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‘The past is a foreign country’: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

The BBC’s new dramatization of The Go-Between, broadcast on 20 September 2015, seems a suitable occasion to highlight our substantial archive of the novelist L. P. (Leslie Poles) Hartley (1895-1972).

The Go-Between, published in 1953, purports to be the reminiscences of the ageing narrator, Leo Colston, who looks back to his childhood half a century earlier. In particular, he recounts an episode in the summer of 1900 when he stays at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, the home of his schoolfriend Marcus Maudsley. Leo becomes the unwitting ‘go between’ in a secret affair between Marcus’s older sister, Marian, and tenant farmer Ted Burgess. The story crackles with the sexual and social tensions of the end of the Victorian era.

The archive contains Hartley’s autograph manuscript of the novel, in nine volumes. The first volume includes the famous opening words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” However, Hartley immediately undercuts the confidence and poise of this first sentence by adding “Or do they?”. Wisely perhaps, he later decided to omit the question.

I have sometimes been asked what gave me the idea for the Go-Between, and have always found the question difficult to answer. […]

I think the most operative stimulus of The Go-Between was my memory of the summer of 1900. I was four and a half and it was the first time I was consciously aware of the weather – at least it was the first time the weather made a mark on my memory. From then on, for many years, I always hoped that that long succession of hot days would be repeated, but unless my memory betrays me it never was, in England at any rate, until 1959. It became for me a kind of Golden Age – almost literally, for I think of it as being the colour of gold. I didn’t want to go back to it but I wanted it to come back to me, and I still do.”

A film version of The Go-Between was released in 1971, directed by Joseph Losey and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Julie Christie and Alan Bates starred as Marian and Ted, while young Leo was played by Dominic Guard, and his older counterpart by Michael Redgrave. The Go-Between won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 1999 it was ranked number 57 in the British Film Institute’s list of top 100 British films.

The L. P. Hartley Papers include copies of Pinter’s screenplay, on-set photographs and publicity materials for the film, although copyright restrictions prevent us from showing these here.

Harold Pinters' screenplay for the film version of The Go-Between. L.P. Hartley Papers, box 45/3.
Harold Pinter’s screenplay for the film version of The Go-Between, 1969. L. P. Hartley Papers, box 45/3.




2 comments on “‘The past is a foreign country’: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

  1. Nicholas Webb

    Thanks for this post, John. I think The Go-Between is a very fine work indeed and it won a proper Literature Prize (as opposed to a wacky award like The Booker, dare I say it). Hartley seems to have gone into a shadow, shared by other neglected British writers of similar quality such as Angus Wilson, Somerset Maugham and Henry Williamson, but, like their works, his will surely outlast those of more recently fashionable authors.

    I also like some of his later works – The Brickfield with its sequel The Betrayal (set in the brick-making country south of Peterborough where he was brought up), and The Harness-Room (1971). His ‘Eustace and Hilda’ series (another prize-winner), had quite a vogue and was adapted for A Book at Bedtime more than once, if memory serves me right. The Hireling was also made into a successful film, with Sarah Miles in the lead. I think Hartley did short stories, too. Glad you have his papers. How do they come to be in Manchester though?

    For what it’s worth, I thought last night’s BBC adaptation was pretty poor stuff (like their other recent offering of Lady C.), when compared to the classic Losey film you refer to, which stands up well today and was considered quite daring at the time. What did you think of it?

  2. Pingback: A Foreign Country | dpetrieblog

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