Novels don’t come more English than this: boys at boarding school, stately homes, social class, unspoken rules. Leo Colston, our narrator, looks back at his 12-year-old self during the summer of 1900, a summer that would shatter his naivety and change his life. A great English classic and an ominous, intense, coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended!
Full of hope and youthful enthusiasm, Leo strides into the 20th century. He’s been invited to stay the summer at his boarding school friend Marcus Maudsley’s grand country house, a dream come true for the bank clerk’s son. There, he gets entangled in the dangerous secret passion between Marian, Marcus’ beautiful sister, and local farmer and ‘lady killer’, Ted Burgess. Leo will do anything to please Marian but under the watchful gaze of the terrifying Mrs Maudsley (who has other plans for Marian) nothing goes unnoticed. Just like the 20th century, Leo’s summer turns out to be fraught with danger and disaster.
Leo’s at the breaking point between child and adult and utterly confused by adults’ conduct and their hidden agendas. For him, the world works according to the black and white rules of behaviour amongst the boys at his boarding school. It’s a brutal baptism for poor Leo, as are the many mysterious upper class rules that mark him out as an outsider.
The men walked about eating their porridge. This, Marcus told was de rigueur; only cads ate their porridge sitting down. I roamed about eating mine, fearful of spilling it. The ladies, however, remained seated.
The Go-Between is a novel about memory, what we choose to remember and what we’d rather not, about first love, social class, loss of innocence, betrayal and the incomprehensible adult world seen through the eyes of a child. Rarely have I read a book where the author so convincingly inhabits the mind of a child; where the mysterious workings of sexual attraction (or ‘spooning’, as it’s known to Leo and his friends) are so believably portrayed, culminating in a closing scene that you’ll never forget.
Some of you will have read The Go-Between at school, some of you will never have heard of this novel, a classic but less known that many other English classics. Either way, this book more than merits a read and even a re-read.
And now, I’m going to watch the legendary 1971 Harold Pinter film adaptation of the book starring Julie Christie as Marian. Can’t wait!
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley Penguin Classics, 261 pages.