Leo Colston, a British man in his sixties, comes across a battered old collar-box full of belongings dating back to his childhood. Amongst its contents are “two dry, empty sea urchins; two rusty magnets; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil,” and, most significantly to him, his old diary. He feels the “almost mystical thrill of early ownership,” which is a feeling of which, at his age, he is somewhat “ashamed.”
In a way, The Go-Between’s story starts at the end. The reader’s first encounter with Leo is of him as old man, not as the young boy at Brandham Hall. This sets up the sense that the events in the novel have already happened, and are fated beyond the agency of any of the characters involved. The magnets are an early hint that irresistible attraction is going to play a significant role in the story.
The golden-edged diary looks like the only object of his that might have been expensive. Leo is hesitant to touch it, because he feels it will “challenge his memory.” He stares at it for a while, trying to remember the code to its combination lock. When he was young, Leo tells the reader, he would show off by pretending that he needed to be in a trance to open the diary’s lock.
Leo’s diary brings him into direct contact with who he used to be as a boy. The fact that it’s locked symbolizes that Leo has repressed the memory of the traumatic events at Brandham Hall since he last touched the diary all those years ago.
Leo remembers the combination and unlocks the diary, but is still hesitant to touch it. He is fearful of its “message of disappointment and defeat”, events that he had been unable to “overcome.” He feels that “had it not been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different.” He would be in a “rainbow-hued room” instead of the “drab, flowerless” one he is in now, “looking not into the past but into the future.” Furthermore, he wouldn’t be “sitting alone”.
One of the main conflicts in the novel is between old Leo and young Leo. Now in his later years, he feels that what the diary represents—the summer of 1900—has prevented him from making the most of his life. He thinks he could have led a more emotionally active life, and perhaps have had a family of his own—but since that summer, his life has been defined not by the possibilities of the future but by the constraints of the past.
Leo opens the diary—it’s for the year 1900. The year is ornately decorated by the signs of the Zodiac, a cosmology that held considerable power over him as a young boy. Leo remembers the “glorious” signs well, but also remembers that they no longer hold the same potency for him as they once did.
Young Leo was looking for a way to understand the world; the Zodiac, with its enticing supernatural figures, gave him that. But it also presages the feeling that the tragedy—or tragedies—within the novel are unpreventable.
Leo describes the different zodiac signs on the diary. He sees the Ram, Bull, and Lion as representing “imperious manhood,” and lingers on the only expressly female sign of the galaxy, “the Virgin.” To Leo, she is “the key to the whole pattern, the climax, the coping-stone, the goddess.”
At the time, the Zodiac signs were suffused with power and meaning for Leo. As a young boy wondering what it means to be a man, the Ram, Bull, and Lion offered him some clues. But the Virgin sign, representing both the mysteriousness of sexual attraction and the innocence of young Leo, held the most sway over him.
Leo recalls how significant the year 1900 seemed to him as a young boy. Back then, he would chant “nineteen hundred” to himself, seeing the end of the old century and beginning of the new as representative of “the expansion and ascension” of “some divine gas.” At the time, he believed it to be “the dawn of a Golden Age” and “infinitely precious.” He believed that the coming century was destined to be the “realization” of his “hopes.”
Leo’s attachment as a young boy to the idea of an approaching Golden Age makes him psychologically vulnerable to any trauma that might prove his anticipation is misplaced. It also contrasts significantly with how he feels now, as a man of sixty-odd years, emphasizing that his life (like the twentieth century) has not turned out as he hoped.
One aspect of the zodiac was jarring for young Leo: he couldn’t identify with the symbol that was supposed to be his own, the Lion (his birthday is in July). The two other candidates for Leo’s favorite sign were the Archer and the Water-carrier. He preferred the Archer, as it seemed more warrior-like and “romantic,” whereas the Water-carrier was too much like a “farm-laborer or at best a gardener.” The two signs “attracted and repelled Leo” in equal measure.
This is significant information, as it hints at the rivalry that is to come between Ted and Trimingham. Because he has just returned from the Boer War and has the facial scar to prove it, Trimingham will be identified as the Archer; Ted, who works the land and is generally less refined than Trimingham, maps onto the Water-Carrier. The trope of attraction and repulsion also connects to the early mention of magnets.
The young Leo had felt a pressure that the diary must “record something worthwhile.” The present-day Leo flicks through the pages, most of which record banalities, such as: “Muffins, scones, cakes and strawberry jam.” One entry records the victory in a football match between Leo’s school and a rival: “Lambton House VANQUISHED 2-1!!!! McClintock scored both goals!!!!”
