In an interview with John Sutherland in 2002, McEwan says,
‘A novel that was very important … and I wanted to fit in, was The Go-Between, so Connolly says, “I trust you’ve read The Go-Between.” I was very disappointed when the copy editor informed me that it was written in 1952 and I had to take it out. But what does remain from The Go-Between is the long hot summer.’ (The Guardian, 2002)
Being now fairly immersed in Atonement for teaching purposes, it strikes me that it isn’t just the heat of high summer that is shared by the two novels. Like the later novel, Hartley’s narrator is looking back on an event in his childhood that left himself and others changed. Love letters are exchanged, class conventions are challenged, and a child has their understanding of adult relationships brought into sharp relief when he finally understands what the now rather quaint term ‘spooning’ means.
As the only son of a young widow, Leo is much-loved but also painfully aware of his own status in life – when he is befriended by the much wealthier Marcus and invited to spend the summer at Brandham Hall he recognises this is a glimpse of a different way of living. His imagination means that he is able to survive school by creating a sense of mystery about himself, but this has little currency at Brandham Hall and he makes himself useful instead by becoming the ‘postman’, delivering secret letters between Marian, the daughter of the house, and Ted, a local farmer. His innocence about what he is actually doing can only last until he peeks at one of the letters (unlike Briony, he stops short of simply opening the letter):
‘I hesitated because I wasn’t sure she had meant me to read the letter. the others had been sealed. She had given me this one in a hurry; she might have meant to seal it. But she hadn’t. In our [school] code we attached great weight t facts and very little to intentions. Either you had done something or you hadn’t: and what your motives might have been didn’t matter.’
Key to his behaviour is Leo’s adoration of Marian; he becomes innocently infatuated with her and this affects his decisions (it’s interesting to note that McEwan has a remembered scene in which Briony tests Robbie’s ‘love’ for her by forcing him to save her from drowning). Like Briony, he has an incomplete understanding of the adult world and yet, rather dangerously, doesn’t recognise this until it is too late. Both novels capture brilliantly the imaginations and worries of their young protagonists. Later, Leo is the means by which Ted is defeated at a village cricket match, seen as a significant moment in the novel for its own sake – the cricket match is brilliantly done – and it sets up a ‘vanquishing’ that is key to the plot.
You can’t talk about this novel with mentioning the opening line – possibly one of the best opening lines in literature – ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.‘ I’ve seen this quotation used to brilliant effect on the door between a school’s English and History departments, and it strikes me that there’s a magic attempted in this phrase that is far more powerful than anything Leo could create in his 1900 notebook. This is a novel that examines responses to childhood actions, and it is a novel that recreates a world lost in the face of two global wars. The opening line also suggests an attempt to justify past behaviours, in the full knowledge that we can’t ever really use time and distance to do so. Leo has effectively sealed up his memories for half a century but has to face his childhood self once the box is re-opened. The past doesn’t go away and, as in Briony’s case, any sense of wanting to atone is denied. What is done is done.
The Go-Between is a brilliantly told and rather unsettling novel. The heat, the unnerving sense that Leo is constantly out of his depth in the formal world of this old stately home (another link with Atonement – the scenes at the swimming ponds!), and the sense of looking back to face up to your past actions, all add to create a memory box heavy with physical sensation. Hartley’s writing is superb.