a brilliant portrait of a natural and credulous childhood, a subtle meditation on memory, and an incisive critique of the self-sustaining social institutions of the landed gentry—the public school, the country house, the cricket ground, and the established church—institutions complicit in the rigid hierarchies and brutal inequities of the British class system.

The Go-Between tells the story of Leo Colston, a guileless middle-class boy of twelve who spends the summer of 1900 at Brandham Hall, the home of his school friend Marcus Maudsley. The Maudsleys, who lease Brandham from the impoverished Viscount Trimingham, graciously welcome Leo into their midst, yet their patronizing air reinforces his consciousness of being an outsider. Pressing her daughter Marian to marry the titled Trimingham and enhance the family's stature, Mrs. Maudsley is the fountainhead of anxiety and tension in the hall; indeed the imperious matron casts a restive and despotic aura over the whole household. As the story unfolds, Leo is pressed into service by the vivacious and manipulative Marian, becoming the eponymous go-between by delivering messages to and from her secret lover, the local farmer Ted Burgess. Leo quickly perceives the inappropriateness of the relationship, but in his innocence he has no grasp of sexual behavior or of the powerful emotions that control the actions and elicit the cruelty of those under the spell of sexual desire. The novel's tragic conclusion, toward which Leo is impelled by the hand of Mrs. Maudsley, results in the repression of memory and desire and in a loveless and lonely existence for Leo.

The first-person narration—unusual for Hartley—belongs to Leo, now sixty-five years old; his unexpected discovery of a childhood diary triggers the memories of that summer—memories that, though repressed and forgotten for more than fifty years, have formed his personality and controlled his life. Leo is far from wistful or nostalgic about his recovered past. Indeed he is no crabbed and saturnine pensioner, peevishly railing against modernity [End Page lxxi] while yearning sentimentally for a pastoral Edwardian simplicity. No, Leo's quarrel is with those golden-toned days of yore; it is the past, not the present, that is most responsible for his suffering and loneliness. Following the awakening of his repressed memory, Leo blames himself for his miserable adult life—namely his ingenuous propensity as a child to invest ordinary action with mythic meaning and to paint the present in nostalgic hues. This is of course a false but highly appealing perception of reality for a child. In the novel's prologue Leo imagines having a conversation with his twelve-year-old self, whom he rebukes for transmogrifying the flawed and ignoble human beings of Brandham Hall into semi-divine figures of the zodiac. "Well, it was you who let me down," he tells his younger self, "and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me."

This doubling of consciousness and of narrative voice—the innocent twelve-year-old's emerging from beneath the self-protective sixty-five-year-old's—is one of Hartley's most effective techniques. Animating his narrative with an adroit use of symbolism, Hartley suggests this doubling by way of Leo's only well-formed memory of the Hall. He cannot recall the façade of the house: there is "no visual image to make it real for me . . . all that remains clear in my mind's eye is the double...

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