“The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley (1953) – between the devil and the deep blue

The BBC has a lot to answer for. All those carefully and lovingly prepared piles of books to be read in a certain order keep getting re-arranged, as not a week seems to go by without another new adaptation of some book or other that I realise I absolutely have to revisit or long to read – finally – for the first time. It’s happened with “The Outcast”, then “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, then “The Go-Between” and now “Cider With Rosie”. Still haven’t caught up with the “Jonathan Strange” epic yet either. Simply cannot keep up…

Am biting the bullet and have started by plunging into Leslie Poles Hartley’s Edwardian tale of immoral goings-on between the classes at the turn of the century. One Milton Merton wrote of the “The Go-Between” that: “this is a literary novel… Mr. Hartley is novelist enough to know that you must tell your story and never forget it for a moment. That is why he is so amazingly good, and why no reader of serious fiction should miss this book. The excellence of the writing alone warrants (a) reading. But what makes the novel so engrossing is the drama and suspense of the plot.” And as if that were not enough: “It’s a kind of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ love story, with a Greek inevitability.”

More of Constance, Sir Clifford and Mellors anon, but I do see what he means about the parallel tracks on the home help front – while the lady of the manor is attracted to the gardener on the one side, in this excellent read aristocratic débutante Marion is likewise secretly terribly taken with the local farmer living and working down the road from Brandham Hall. This is clearly not madly convenient, as her ambitious mater has her eye on her wedding and bedding the suitably upper-class but far less sexy landlord Lord Trimingham, who has unfortunately been disfigured in the Boer War. Trouble at t‘mill indeed, for what’s not to love about Ted Burgess?

We are back in the realms of Mr Darcy and Poldark coming up roses out of the water, as our first introduction to the countryman involves an eyeful of a very fetching derrière as we and the nobles from the mansion catch a glimpse of him diving naked into the river down the lane… The BBC adaptation does a smashing job with this: actor Ben Batts does have the perfect bottom for the job, it has to be said. Shades of ‘I didn’t recognize him with his clothes on, officer’, although he did of course play the erstwhile joker of the pack, DC Kevin Lumb, in the much adored “Scott and Bailey” (when is the next series coming, by the by? The sooner the better).

At any rate, can easily see how Maid Marion gets distracted by our main man, but I don’t want to lose the plot, as it were. Back to the book.

One of the beauteous things about this novel is that it gently touches so many levels of falling in love: rich girl falls for less rich boy, very rich Viscount hankers for young and perfectly suitable match, pushy mother loves the idea of continuing the blue-blood lineage, and young Leo is convincingly besotted, as only a 12-going-on-13 year old boy can be, with the friend’s older sister who he believes has singled him out for special attention.

It’s also very much about the pitfalls of being the middleman. Young Leo inadvertently finds himself the self-appointed Mercury, the postman delivering messages not only for the heir apparent and presumed future spouse, but more importantly and very much more stealthily for the rugged farmer and the girl all this fuss is over.

I absolutely loved this book. Was enthralled by the idea of perverted innocence –

“‘Because’, he said slowly, ‘if anyone else gets hold of that letter it will be a bad look-out for her and me and perhaps for you, too.’ He couldn’t have said anything more calculated to put me on my mettle. ‘I shall defend it with my life,’ I said”.

It’s a tale of lost innocence and bewilderment about grown-up things only partially comprehended – there are some great scenes in the book touching on the mysterious “spooning”, and plenty of fluttering around the birds and the bees and bumbled descriptions of “it makes you feel on top of the world, if you know what that means”.

I’ve yet to see the Julie Christie/Alan Bates film version of the book, but a round of applause for the actor playing Leo in the recent adaptation, young Jack Hollington. He is spot on, as is the portrayal by Lesley Manville of Marion’s mother. As the matriarch of the household and most definitely a (wo)man with a mission, she is almost as scary as Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers by moments. She too never misses a trick and is constantly on the lookout for trouble. Throughout the book we sense her incipient evil from the child’s perspective: Leo reports faithfully to us, for example, an occasion when “just as I was about to scamper off, Mrs Maudsley called me to her. It was always difficult for me to approach her, along the beam of that black ray that started from her eye, and I must have given the impression that I went unwillingly”. Later he refers to “that tense still look of hers that caught you in its searchlight beam”. Throughout the tale we as readers feel sure she is likely to jump out from behind a doorway at any given moment while the innocently illicit letter-exchanging is going on: we all sense it can only really be a matter of time till everything comes unstuck and the house of cards comes tumbling down around our ears. The beauty of the story-telling is that all the way through we are prepared for Leo’s sense of unwarranted guilt that he is somehow responsible for the mess that is bound to ensue, largely because the tale begins with him as a very old and still haunted man, damaged by events that happened before he was old enough to be able to decipher them.

