The Go-Between


The Go-Between is a novel by L. P. Hartley published in 1953. His best-known work, it has been adapted several times for stage and screen. The book gives a critical view of society at the end of the Victorian era through the eyes of a naïve schoolboy outsider.

Plot summary

In the book’s Prologue, Leo Colston chances upon a diary from 1900, the year of his thirteenth birthday, and gradually pieces together a memory that he has suppressed. Under its influence, and from the viewpoint of what he has become by the midpoint of “this hideous century”, Leo relives the events of what had once seemed to him its hopeful beginning. The importance of his boarding school's social rules is another theme running through the book and complicates Leo’s interaction with the adult world.

"Curses" of his devising had routed boys who were bullying Leo at school and had given him the reputation of a magician – something that he came to half-believe himself. As a result, he is invited as a guest to spend the summer at Brandham Hall, the country home of his schoolfellow, Marcus Maudsley. There the socially clumsy Leo, with his regional accent, is a middle class boy among the wealthy upper class. Though it is obvious that he does not really fit in, his hosts do their best to make him feel welcome, treating him with kindness and indulgence, especially their daughter Marian.

When Marcus falls ill, Leo is left largely to his own devices and becomes a secret "postman" for Marian and nearby tenant farmer Ted Burgess, with whom she is having a clandestine relationship. Leo is happy to help Marian because he has a crush on her and likes Ted. Besides, Leo is initially ignorant of the significance or content of the messages that he is asked to carry between them and the well-meaning, innocent boy is easily manipulated by the lovers. Although Marian and Ted are fully aware of the social taboo that must make their relationship a matter of the utmost secrecy, Leo is too naïve to understand why they can never marry. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Marian is about to become engaged to Hugh, Viscount Trimingham, the descendant of the area's nobility who formerly lived in Brandham Hall.

As he begins to comprehend that the relationship between Marian and Ted is not to do with “business”, as they have claimed, Leo naively believes that Marian’s engagement ought to bring the correspondence between her and Ted to an end. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the general atmosphere of deception and risk, Leo tries to end his role as go-between but comes under great psychological pressure and is forced to continue. Ultimately, his unwilling involvement has disastrous consequences when Marian’s mother makes him accompany her as she tracks the lovers down to their hiding place and discovers them making love. The trauma which results leads directly to Ted's suicide and Leo’s nervous collapse.

In the Epilogue, the older Leo sums up how profoundly the experience has affected him. Forbidding himself even to think about the scandal, he had shut down his emotions and imaginative nature, leaving room only for facts. As a result he has never been able to establish intimate relationships. Now, looking back on the events through the eyes of a mature adult, he feels it is important to return to Brandham some fifty years later in order to tie up loose ends. There he meets Marian's grandson and finds Marian herself living in her former nanny’s cottage. He also learns that Lord Trimingham had married Marian and acknowledged Ted’s son by her as his own. He had died in 1910, while Marcus and his elder brother were killed in the First World War and Marian’s son in the second. In the end, the elderly Marian persuades Leo, the only other survivor from her past, to act once more as go-between and assure her estranged grandson that there was nothing to be ashamed of in her affair with Ted Burgess.


The Go-Between was first published in Britain by Hamish Hamilton in 1953. In the USA its publisher was Alfred A. Knopf in the summer of 1954, and the book was slow to sell at first. However, it was greeted with favourable reviews. The New York Times called it “a triumph of literary architecture”,[1] while two articles were devoted to it in the Los Angeles Times. Joseph Henry Jackson commented on its skilful presentation as “a many-leveled affair; perhaps only the author knows how much there is in it of symbol and reference."[2] A month later Milton Merlin described it as "a superbly composed and an irresistibly haunting novel” characterised by “the author's beautiful and ingenious style, his whimsy, irony and humor, and, most of all, the powerful wallop of a deceptively simple, almost gentle story of a boy lost in a strange world of emotions."[3]

There have been regular editions from Penguin Books and other sources since 1958. By 1954 translations were being prepared in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, French and Italian. Others followed later in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Romanian and German. The novel has also been set as an exam text with a study guide dedicated to it [4] and there have been interdisciplinary studies on psychological[5] and philosophical themes there.[6]


Later literary interpretations looked beyond the book’s immediately noticeable themes. For Colm Tóibín in his introduction to a 2002 reprint, the book is not really “a drama about class or about England, or a lost world mourned by Hartley; instead it is a drama about Leo’s deeply sensuous nature moving blindly, in a world of rich detail and beautiful sentences, toward a destruction that is impelled by his own intensity of feeling and, despite everything, his own innocence.”[7] And Kevin Gardner sites the narrative technique among other complex treatments of time: “Hartley's haunting tale of lost innocence underscores the modern experience of broken time, a paradox in which humanity is alienated from the past, yet not free from it, a past that continues to exist in and to control the subconscious…This doubling of consciousness and of narrative voice—the innocent twelve-year-old's emerging from beneath the self-protective sixty-five-year-old's—is one of Hartley's most effective techniques.”[8]

