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