NYRB Classics series.
A beautifully written novel that explores naiveté and knowledge, and the mysteries of the human heart.
“All the time at Brandham I had been another little boy, and the grown-ups had aided and abetted me in this; it was a great deal their fault. They liked to think of a little boy as a little boy, corresponding to their idea of what a little boy should be–as a representative of little boyhood–not a Leo or a Marcus. They even had a special language designed for little boys–at least some of them had, some of the visitors…” (p.285)
Leo Colston, the 13-year-old narrator, arrives at Brandham Hall in the scorching summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. The novel intimately follows events that ominously unveil the next three weeks after the daughter of the house, Marian Maudsley, who has a secret love affair with the farmer Ted Burgess, entrusts him to be bearer of messages between the lovers. What at first seems to be a sense of self-importance, the pride of being trusted for such missives, and the thrill of secrecy and risk, becomes ghastly disappointment that leads to emotional collapse. Not only does the class difference between the lovers forbid the relationship, but also to Leo’s utmost disquiet, is by Mrs. Maudsley’s will Marian is engaged to the Viscount Trimingham.
In a sense the engagement is a personal triumph for the innocent boy as he will no longer be obligated to deliver letters. Totally ignorant as he is of love affairs and little as he knows about their conventions, he feels more than a sense of responsibility his postman job as he cannot undo the secret. As he has noted that “he carries something dangerous in him,” he fears the surfacing of truth will cost the lives of the lovers and bring disgrace to Brandham Hall. Too innocent and ignorant to pass judgment on the whole affair, the young keeper of secret only fears for the viscount, weeps with Marian, and grieves for the farmer.
As the novel unfolds, the love affair imperceptibly shifts to the backdrop, revealing Hartley’s real intention for the book: Class and social stature only justify the doomed affair between an aristocrat lady and a farmer. But written between the lines of the book, one might perceive that it is not really about class or English society, or a lost world mourned by Hartley (The Go-Between has obvious autobiographical origins as Hartley had studiously avoided intimacy almost all his life), instead it’s about the boy’s own sensuous nature going blindly amiss toward some emotional collapse impelled by his intensity of feeling and innocence.
Aside from the affair which attracts initial attention, aside from Leo’s jealousy of men’s power over Marian, Leo is caught in his own struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and rebellion. That he is being part of the secret intensifies his longing for liberation and transfiguration. The book’s power arises from his keen way of noticing, and his alertness to the prospect of humiliation, on the lookout for mockery.
This novel has become a favorite that it might challenge the seats of Moleskine All-Time Favorite on the left.