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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 4th, 2002


The Go-Between

by L P Hartley

A review by Michael Dirda

From its celebrated opening — "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" — a reader can deduce a great deal about the tone and theme of this 1953 novel, a recent reissue in the remarkable New York Review Books series. The narrative will be formal, even elegant (note that colon). Emotion will be recollected, perhaps in tranquillity, but certainly without moral judgment. Not least, however, that first sentence suggests the perplexity of a stranger in a place where people act in mysterious ways.

The story takes place in 1900, and is told fifty years later by the elderly Leo Colston, a lonesome man who has spent his life cataloguing books. The wheat fields glisten in the English sunshine and the temperature burns in the 80s and 90s when the nearly thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by a classmate to spend part of the summer at Brandham Hall. There, a poor boy among the wealthy, he is put at his ease by his friend Marcus's older sister, Marian, with whom he quietly falls in love. As the days go by, Leo comes to feel increasingly wary of the intimidating lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley; to admire the kindly and easygoing Viscount Trimingham, who was wounded in the Boer War; and to identify with a muscular young tenant farmer named Ted Burgess. Above all, he rejoices with almost pagan delight in the hot weather and the fertile landscape. Then, one afternoon, Ted Burgess cautiously asks Leo to take a letter—without telling anyone — to Marian. The reader, of course, guesses the truth immediately. But Leo does not. Slowly the sensitive boy finds himself increasingly confused by complex emotions and conflicting obligations. As he carries messages back and forth between the illicit lovers, the summer advances: croquet on the lawn, visits to the local church, the big Hall-versus-Town cricket match, a concert, roughhousing with Marcus, the prospect of a ball, the announcement of Marian's engagement to Trimingham.

From the beginning we know that disaster awaits. But whom will it strike, and how? Methodically and inexorably Hartley's plot threads are all twisted together, pulled tight, tighter, and tighter still — until the tension makes everything snap. As a work of the highest formal artistry, The Go-Between must rank with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. And like that masterpiece, it is "the saddest story": "I kept my sense of the general drama of the match and it was sharpened by an awareness, which I couldn't have explained, of a peculiar drama between the bowler and the batsman, between Lord Trimingham and Ted, who were now facing each other. Landlord and tenant, peer and commoner, Hall and village — these were elements in it. But there was another, the spot of bright colour on the pavilion steps which I knew was Marian."

Absolutely limpid in its telling, The Go-Between movingly evokes the heavy fruitfulness of summer, the orderly country-house life of late Victorian England, and what Colm Tóibín, in his introduction to this reissue, calls the drama of "Leo's deeply sensuous nature moving blindly, in a world of rich detail and beautiful sentences, toward a destruction that is impelled by his own intensity of feeling, and, despite everything, his own innocence."

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