Another preoccupation in Tóibín’s introduction was how far the story of “The Go-Between” is based on fact, in the wake of Adrian Wright’s biographical study, Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley.[9] Although Leo is twelve at the time of the novel - the long, hot summer of 1900 - the five-year-old Hartley remembered that time afterwards as “a Golden Age”. When he was about Leo’s age in 1909, Hartley spent a summer with a school friend called Moxley at Bradenham Hall in Norfolk and took part in a cricket match.[10] The names are sufficiently close to Maudsley and Brandham to give rise to such speculation. But Tóibín counsels a cautious approach to the question, quoting Hartley’s own study of fiction-writing, The Novelist’s Responsibility. The novelist’s world, he wrote, “must, in some degree, be an extension of his own life.” And, while it is “unsafe to assume that a novelist’s work is autobiographical in any direct sense,” this does not prevent it from reflecting his experience.

Among other writers commenting on the book’s contemporary context, Paul Binding has pointed out that its famous opening phrase, “The past is a foreign country”, had first been used by Hartley’s friend Lord David Cecil in his inaugural lecture as Goldsmith's Professor in 1949. [11] And Ali Smith revisited the observed parallel drawn between the treatment of class and sexuality in The Go-Between and in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). D. H. Lawrence’s novel was not allowed unexpurgated circulation in Britain until after The Go-Between’s appearance, but perhaps, she speculated, Hartley’s novel helped prepare the climate for the overturning of the British ban on Lawrence’s work seven years later.[12]



In 1960, an adaptation for stage by Louise F. Tanner was produced in Morgantown, West Virginia. Mrs. Tanner travelled to the United Kingdom to consult Hartley in person about the work.[13]


Playwright Harold Pinter adapted the novel into a screenplay of a film of the same name (1971), directed by Joseph Losey.


A television adaptation starring Jim Broadbent was broadcast on BBC One on 20 September 2015.[14]


On 8 July 2012, a radio adaptation by Frances Byrnes and directed by Matt Thompson was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The production was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 May 2013.


In 1991, South African composer David Earl adapted the novel as a two-act opera.[15]


In 2011, a musical-theatre adaptation of the novel was presented by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, West Yorkshire;[16] at the Derby Live! Theatre in Derby, East Midlands; and at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, East Midlands.

Adapted by David Wood[16] with music by Richard Taylor[16] and lyrics by Wood and Taylor,[16] the same production was remounted and opened at London's Apollo Theatre on 27 May 2016 and played its full twenty-week engagement, closing on October 15th 2016. [17]

  • Colm O Tóibín, introduction to The Go-Between, New York Review of Books, 2002
  • Adrian Wright, Foreign Country: The Life of L.P. Hartley, Tauris Parke 2001
  1. ^ Wright 2001, p.172
  2. ^ Joseph Henry Jackson, "Bookman's Notebook" (Aug 20, 1954) Los Angeles Times
  3. ^ "Boy's Dream World Bridged: 'The Go-Between' Deals in Strange World of Emotion" (Sep 19, 1954) Los Angeles Times
  4. ^ Brodie's Notes on L. P. Hartley's The Go-between, Pan Study Aids, 1978
  5. ^ Alan Radley, “Psychological realism in L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between”, Literature and Psychology, 2012
  6. ^ Douglas MacLean, “Between desire and destruction”, in Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film, and Fiction, Oxford University 2014, [1]
  7. ^ New York Books
  8. ^ Kevin J. Gardner, “Revaluation: L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between: Leftover Life To Spoil”, Sewanee Review, Volume 121.4, 2013, pp. lxxi-lxxii
  9. ^ André Deutsch, 1996
  10. ^ Wright 1996, pp.7, 30-3
  11. ^ Paul Binding, “A cindery path out of childhood“, The Independent, 9 March 1996
  12. ^ Ali Smith, “Rereading the Go Between”, The Guardian, 17 June 2011
  13. ^ "Mrs. Tanner is Speaker for Delphian Club" (Jan 14, 1960) Morgantown Post
  14. ^ BBC Programmes: The Go-Between. Retrieved 16 September 2015.
  15. ^ "David Earl (Akashadeva) - Piano Teacher, Performer, Composer - based in Cambridge".
  16. ^ a b c d Cavendish, Dominic (15 September 2011). "The Go-Between, Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, Review – Despite a Hackneyed Start This Version of The Go-Between at West Yorkshire Playhouse Is the Finest New Musical to Have Sprung from the Regions All Year". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  17. ^ Porteous, Jacob. "Michael Crawford To Star In The Go-Between London Premiere At The Apollo Theatre". 
See also
  • 1953 in literature
  • Lists of books
External links
  • The Go-Between in libraries (WorldCat catalog)

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