The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Last year I read a book called The White Goddess: An Encounter. A memoir by Simon Gough, nephew of Robert Graves, about his experiences in Majorca in his late teens. When I started reading The Go-Between, it felt very familiar. There are many similarities between the books, including inexperience and youth, broken trust and the loss of innocence during the heat of summer.
Leo Colston is in his 60s sometime in the 1950s. He finds a box of things in his attic. The bits and pieces in the box bring forth a memory of a summer spent at the house of an upper class school friend in Norfolk. The memories crash over him like waves as he tries to purge himself of this sad episode of his youth. Leo is an outsider at his school, overlooked by most until his black magic tricks coincidentally come good and increase his popularity overnight. He suddenly has confidence in himself and confidence in his mystic qualities. Although it means leaving his mother for most of the summer, Leo accepts an invitation to spend time at his school friend’s house during the holidays. Leo is wholly unprepared for his visit to Brandham Hall in the summer of 1900. There is a heat wave and he only has heavy winter clothing with him, he comes from a different class, he is not used to spending time with so many people and he obviously stands out.
At Brandham Leo meets his friend’s older sister Marian who is expected to marry Viscount Winlove, the local aristocrat recently home from the Boer war, but disfigured after a horrific war wound. Both are kind to Leo and Marian understands his embarrassment, recognising his discomfort in his inappropriate clothes. She takes him to Norwich to shop for new ones. He instantly feels like he fits in wearing his new outfits, he is no longer the outsider. He idolises Marian, just like Simon idolises Margot in The White Goddess. When his friend falls ill and can’t play out, Leo explores the area. He becomes friendly with local farmer Ted Burgess who he once saw swimming in the local river. Ted entrusts Leo with notes to give to Marian telling him they are about business. He becomes their messenger. They call him their postman. Subconsciously, Leo knows the notes are not about business, but he continues to deliver the letters because he trusts Marian. He is at the cusp of puberty, his exploration of the local countryside mirrors his need to explore his feelings about growing up. He likes Ted, but knows he is in a different class to Marian, he is fascinated by his masculinity and confidence and as a boy without a father Ted becomes a source of information. He comes to admire Ted to such an extent that when the Brandham guests play cricket against the villagers, Leo is torn between wanting the house guests to win and wanting Ted to score the winning runs for his team.
The Go-Between is a beautifully written work of secrecy, deception, underhandedness and the typical British stiff upper lip. It is richly descriptive and vivid. Hartley evokes the heat and colours of the countryside until you feel you are walking with Leo through the dells of Brandham sweating in the summer heat. Leo is a snob, but he is also a boy who knows no better and is looking for answers from those older and wiser than him. They let him down during his summer in Norfolk; he puts his trust in them and they deceive him. It is an episode that effects the course of his life. I felt for Leo as he languished in that limbo between child and adult; too young to fully comprehend what is going on but old enough to know something is up. There are some lovely passages and wonderful lines that say so much more than the few words that make them. I loved The Go-Between for its depth and the layers of meaning, for Leo’s innocence and Marian and Ted’s lack of innocence and the brazenness of their relationship. This would be a fabulous novel for a holiday and perfect to read in the sultry heat of summer.