The diary makes clear that Leo was really just a typical schoolboy. There wasn’t much more important going on in his life than snacks and football, but the desire he felt to write down something worthwhile hints to the reader that what follows will be momentous.
Young Leo enjoyed having the diary, wanting to both keep it secret and for people to see its contents. He felt it would enhance his “prestige” for people to know of his secretive activity, but he didn’t especially want to share its contents. The diary’s frontispiece would frequently send him into daydreams about the zodiac and the twentieth century to come.
Leo had a vague desire for some kind of grand narrative to his life, but this was also based on him wanting the respect and admiration of his peers. The turn of the century added weight to the idea of an approaching future.
Perhaps because he was too public about having a diary, bullies at Leo’s school stole it from him. They picked up especially on his use of the word “vanquished,” and would beat Leo up, taunting him with the question, “are you vanquished, Colston, are you vanquished?” This happened to Leo on a daily basis, but because of the code amongst his peers against “sneaking”—telling adults about misbehavior—he kept quiet.
Even as a youngster, Leo already lived in a world of structured moral codes. The way the bullies used his own word, “vanquished,” against him made him want to take matters into his own hands to get revenge. To be vanquished is to be defeated thoroughly, and this is what the reader senses old Leo to be; it just remains to be seen why.
Young Leo decided to take action against his bullies. He got the diary back, covered in insults written by his enemies. But these were written in pencil, and he duly rubbed them out. Knowing that he couldn’t match their physical strength, Leo decided to write three curses in his diary to get revenge on his bullies (whose names were Jenkins and Strode). He wrote them in blood, not completing the third curse because—Leo believed—it would mean the death of Jenkins and Strode.
This is the first instance of Leo’s attempts at magic. He was looking for a way to affect the world beyond the means at his disposal as a young boy—in essence, he wanted power. He didn’t really understand the supernatural, but he sensed that it gave him a better chance of attaining agency than any other means, like fighting back physically.
Older Leo feels that the written curses “breathe malevolence” and “pluck a superstitious nerve” even now. He is envious of his former self for taking action and gaining respect for doing so. He recalls that he left the diary, now containing the curses, somewhere he knew his bullies would see it.
Even now, fifty years later, Leo still feels that the curses hold some kind of power. He admires his younger self’s hazardous attempts to take control, which contrast with the way he has lived his life since. That his young self left the curses out for the bullies to see shows that on a surface level there was a strong element of performance involved in Leo’s actions.
The bullies mocked Leo even more for the curses. They poked him in the eyes and that night Leo shed tears over their treatment of him for the first time. His roommates at school showed him the cursory kindness of not acknowledging his crying after lights out (rather than teasing him or telling anyone about it).
Here the reader is given another example of the strange moral code of the schoolboys: Leo’s peers leave him to cry without getting involved. Old Leo sees that as a form of kindness, but it also shows that young Leo was intensely isolated by his experiences. That’s why he was trying to take action, and appealing to the supernatural world to help him.
But the next day it appeared that the curse had worked: Jenkins and Strode fell off the school roof and were hospitalized. Leo’s fellow students had a new respect for him and offered their congratulations. It turned out they generally didn’t like Jenkins and Strode either. Furthermore, because word had gotten around about the curses, the rest of the school feared Leo’s powers.
Hartley doesn’t take a clear stand on whether this was just coincidence, or the curse actually worked—either way, the bullies were “vanquished.” This gave Leo an authority among his peers, and, most importantly, inspired confidence in his ability to affect events around him. But it’s also worth noting that even his newfound popularity was still a kind of isolation—it was based on him possessing supernatural abilities that no one else did.
Young Leo then became an authority on black magic and code-making, even charging his schoolmates for his expertise. He began to dream about being a great writer, “perhaps the greatest writer of the greatest century, the twentieth.” He was often asked the meaning of the curses’ text, but he himself didn’t really know and maintained the air of secrecy.
Leo didn’t really know anything specific about magic or curses, but liked the idea that others thought he did. This also represents his first taste for social climbing—suddenly he wasn’t at the bottom of the pecking order anymore. The attention thrust upon him, alongside the turn of the new century, made him feel grandiose and important.
Present-day Leo turns the pages of the diary. February, March, April, May and June all account for those happy days in the aftermath of the successful curses (and the Easter holidays). He comes to July, and under Monday the 9th is written “Brandham Hall.” For that day and those that follow there is a temperature recording, e.g. “Thursday 26th. 80.7 degrees.”
