Review of The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

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‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Probably ranks with ‘All happy families . . .’ and ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .’ amongst the most famous opening sentences in classical fiction. But in the case of The Go-Between, I found it a trifle off. Because when the book first appeared in America, in 1954, I was the same age as Leo the narrator, and I would have had much more common with him then, than either of us would have with the contemporaries of these characters today. Now, of course, they would have no need of a go-between; they’d be madly texting each other on their smart phones. Leo would scarcely have been puzzled about the mysteries of ‘spooning’ – he and his friend Marcus would have seen it all on internet porn.

At the centre I found a great moral ambiguity: did Marian genuinely like Leo, or was she simply using him to further something sleazy? Leo I found very easy to identify with my 13 y/o self – perhaps the most awkward of ages, neither a child nor quite an adolescent. I could easily share his embarrassment about having the wrong clothes or not knowing how to deport himself in unfamiliar social situations with the upper classes. His uneasiness with the psalter puzzled me till I recalled that the Sunday morning service probably would have been sung matins. (There are advantages to being Catholic – Roman or Anglo.) But the repeated joke (which wasn’t at alll funny) on Leo’s inability the aspirate the initial syllable in ‘Hugh’ (rather like a certain American political figure too much in the news) so that hearers thought he was saying ‘you’ was tedious and boring. Leo’s fixation on the temperature annoyed me as as well, though perhaps as an American I’m more accustomed to extreme weather, at least before English people mostly holidayed in Spain. His fascination with casting spells struck me as silly as well, though at his age his credulity was almost believable.

Although an excellent embodiment of the class hierarchy at the close of the Victorian age, The Go-Between does not quite achieve classical status (except for its opening sentence.) The plot could serve as a flat-out tragedy, but Leo’s role both as narrator and messenger lowers the status. (He’d be the confidante in a French neo-classical tragedy.) With Viscount Trimingham I sensed a truly beautiful gesture (I am still sufficiently old-fashioned to follow the rule that it is never the lady’s fault) but our take on Marian remains very fuzzy although a gentleman is required to give her the benefit of the doubt. Ted’s status as member of the NCO class (perfect for the period) would indeed have changed dramatically in the second decade of the century – he would not have remained an other rank for long. That war changed England very much into another country.

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