The Go-Between by LP Hartley–part 2

published 1953

Go-Between white 3

What they thought, what they did, how they occupied themselves, was a mystery to me. The young men down from the University (as Marcus assured me they were), the young women with even less to identify them, would greet me on their way to or from the tennis court or the croquet lawn; the men in white flannels, white boots, and wearing straw boaters, the women, also in white with hourglass figures and hats like windmills; all white, or nearly white, save for the men’s black socks that sometimes showed above their buckskin boots. Some found more to say to me than others; but they were only part of the scene and I never had, or felt I ought to have, Go-Between white 2the smallest personal relationship with them. They were they, and Marcus and I were we – different age groups, as we should say now. And that was why, for the first day or two, I never properly took in the fact that one of ‘them’ was my host’s son, and another his daughter. Blond (as they mostly were), dressed in white, swinging their tennis-rackets, they looked so much alike!
commentary: I explained in a previous entry how I came to read this book, and how much I loved it. There, I looked at the young boys’ outfits: here are the marriageable young men and women who are flirting and looking each over at the house party.

Clothes are important in the book, and it’s obvious that Marion –the female protagonist - is quite daring, though she is never going to go too far. And there is a nicely symbolic moment where one character asks Leo how close he sits to her in church, and his painstaking reply is
‘Well of course her dress - ’
‘Yes, yes…These dresses spread out quite a long way.’
There is an extraordinary discussion of what she might wear to ride a bicycle:
She’ll come in riding it, and wearing tights, she says, if Mama will let her, which I doubt. She may have to wear bloomers.’ I closed my eyes against the enchanting vision.
…‘Are bloomers safer than tights?’ I asked.
‘Safer, good heavens no, but they’re not so fast.’

The tights would, I think, resemble modern leggings more than current pantyhose – tights in those days were worn by gymnasts and acrobats and music hall performers – but still it’s an interesting idea.

There’s also a description of the huge baggy outfits the women wore for a swimming expedition:
Marian’s [bathing] suit, I remember, seemed to cover her far more completely than her evening dresses.

Go-Between bather

But again, we can see significance in the fact that as the costumes becomes wetter, more is revealed:
Their thick clumsy dresses began to cling to them and take on the soft outlines of their bodies.
People bandy the word Proustian about, but this book is touched with the same genius as In Search of Lost Time, and has the same ability to make you think you can actually see and feel and imagine what is being described on the page. And to have moments that are so real, and beautifully described, but also work on another level. This is from the fabled cricket match in the book, when a ball is lost:
A scatter of small boys darted off to look for it and while they were hunting the fieldsmen lay down on the grass; only Ted and his partner and the two umpires remained standing, looking like victors on a stricken field. All the impulse seemed to go out of the game: it was a moment of complete relaxation.
And there is the hilarious fact that Leo is obsessed with what you might call the midden:
I preferred the rubbish-heap, for there I had a sense of adventure…
Leo, despite being very much of his time, is the most real child ever – he doesn’t resemble any modern boy, but still you can understand and sympathize with him the whole time, even when he is being annoying and tiresome.

A perfect book.

The man and woman are from a Danish magazine of the era.

The tennis picture is from the  NYPL, as are the bathing suits.


  1. What a great look at the social mores and customs of the time, Moira. I just have this great mental picture of spreading a dress out to just the 'correct' extent as you sit. And now you have me thinking about Christie's Hallowe'en Party, where one character mentions how her grandmother (who was in domestic service) worked for young women who would dampen their skirts. It had the same effect as the bathing suit does here. Amazing how clothes are used that way.

    1. Thanks Margot - and what a great snippet from Halloween Party. One of my theories is that whatever we think about our respectable elders (who are so easily shocked), every generation of young women finds a way to show off their good points when there are young men around....

  2. You write about this book beautifully, Moira. But I don't think I can read it again - at least not at the moment - because it is so sad.

    1. Thank you for the kind words Chrissie. I know what you mean - I think I will read it again one day, just for love of the story and the writing. I keep wishing I'd read it when I was younger, but I think I might have found it even sadder then...

  3. Replies
    1. Not really any meeting of minds here, I agree.

  4. Early bathing suits for women were certainly interesting. And they must have been very hot? All of the images here are great.

    1. I'm always glad when I get the chance to look for bathing-suite pictures! I love the one here, afterwards I wished I'd used it as the main image.


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