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The Go-Between by LP Hartley

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 (originally published by Hamish Hamilton, 1953)


As the twentieth century becomes history, its trajectory of social change - escalated by two world wars, which sets it apart from any century which preceded it - is rapidly becoming contextualised. From Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man to Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party, I'm increasingly fascinated by novels written during the century - any time post-World-War-I - which try to make sense of the new world order.

A bestseller on publication in 1953, and again with the 1971 smash-hit film adaptation, LP Hartley's The Go-Between is the ultimate coming-of-age story. But, like many other novels of its genre, it's not just about nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, but nostalgia for a lost social order and a certainty about the world, perennially expressed in British fiction as the country-house Edwardian summer (albeit in this case already funded by City money, and with Hugh's Boer War scars ominously presaging the world war), before the world order collapsed in 1914.

Enjoyment factor

It's always a pleasure to dip into the halcyon days of youth and seemingly endless summers, and especially gripping when tinged with the menace of lost innocence and the sense that everything is about to change forever.

But when we return to Leo in his sixties, it's not clear that, as a result of his experience at Brandham Hall or any other, he ever really did come of age. There's no indication of what he has done with his life, the implication being that the scarring event which happened to him as a twelve-year-old boy destroyed his life forever.

Indeed, we see him as an elderly man visiting an even more elderly Marian - who asks him to deliver a message for her again, as she did fifty years ago. Nothing has apparently changed.

This is frustrating. The point, surely, of a coming-of-age novel is that we witness the character's transition from an unblemished childhood to the messiness of adulthood, using their formative experience to navigate the world. But in this case, there's no redemption.

It left me thinking ...

How idyllic Edwardian summers must have been ... though of course this is the ultimate twentieth-century myth, with pretty much everyone who eulogises them never having experienced one, and no setting other than country houses populated with rich, beautiful people ever explored.

And how the 40 years spanning 1914 - 1954 probably saw more rapid social change than any other period in our history. Just half a lifetime.

But mostly - that the exposure to Marian's affair with Ted (which, along with Marian's father's City money, aptly symbolises the breakdown of the social order which had already started to creep in) would certainly have been shocking to a twelve-year-old boy - but would it really have shaped his entire life?

This is ultimately an unsatisfactory read: the world has moved on, but Leo hasn't moved on with it, and for no apparent good reason.

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