This sets up Leo’s obsession with temperature throughout his time at Brandham Hall. It’s an important symbol because the rising heat has both sexual overtones and the sense of increasing pressure in need of release. In the diary, the months leading up to Brandham Hall show that Leo continued to enjoy the glories of his supernatural success.
The 26th is the last entry in the diary—Leo knew the rest of the pages were blank. Though it is later than his usual bedtime, Leo feels the past, specifically the events of that July, stirring within him. He has suppressed their memory for years, but always knew they remained intact within him, “carefully embalmed.”
Since the events of Brandham, Leo has kept his memories under both literal and metaphorical lock and key. Stored in a box somewhere, he hasn’t had to confront what happened—yet those memories never went entirely away either. This signals how deep the events of Brandham Hall run in Leo’s psychology—with Hartley’s use of the word “embalmed” foreshadowing death and preservation.
Leo reflects on his life since those fateful July days. He had made a “working arrangement” with life, on the condition that there should be no “exhumation” of the memories of Brandham Hall. Leo reflects that part of the reason that he couldn’t deal with what happened at Brandham Hall is that he did not understand its world (as opposed to the world of his school). The people at Brandham intimidated him then and still do now: “they had zodiacal properties and proportions. They were, in fact, the substance of my dreams, the realization of my hopes; they were the incarnated glory of the twentieth century.”
Leo’s survival mechanism post-Brandham was to live a functional life and to completely sever himself from the young boy who visited Brandham Hall. When he visited the Hall, its social codes and rules were different from those he’d gotten used to at school, making its inhabitants seem super-human. That fit well with his zodiac-based worldview, but ultimately set him up for disappointment and trauma.
Leo imagines a conversation between him in the present day and his younger self. The young Leo chastises him for being “such a dull dog” and not emulating the zodiac signs—the Ram, the Bull, and the Lion, and “above all” the Virgin.
This shows the severity of the psychological rupture that Leo has been through: he actively conceptualizes himself as two people: pre- and post-Brandham Hall. The Virgin zodiac sign here is the one female sign, Virgo; the others mentioned are masculine. And, of course, Leo shares his name (ironically) with the fifth sign of the zodiac, “the Lion,” associated with dominance, braver,y and sexuality. Hartley uses the zodiac signs as a set of characteristics to measure the characters against; Leo’s inability to identify with the Lion makes his younger self demote him to a “dull dog.”
Leo answers his younger self, saying that the latter had been burned after flying “too near to the sun.” He believes that the man he is today is what his younger self made him. His younger self argues that he has had “half a century” to take control of his life, in the “glorious epoch” of the twentieth century no less. Present-day Leo argues that the twentieth century has not delivered on the promise of being a new dawn in the way that his younger self so excitedly anticipated. He tells his younger self that he was, in fact, “vanquished.”
Leo sees his life in relation to the Greek myth of Icarus. Icarus, a young man, defies his father’s warning against flying too close to the sun and then drowns when his wax wings melt. Leo therefore feels that his life was effectively ended when he flew “too near the sun”—in this case the world of Brandham Hall and, specifically, Marian. Interestingly, it also shows that even now Leo still has the capacity to see his life in mythic terms. And just like he never delivered on the promise of his younger self, neither did the twentieth century—which ended up being full of horror and war.
Leo’s younger self argues that he could at least have tried to deal with the challenges of life, as he had with Jenkins and Strode all those years ago. Leo argues that his younger self was wrong to think of the people at Brandham Hall “as angels, even if they were fallen angels. They belonged to your Zodiac.” What his younger self should have done, thinks Leo, is called down curses on “Mrs. Maudsley or her daughter or Ted Burgess or Trimingham.” Present-day Leo hasn’t thought of those people since his youth because he felt that was what his younger self wanted.
Leo confronts his younger self’s cosmology, trying to disown it. But even old Leo, who claims to have let go of any attachment to the supernatural, feels that things could have gone better if he’d used curses at Brandham Hall. This shows that, on a deeper level, he still has common ground with the boy he used to be—it’s just that it’s too late to change anything about the past. The only action he’s taken about events at Brandham has been to try not to think about them.
The voice of his younger self, as it dies away, implores Leo to write down the events at Brandham Hall before it is too late. Leo knows now that he has to face those memories. Surrounded by his piles of papers, he picks up the diary again. He reveals that the combination of letters to open the lock is his own name: “LEO.”
Now that he’s discovered his old diary, Leo doesn’t feel that he can turn away from those memories any longer. Though it’s too late to change anything, perhaps he can bring some kind of closure to what happened by revisiting it in his old age. The fact that he has to use his own name to get into the diary symbolizes that this will be an investigation into the depths of his own identity.