The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

My reason for picking up this 1950s British classic is a slightly unusual recommendation. As a die-hard fan of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, I have avidly read all the books Jill Paton-Walsh has produced that are based on and inspired by the books the whimsical sleuth features in. In her latest offering, The Late Scholar, Harriet Vane – aka the Duchess of Denver or “Peter’s wife” – decides to read The Go-Between after having spotted it in a bookshop and read a favourable review. Guessing that Paton-Walsh would have taken care to match the literary credentials of one of Sayers’s best-loved characters with a real-life book of some merit, I decided to do the same.

the go between

The tale of Leo, a nearly thirteen-year old boy used as a messenger by two lovers whose idyll is socially unacceptable did not win me over completely. Its theme has no particular resonance today, the dynamics of families, the love lives of young people and the social issues they throw up having changed drastically in the intervening years.

That wouldn’t normally be a barrier to my enjoying a book wholeheartedly. But the hero’s narrative style (and clearly, the author’s, with the evidence of strong autobiographical elements clear in the introduction by Douglas Brooks-Davies that I read) is somewhat rigid, with Leo’s hyper consciousness, alternating between nonsensical flights of fantasy and acutely wounded feelings. The unhappy denouement to the story results in Leo suffering a nervous breakdown on his thirteenth birthday. The event chronicled in the epilogue also serves as a pretext to tell of Leo’s subsequent cheerless adult life.

True, the Lady Chatterley element bears repeating in this wealthy country home and the interactions between its inhabitants are sufficiently nuanced to be interesting. And yes, a changing social order after World War I provides an appropriate backdrop to the plot. It is also true that some of the scenes (the bathing party, Leo sliding down a haystack repeatedly, Leo in the greenhouse) made me want to watch the film adaptation with Harold Pinter’s screenplay.

But I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently interested in the finer points of social hierarchy and etiquette at a particular time and place, which Leo feels he constantly needs to check. Nor am I, probably very reprehensibly, particular keen on deciphering what makes young boys in a boarding school tick.

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