“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” If you ever wondered where this quote came from, it is the opening of one of the most spell-binding novels of the 20th century. The Go-Between is a brutal yet beautiful coming-of-age story, reflecting on what we too often try to forget about as adults: the forced surrender of our innocence. 

The novel, set at the turn of the 19th century, is a retrospective fiction recalling the protagonist Leo’s traumatic summer vacation. The narrator discovers the diary he documented this in as a boy and begins to recount and add to its contents with a meticulous memory. The story plays out to be a moving reflection on Leo’s initiation into the adult world: a rude awakening that still haunts the grown narrator and makes him grieve how his innocence was so starkly taken from him. 

Leo’s school-boy summer started optimistically: he recalls an invitation received from his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend the holiday at his family’s manor house, Brandham Hall. However, the Maudsleys are of a higher social status and make this known to Leo immediately, causing him to soon feel very out of place. His difference becomes poignantly apparent when Mrs Maudsley mocks his clothes: “I had always taken my appearance for granted,” Leo says, “now I sat and saw how inelegant it was compared with theirs; and at the same time, and for the first time, I was acutely aware of social inferiority”. 

Hartley shows how the realities of social status force Leo out of his child-like view of the world. He has to consider things not just by how they are but by how they look, how he looks, and then compare this to everybody else. This shallower view is unfortunately a more adult perspective, and Leo realises that his existence is tied to a status that in the adult world he cannot transcend. What is quite tragic about this is the irony of Leo’s elegant voice against his own perceived inelegance. He is “acutely” sensitive and internalises the world around him with great vulnerability. Yet this delicate existence is unappreciated by Leo himself, who finds the “mild persecution” by the Maudsleys greatly distressing. Instead, he comes to realise that being a child is not enough to be accepted, and that he must grow up with new clothes and new mannerisms if he wants to survive the summer without being taunted by Marcus’s family.   

The Go-Between is not just concerned with social forces but also (and more crucially) Leo’s initiation into the “lover-like” realm. As Marcus becomes ill during the holiday, his sister Marian takes the opportunity to employ the 12-year-old Leo as her messenger. The reader quickly understands that Marian and a local farmer, Ted Burgess, are in the midst of a secret affair. Leo is being used as a line between the pair to facilitate their correspondence. This is wondered at, but not understood, by Leo himself, who is mainly just glad to help out the beautiful Marian and play on Ted’s “straw-stacks” as a reward for his constant to and fro. The “romantic-colours” of the relationship do start to worry the boy, but he is manipulated by both Ted and Marian to continue his errand. As the plot progresses, Leo tries to balance the light and dark of this unexpected summer as best he can: “Sunshine and shadow outside, sunshine and shadow in my thoughts”, but his “double life” starts to trouble him. We see the cricket games and afternoon teas become mere glimmers of youth that gloss over the muddied path of the new go-between. 

The novel culminates in the breaking of the secret affair as Mrs. Maudsley finally picks up on the “business” between Marian and Ted, forcing Leo to lead her to the hiding place of the two lovers. There he is made to discover the “Virgin and the Water-Carrier” together in the grass and is “mystified” for a second before it triggers a nervous breakdown, utterly overwhelmed with all he has endured. Unaware that this fateful event is not his fault, the screams of Marian’s mother leave a harrowing imprint on Leo’s mind. The final tragedies of the book are riddled with shame and guilt as Leo struggles to relinquish responsibility for all that has unfolded. 

What is fascinating about this novel is the way Leo’s sensitivity and want of intimacy (be that in terms of comradery, family or love) is rejected by Brandham Hall. To be sensitive is not manly enough, to be intimate is to be immoral, and what is natural is not to be sought after but made taboo. Leo’s core vulnerability is something admired by the reader but constantly deemed silly and “hypersensitive” by the senior characters. In this way, the book speaks powerfully to the notion that to grow up is to not only lose innocence, but also the ability to live authentically. 

The Epilogue details Leo’s visit many years on to see Marian as an old woman, who grieves for her own losses in adulthood: “But [those losses] weren’t our fault, they were the fault of this hideous country we live in, which has denatured humanity and planted death and hate where love and living were.” 

The Go-Between is a haunting memory of that moment where the spectacles of childhood are taken away forever. What is left is no longer beautiful, or full of hope, or love; the field before us is far more disturbed, with only poppies emerging from the soil. The Go-Between teaches us that we cannot bring back the blank slate of childhood, but must learn to find beauty in the overturned ground. We cannot change what has been inflicted upon our bodies, but we can learn to bear the scars with kindness.