In a cardboard box I put the essential objects we would need in our rented cottage, until we got the keys to our new house in Norfolk: my infant daughter’s stuffed monkey, some paperwork, Cash’s name tapes for the boys’ new schools and the books we were reading at bedtime – Five on a Treasure Island for the boys, and for me my mother’s tatty copy of The Go-Between, a still of Julie Christie from the film on the cover, which would date it to around 1971.
How fitting, I thought, as I secured some of its loose pages, that a book concerned with memory and impression and the long shadow cast by childhood experiences should be the one I reached for as we embarked on a new life away from London. As with the grown-up Leo, ‘sixty-odd’ at the start of the book, coming upon his old diary documenting his fateful visit to Brandham Hall in Norfolk in the summer of 1900, ‘something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership’.
In many ways, it was a strange book to bequeath to me, along with the more usual novels handed down from mother to daughter – Rebecca, Invitation to the Waltz – concerned as it is with the destruction of a little boy. The older Leo regards the diary with self-pity and self-reproach:
had it not been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different. I should not be sitting in this drab, flowerless room, where the curtains were not even drawn to hide the cold rain beating on the windows . . . I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued, looking not into the past
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In a cardboard box I put the essential objects we would need in our rented cottage, until we got the keys to our new house in Norfolk: my infant daughter’s stuffed monkey, some paperwork, Cash’s name tapes for the boys’ new schools and the books we were reading at bedtime – Five on a Treasure Island for the boys, and for me my mother’s tatty copy of The Go-Between, a still of Julie Christie from the film on the cover, which would date it to around 1971.How fitting, I thought, as I secured some of its loose pages, that a book concerned with memory and impression and the long shadow cast by childhood experiences should be the one I reached for as we embarked on a new life away from London. As with the grown-up Leo, ‘sixty-odd’ at the start of the book, coming upon his old diary documenting his fateful visit to Brandham Hall in Norfolk in the summer of 1900, ‘something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership’. In many ways, it was a strange book to bequeath to me, along with the more usual novels handed down from mother to daughter – Rebecca, Invitation to the Waltz – concerned as it is with the destruction of a little boy. The older Leo regards the diary with self-pity and self-reproach:
had it not been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different. I should not be sitting in this drab, flowerless room, where the curtains were not even drawn to hide the cold rain beating on the windows . . . I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued, looking not into the past but into the future: and I should not be sitting alone.Most of us can quote the opening line of The Go-Between. Along with that of Rebecca, it is one that many an author must wish they had come up with themselves: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ During the dog days of July 1900, the 12-year-old Leo Colston goes to visit his schoolfriend Marcus Maudsley at his family’s fine country house – though of course, in that foreign country of rigid prep-school protocol, they are plain ‘Colston’ and ‘Maudsley’ to one another. Leo, too young to comprehend the behaviour of grown-ups, becomes the unwitting conduit, the eponymous go-between, in what a tabloid newspaper today would no doubt brand a ‘love triangle’. But in 1900 there is no such language available to Leo to describe what he is so ill-equipped to understand. His actions are pivotal in the tragedy that unfolds, an experience of such emotional intensity that no one escapes unscathed, least of all the book’s young narrator. As I said, an unusual book to give to an adolescent girl – and yet my mother adored north Norfolk; she spent the first ten years of her life near the coast here, until her father, a town planner, moved the family inland, close to where he was working on some of the hideous new conurbations around the M25. It was a wrench from which she never fully recovered. She ensured that many of our childhood holidays were spent in Norfolk and once, walking in the grounds of Felbrigg Hall, taking a path around the lake, my mother told me that this was where the film of her favourite novel had been shot. We were taking the route that Leo ran along with notes from Marian, Marcus’s older sister (played in the film by Julie Christie), to Ted Burgess (portrayed by Alan Bates), the tenant of Black Farm. I laboured under this misap prehension for many years, until a cursory Google search informed me that the house that stood in for Brandham was in fact Melton Constable Hall – a mere five miles from where we live now – while the village scenes were filmed at Heydon. My mother was seduced, as the young Leo was, by the grandeur of Brandham Hall, the glamour of its occupants and the glorious golden Norfolk summer. When she was 19, a similar age to Marian, my mother, like her, became embroiled in an intoxicating affair with a man her parents considered beneath her. That relationship came to an abrupt and devastating end, too. In my mother’s case, the recent passing into law of the Abortion Act of 1967 meant a different fate for her than that facing a hapless young woman in the summer of 1900. ‘Our love was a beautiful thing, wasn’t it?’ says the elderly Marian to Leo in the book’s closing pages, when he returns to Brandham to try to make sense of the catastrophe that has ruined his life.
