I have just started re-reading ‘The Go Between’ by L P Hartley. I last read it longer ago than I care to admit – in my early twenties.
It made a big impression on me then. I was struck by the vivid writing, brilliant use of a string of connected images and the striking ability of the author to relate to the mindset of early youth. Above everything, the symbolism of the rising heat in the Victorian country house party, leading to a last explosion of feeling like a clap of lightning.
Though the book is written in the first person, depicting the experiences of a boy who, as a product of his times, unthinkingly subscribesto elitist and patriarchal notions, his experiences and the general atmosphere of those hot summer days at the Norfolk country house party are recounted so vividly that I found it easy to enter into the mindset of his world. I have only read a couple of chapters so far, but already, I am impressed all over again.
Again, I am struck by the linked skein of allusions and symbols that made the book so vivid to me when first I read it long ago. The symbolical signs of the Zodiac, the Maiden and the Lion, in Leo’s abandoned diary; the paintings famously on display in the Norfolk mansion; the swimming parties in the lake; the Deadly Nightshade plant, which Leo comes upon, flourishing in a derelict, roofless outbuilding, and countless others, including Marcus’ affection for conversing in French, symbolic of the ‘foreign language’ of the code which the adults use, and with which Leo has no understanding.
Set in the school holidays of 1900, the story is about the loss of childish innocence and self-belief of the ‘nearly thirteen’ year old protagonist Leo during his stay at a lavish country house with his friend Marcus Maudsley. Marcus comes from a higher social background than Leo, and unlike him, is precociously socially sophisticated, knowing all the things that are ‘done’ or ‘only done by cads’ (ie, those not gentlemen).
The summer of 1900 apparently started off unseasonably cool, but there was a heat wave in July. The temperature is described as being mostly ‘in the eighties’. I believe
The protagonist Leo Coulson, has recently gone to a public school (note to none English readers: in the UK ‘a public school’ is not a school funded by the state. It is in fact, an exclusive boarding school charging high fees and providing an elite education). The expense of this is steep enough for Leo’s recently widowed mother to have to economise elsewhere. One of the things that she economises over are sets of clothes – well made ones being then, even more than now, expensive. The summer having been cool so far, and the rapidly growing Leo not having any lightweight clothes that fit, they decide that he will do well enough with his winter ones – his thick Norfolk jacket and woolen stockings, etc.
When the heatwave starts, he is teased by the family and their guests about keeping to warm clothing: unexpectedly, the stunning looking Marian, Marcus’ older sister, comes to Leo’s aid, offering to take him on a trip to Norwich to buy some summer clothes as a birthday present. This starts off his infatuation with her, and his role as the eponymous Go Between for Marian and the farmer Ted Burgess as they defy conventional morality in a passionate love affair.
He is to pay a terrible and wholly undeserved price for his innocent involvement…