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Literature / The Go-Between

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

A novel by English author L.P. Hartley, published in 1953.

Leo Colston, an elderly man who has never married, discovers a diary that he'd kept as a schoolboy, which recalls a long-ago summer that he has subconsciously blocked from his memory.

In 1900, Leo is invited to spend the summer with his school friend Marcus Maudsley and his family at Brandham Hall, the grand Norfolk house they lease from Hugh, Viscount Trimingham, a genial aristocratic war hero with a disfigured face. The socially-ambitious Mrs Maudsley has arranged a marriage between Trimingham and her daughter Marian.

Left to his own devices for an afternoon, Leo wanders into the yard of Ted Burgess, a tenant farmer, who befriends Leo and persuades him to take a message to Marian. Marian sends him back with a reply, and thus the naive Leo is unwittingly entangled into a role as intermediary in the developing romance between Marian and Ted.

A faithful film adaptation was released in 1971, directed by Joseph Losey, written by Harold Pinter, and starring Julie Christie as Marian, Alan Bates as Ted, Edward Fox as Trimingham, Margaret Leighton as Mrs Maudsley, Michael Redgrave as Leo, and a whole battery of British character actors.

Provides examples of:

  • Black Magic: Leo is bullied at school but gains some respect, not least from Marcus, by his interest in the occult and apparent ability to cast a functioning curse. He attempts to brew up a curse at Brandham using parts of the deadly nightshade plant. It doesn't end well.
  • Blue Blood: Hugh is the latest in a long line of Viscounts Trimingham, whose memorials line the walls of the local church.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Ted shows Leo how to clean his shotgun, and promises to teach him how to shoot. Of course, a Norfolk farmer would be expected to have a shotgun but even so...
  • Color Motif: Marian buys naive Leo a green summer outfit to replace the unsuitable clothes he has brought with him. Later she buys him a green bicycle as a birthday present, which would incidentally help him to carry messages. Lampshaded by Marcus in tormenting Leo, using "green" in the sense of greenhorn, an immature or naive person.
  • Downer Ending: Nobody comes out of it well. Ted commits suicide, Marian is forced into a loveless marriage, and Leo is emotionally crippled and never marries.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Events finally come to a head in the thunderstorm which breaks the heatwave.
  • Fish out of Water: Leo is a scholarship boy at his boarding school. He lives modestly with his over-protective widowed mother and knows nothing of the conventions of the upper classes. It's obvious to everybody including himself that Leo doesn't fit in at Brandham. Although the others do their best to treat him kindly, if rather condescendingly, he is very uncomfortable. When Marcus is quarantined with measles Leo is even more isolated.
  • Framing Device: The story is narrated by the elderly Leo as the events come back to him. The ending brings us back to the 1950s as Leo takes a trip to Norfolk where he meets Marian, now elderly herself of course and somewhat dotty, and her grandson the current Viscount Trimingham who bears a strong resemblance to Ted Burgess.
  • Garden of Evil: The deadly nightshade in the old outhouse.
  • Heat Wave: Temperatures at Brandham promise to break all records as the passion of Marian and Ted warms up.
  • Innocence Lost: Leo, who is innocent and then some to begin with. He thinks at first that Ted and Marian's messages are possibly related to gambling or investments.
  • Love Triangle: Hugh, Marian and Ted. Although the relationship between Hugh and Marian is more duty and social expedience, and that between Marian and Ted is lust.
  • Nouveau Riche: The Maudsleys are this. Mr Maudsley is a stockbroker and fairly amiable but Mrs Maudsley is a social climber; she is hell-bent on raising the family status by marrying her daughter into the aristocracy. Both Marcus and his older brother Denys are inveterate snobs.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Marian and Ted. His interest in the occult was originally inspired by the astrological illustrations in his diary — Leo is a Leo and he imagines Marian as Virgo, the Maiden. His curse didn't really bring about the downfall of the lovers — but at the time he believed himself fully responsible for that and for Ted's suicide.

Alternative Title(s): The Go Between