It’s a compelling read. Very much of its era, of course, for as letter-writing remains the only means of communication, with social media not even a twinkle in the characters’ eyes, the old Leo is able to reflect at the end of the novel on how the invention of the telephone would have made a world of difference for the story line. And it smacks of the whole British social system at the start of the century, with its references to the servants’ lowly roles, such as friend Marcus’s throwaway comment that “Mother feels like I do about the plebs”. It’s all very ‘there by the grace of God’ stuff. Mind you, think my children have clearly read this passage and mistaken my job description now, never mind 100 years ago :

“ ‘And, Leo, there’s another thing you mustn’t do. When you undress you wrap your clothes up and put them on a chair. Well, you mustn’t. You must leave them lying wherever they happen to fall – the servants will pick them up – that’s what they’re there for.’ ”

Rating : 10/10

Images taken from herehere and here, here and here.
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21 Responses to “The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley (1953) – between the devil and the deep blue

  1. What a great review, though I hope you realise you are just passing on your out-of-control TBR list to the rest of us! I thought I had more or less got my reading schedule sorted, but now, of course, I have to dig out my old copy of ‘The Go-Between’; reading your post has brought it home that all I remember about the book is the fantastic first line!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are always one step ahead of me still – the line is one of the best-loved of the last century apparently! so remembering that is more than I did prior to picking the book up to finally, finally read it. I am feeling swamped with armloads of books to read these days with less and less time to be able to devote to a good solid read. Perhaps if I spent less time picking up the Offsprings’ clothes? Not a very valid excuse really as in honesty all I do these days is build a pile and then add to it every day…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. miss quickly says:

    Oh I need to reread this book. I’d forgotten how much I loved it until I read this. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gosh thank you – am very happy to have read it for the first time now and is definitely one I think I will bookmark to re-read X years down the line. It’s so well written. Hope to see the Julie Christie film in the not too distant also. Need more time!!!!


  5. I’ve enjoyed the BBC adaptations too. Am currently gulping my way though Lady Chatterly. What an amazing book – I’m a huge D.H. Lawrence fan. Last time I read it was 20 years ago. Will read the Go-Between too! Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. heavenali says:

    I have The Go Between recorded as I wanted to re-read it first. I was underwhelmed by Lady Chatterley for me it wasn’t firey and angry enough. I also have Cider with Rosie to watch – which reminds me I haven’t read any Laurie Lee books.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, I would have rather read and then watched, but was staying with my mum on the night The Go-Between was screened – now very keen to see how the chemistry with Alan Bates works if I can get my hands on a copy of the film. Have just started re-reading Lady Chatterley as agree 100% that it was a soft soap rendition, although how I love James The Vicar Norton in this role – is my memory playing tricks or was there some poetic licence taken with his character, who I remember as a lot less likeable in the book? Same as you, I have never read any Laurie Lee either so am caught between feeling very excited at all these adaptations and slightly panicky that I won’t get to read before my iPlayer time in France runs out. Slightly ridiculous in the context of the real worries of the world, I feel badly, but it is also such a joy to have so many good reads lined up.


  8. Pingback: Reading Challenge from January 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  9. Pingback: “The Classics Club” Five Year Challenge – taking the bull by the horns | Literary ramblings etc

  10. FictionFan says:

    One of my favourite books of all time! It was one of those that, the first time I read it, had to be read in one mammoth session – a thing I don’t seem to do so much these days. Funnily enough, it’s Leo’s story that always grabbed me rather than the love affair – it’s the way he portrays that being just on the verge of understanding the adult world, but still not quite getting it. I haven’t watched the Beeb version – must see if it’s still available. Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The little boy acting the part of Leo is just perfect. He’s got that wide-eyed, slightly puzzled expression down to a T. As usual, reading the book is so much more (having read it after seeing the BBC adaptation I got the whole reference to the green suit and more out of the bicycle bit etc etc) and want to see the original film at some stage to compare, but I did enjoy it very much. x

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dom Nozahic says:

    Fantastic novel, great review.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I am enjoying delving into all these classic reads but you are streets ahead of me with those Booker reads – have my work cut out to join you x


  14. I’ve just posted on literary adaptations, and then decided to catch up on my blog reading, and this was the first post I clicked on – great minds think alike! I haven’t watched this or Lady Chatterley yet, I’m still catching up. The BBC has spoiled us for choice recently, hasn’t it? Lesley Manville is great & I didn’t realise she was in it, so this is definitely next on my list (after a re-read) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. How funny – I have just paused from watching Bake Off (the iPlayer has such a lot to answer for – and to be thankful for) – to read your great post on The Outcast and Jonathan Strange and here we are crossing over again. Whatever will be next?


  16. susan says:

    Okay I need to get a Go Ahead on The Go Between. Seriously I haven’t read this one — have I been under a rock?! Love the premise of it. Was Julie Christie really in a version of it from ’71? And why don’t they have a preview of it on imdb. I must be on the wrong side of the pond.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m hoping to get my hands figuratively on Julie Christie in both The Go-Between and Far From the Madding Crowd – both times with Alan Bates. Dying to compare and contrast…


  18. Denise says:

    I was mercilessly harsh about The Go-Between as a teenager – although I enjoyed it, I really was disdainful about the fact that the narrator had allowed his whole life to be all messed up because of this incident he’d been involved in as a boy. But when I listened on the radio recently, I appreciated how beautifully and sensitively written it was.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. It’s a cracking read and would imagine it would come across very well as an audio book too. I know what you mean about the frustration re the narrator too – somehow it worked better on the page than with Jim Broadbent, but hey.


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