Do you remember what that summer was like? – how much more beautiful than any since? Well, what was the most beautiful thing in it? Wasn’t it us, and our feelings for each other? Didn’t you realize it, when you took our letters for us? Didn’t you feel that all the rest – the house, the people coming and going – just didn’t count?‘I did not understand the world of Brandham Hall,’ the older Leo recalls; ‘the people there were much larger than life.’ The young Leo is acutely aware that he is of a lower social status. He lives quietly with his widowed mother in a modest house. Brandham Hall, with its cedar of Lebanon, its famous south-west prospect, its grand teas and revolving house guests, is another country again. And presiding over this whirlwind of gaiety is the formidable Mrs Maudsley and her wilful daughter Marian, reluctant to play the part she has been assigned. ‘My sister is very beautiful,’ Marcus informs Leo. ‘So that is what it is to be beautiful, I thought, and for a time, my idea of her as a person was confused and even eclipsed by the abstract idea of beauty that she represented.’ Leo is not of their world. His clothes are all wrong for the hot weather and it is Marian who, like ‘a fairy princess’, takes him shopping in Norwich, turning him ‘from a laughing stock into an accepted member of her society’. The Go-Between was published in 1953, the year before Nancy Mitford adopted the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ for everyday language, yet here is Marcus ticking off Leo in the summer of 1900: ‘Marcus had told me that only an outsider spoke of a woman as a lady. It was one of his shibboleths.’ ‘Oughtn’t I to call you my lord?’ Leo asks of Trimingham, the hereditary owner of the Brandham estate (now let to Marcus’s family) and to whom Marian is betrothed. It is a good match: the new money of the Maudsleys will enable the ninth Viscount to live in his own house once again, while Marian gains a title. Trimingham, perhaps the sole adult in the book whose behaviour is irreproachable, exhorts Leo to call him Hugh. ‘I had taken a great liking to Lord Trimingham, though I couldn’t have told whether I liked the Viscount or the man.’ Much later, Leo will reproach himself: ‘You flew too near the sun, and you were scorched.’ That far-flung country of 1900 is exquisitely evoked. Describing setting off for a bathing party, the older Leo explains that ‘the word [bathing] denoted an intenser experience than it does now’, and that while the bicycle Marian means to give him for his birthday might seem ‘an anti-climax’ to a child of today, ‘to me it opened the gates of heaven’. Twelve-year-olds were far more innocent then in other ways, too. ‘The facts of life were a mystery to me,’ says Leo. I don’t think the word ‘sex’ appears in the book at all; ‘spooning’ is the term that Leo and Marcus use (with much hilarity), ‘for it was the aspect of grown-up behaviour we found the silliest’. As Leo stumbles towards some sort of understanding of the true nature of the relationship between Marian and Ted which he has – unwittingly – facilitated by being their ‘postman’, he exclaims, in horror, ‘I’m quite sure your sister Marian doesn’t spoon . . . she’s got too much sense.’ Matters of class, on the other hand, are always explicit, with transgressions taboo, unthinkable. ‘We don’t know him socially, of course,’ says Marcus’s older brother, Denys, on encountering Ted Burgess at the bathing spot. In contrast to Trimingham’s cool demeanour, fine clothes and panama, Ted, Leo observes, is mature masculinity ‘in its most undeniable form’. His skin is burnt the colour of ‘a ripe cornfield in May’, he is dangerous, animalistic, surrounded by the smell of horses, of manure, of the farmyard. ‘It made me uncomfortable, almost giddy and yet it stimulated me,’ says Leo. Like all good books that we return to throughout our lives, The Go-Between yields something different on every reading. As a teenager longing for love, I ached for Marian and Ted and their impossible situation. Later, as the mother of young boys, I hated them for the way in which – to use another word alien to that foreign country – they groomed Leo to do their bidding. ‘She was quick at finding out things’, observes Leo of Marian, while Ted promises to tell him about ‘spooning’, but only if ‘you carry on being our postman’. This time, as I have read The Go-Between in the county in which it is set, I’ve noticed for the first time all sorts of things that L. P. Hartley must have observed. Trimingham is an actual place near Cromer. The multiple ‘Burnham’ villages surely inspired the ‘Brandhams’ in the book, and the county is full of those restricted byways which Leo notices as he rides beside the coachman on the carriage. I find that this time, with age and experience, I need to employ yet another word unknown in that distant country of 1900 to explain how I feel. For nothing in the story is binary. Marian is neither good nor bad; she is very young, she is trapped in a terrible predicament, as constrained by society as she is by her impractical clothes. ‘Oh these dresses!’ she exclaims, unable to conceal one of the notes Leo has brought her. Yes, Marian grooms Leo, but he is a willing participant, craving acceptance – ‘how much diviner the air I now breathed . . . my old life was a discarded husk’. She uses Leo, she deceives him and yet she feels genuine affection for him. The passage in which Leo asks, ‘But why are you going to marry Hugh if you don’t want to?’ is one of the very few from a grown-up book that has made me weep.
‘Because I must marry him,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t understand. I must. I’ve got to!’ Her lips trembled and she burst into tears . . . The sight of her tears loosened mine and I cried too. How long we cried I do not know.Ted and Marian are wrong to carry on their affair once she is engaged to the decent, upstanding Trimingham. But is not the love between them pure and natural, ‘a beautiful thing’, the antithesis of her mother’s house parties with ‘people being paired off like animals at stud’? Their deceit ruins Leo’s life, but in the ‘sixty-odd’ Leo, might we have an unreliable narrator, an embittered old man who has made bad choices (yet another foreign phrase) and whose disappointments cannot all be attributed to those nineteen days in July half a century earlier? Perhaps that is what my mother bequeathed to me then; that life is vast and complicated and unfathomable. Happiness, when it presents itself, is so often fleeting, but we should grasp it, should live and love fiercely. The only curse, as the aged Marian tells Leo, in one of the last sentences she utters, is to live with ‘an unloving heart’.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 78 © Flora Watkins 2023
About the contributor
Flora Watkins lives in a farmhouse in north Norfolk with her family, a brace of basset hounds and six chickens named after the Mitford sisters.