The Go-Between

The Go-Between Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of L. P. Hartley

Leslie Poles Hartley was the son of Bessie and Harry Hartley, a solicitor and judicial officer. Hartley enrolled at Oxford University to read Modern History in 1915, where he befriended the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Hartley was conscripted into the army during WWI but for health reasons was never sent to battle. After the war, Hartley returned to Oxford, mixing in literary circles. He subsequently worked as a book reviewer—British author J.B. Priestly once described him as “the best reviewer of fiction in the country”—but was frustrated by a lack of success with his own writing. It wasn’t until 1944 that Hartley published his first novel, The Shrimp and the Anemone. More novels followed, with Hartley winning the prestigious Heinemann Award for The Go-Between in 1953. Three years later he was given the symbolic honor of being named Commander of the British Empire. Throughout his life, Hartley was a busy socializer but rarely became very close to those around him; Virginia Woolf once described him as “a dull fat man.” He was not open about his homosexuality until late in life (though it was not legalized in Britain until 1967). Hartley died in London in 1972, at the age of 76.
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Historical Context of The Go-Between

Most of The Go-Between is set in 1900, with the “present day” of the novel taking place in the 1950s. Leo tells the story retrospectively, recounting the events that took place in one fateful summer when he was 12. The contrast between the two time periods is an important aspect of the book. The year 1900 was one of peak optimism at the tail end of the Victorian Era; Britain generally claimed a strong sense of progression with the expansion of its Empire, rising living standards at home, and great technological advances. It was widely believed that war was mostly a thing of the past (though the British were fighting the Boer War)—or at least that it would not come again on any great scale. Of course, events proved otherwise, and old Leo looks back on the time of his youth in the full knowledge of the two world wars that were to come. While young Leo feels the promise of the 20th century with excitement, the older Leo knows the disappointment, heartache and tragedy that displaced any sense of a “Golden Age.” 

Other Books Related to The Go-Between

As an exploration of the social class and hierarchy in relation to love and sex, The Go-Between has elements in common with the works of D.H. Lawrence (such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and Thomas Hardy. Hartley’s book resembles a bildungsroman—a novel that specifically chronicles someone’s journey from youth to adulthood—but shows the way that trauma can interrupt growing up. To that end, it’s worth considering it (and its differences) in the context of classics of the genre, including James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In its explorations of English social mores and anxieties, Hartley’s book also relates to those by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, though it is more psychological in its tone and approach. The Go-Between continues to influence writers today, with contemporary authors such as Ian McEwan (whose novel Atonement also hinges on letters between an upper-class British woman and her working-class lover), Ali Smith, and Colm Tóibīn acknowledging the novel’s impact on them.
Key Facts about The Go-Between
  • Full Title: The Go-Between
  • When Written: 1952
  • Where Written: Venice, Italy
  • When Published: 1953
  • Literary Period: Postmodern
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Setting: Brandham estate, Norfolk
  • Climax: Mrs. Maudsley, dragging Leo with her, discovers the affair between Marian and Ted
  • Antagonist: Marian Maudsley
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Go-Between

The Silver Screen: The book was famously adapted for film in the 1970s. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and the film starred Julie Christie.

Deadly Arrows: The Deadly Nightshade plant—atropa belladonna—that so fascinates Leo is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere, and was once used to make poison-tipped arrows.