Friday, 9 October 2015

The Go-Between and Freudian Repressed Memory Syndrome -- L.P.Hartley

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

L.P.Hartley’s inspired opening sentence to his remarkable novel, “The Go-Between” is memorable and often quoted.

“The Go-between was first published in 1953, the following year it received the Heinemann Foundation Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. Its film version was also very successful and won the principal award at the Festival de Cannes in 1973. The novel is a memory story: a man in his sixties looks back on his boyhood, recalling the events that took place on a summer visit to an aristocratic family in Norfolk in the 1900's. Hartley uses double narrative, the young Leo's actions told by the older Leo, and it shows us how it has affected his life”. WIKI

The novel, “The Go-Between” is a compelling illustration of Freudian psychoanalysis. It explores the ideology of sexuality within the context of Victorian England and the imagined world of a twelve year old boy on the edge of puberty. But more than anything, “The Go-Between” is an exposition of Freud’s “repressed memory syndrome”.

“Repressed memory is a hypothetical concept used to describe a significant memory, usually of a traumatic nature, that has become unavailable for recall; also called motivated forgetting in which a subject blocks out painful or traumatic times in one's life. This is not the same as amnesia, which is a term for any instance in which memories are either not stored in the first place (such as with traumatic head injuries when short term memory does not transfer to long term memory) or forgotten.
The term is used to describe memories that have been dissociated from awareness as well as those that have been repressed without dissociation. Repressed memory syndrome, the clinical term used to describe repressed memories, is often compared to psychogenic amnesia, and some sources compare the two as equivalent.
According to proponents of the hypothesis, repressed memories may sometimes be recovered years or decades after the event, most often spontaneously, triggered by a particular smell, taste, or other identifier related to the lost memory, or via suggestion during psychotherapy”. WIKI

Freud used the term repression to describe the way emotionally painful events could be blocked out of conscious awareness so that their painful effects would not have to be experienced.

The trigger for releasing the adult Leo’s repressed memory is his diary, discovered after a lifetime of blank, barren emotions. The trauma that has caused his memories to be suppressed is the imaginings of a sensitive young boy on the verge of puberty who conveys messages between two secret lovers. In repressing his memory, Leo’s life has been one of neurosis, negation and sterility.

Leo’s conscious mind has actively pushed into his unconscious mind the major, traumatic event. For Freud, repression was a defence mechanism - the repressed memories are often devastating in nature, but, although hidden, they continue to exert an effect on behaviour.

Leo Colston, is a bachelor librarian in his sixties. He is a self-proclaimed “foreigner in the world of the emotions.” Colston’s discovery of the diary he kept in the summer of 1900, the year he turned thirteen, precipitates the release of the repressed memories of the people and events that led to his withdrawal from emotional relationships. The young Leo, imaginative, sensitive, and eager to please, his values and vision determined by the self-centeredness of a child, visits the estate of a schoolmate.

Yes, the catalyst for the story is the diary. The diary isn’t detailed in terms of narrative, but the words, phrases and illustrations within its pages lift Leo into the world of dark, stormy memories that he has repressed. He tells us that most of the writings within the diary are in code. A code that the adult Leo has to recall and translate.

“Try now, try now, it isn't too late”

“Excitement, like hysteria, bubbled up in me from a hundred unsealed springs. If it isn't too late, I thought confusedly, neither it is too early: I haven't much time left to spoil. It was the last flicker of instinct of self-preservation which had failed me so signally at Brandham Hall.”

The adult Leo has an epiphany, a sudden realisation that the key to his frozen life is in the pages of his diary. 

So repressed are his memories, that he cannot even remember the name of his childhood school friend. The diary tells him; “Marcus.”

The child Leo, invents a story, a romantic tale about the profound events of that summer in the year 1900.

Bruno Bettleheim in his book "The Uses of Enchantment" makes the point that fairy tales;

"... carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious , and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time. Our own narratives carry a similar message, both to ourselves and to whoever we are asking to share them with us.”

Already, the diary is helping Leo to remember his story.

"To my mind's eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don't know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream."

The adult Leo realises that something profound happened all those years ago, and something profound is about to happen in his present.

"..the past kept pricking at me and I knew that all the elements of those nineteen days in July were astir within me, like phlegm in an attack of bronchitis, waiting to come up. I had kept them buried all these years, but they were there, I knew, the more complete, the more unforgotten, for being carefully embalmed. Never, never had they seen the light of day; the slightest stirring had been stifled with a scattering of earth.”

Among other things, "The Go-Between" is about class distinction and its warping effect upon the life of one small boy. The story is set in the days before World War I, privileged days that seemed to stretch endlessly before the British upper class. The boy, Leo, comes to spend a summer holiday at the home of a rich friend. And he falls in hopeless schoolboy love with the friend's older sister, Marian.

Marian is engaged to marry well, to Lord Trimingham, but she is in love with a roughshod tenant farmer, Ted Burgess, and she enlists the boy to carry messages back and forth between them. The boy has only a shadowy notion at first about the significance of the messages, but during the summer he is sharply disillusioned about life, fidelity, and his own place in the great scheme of things.

In the family's matriarch, Mrs Maudsley, Hartley give us a woman who seems to support the British class system all by herself, simply through her belief in it. They show a father and a fiancé who are aware of Marian’s affair with the farmer, but do nothing about it. They are confident she will do the "right thing" in the end, and she does.

Everything that will become of this boy in his adult life is already there, by implication, at the end of his summer holiday.  Leo ends up being warped by the final tragedy that turns him into an emotionally hollow adult. 

So twelve-year-old Leo spends the summer of 1900 at the country estate of his much wealthier school friend, Marcus Maudsley, presided over by a patriarch who;

"sitting down looked much taller than standing up"

and a matriarch "who seemed to take up more space than necessary."

What begins as a delicious idyll of scorching skies, afternoon swims, tea and cricket, soon darkens toward storm. Leo suffers his first crush on Marcus's elder sister Marian, becoming an unwilling go-between in her complicated machinations with a war hero beau and a local farmer. Leo's defining characteristic is his naiveté, which everyone exploits for their own amusement, and the reader chuckles along manipulated by Hartley's irony, making us complicit in the tragedy to come.

The adult Leo informs the reader;

“My secret- the explanation of me- lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy I had come to terms with life, I had made a working -working was the word - arrangement with it, on the one condition that there should be no exhumation. Was it true, what I sometimes told myself, that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter? Should have I acquitted myself better, with the knowledge I had now? I doubted it; knowledge may be power, but it is not resilience, or resourcefulness, or adaptability to life, still less is it instinctive sympathy with human nature; and those were qualities I possessed in 1900 in far greater measure that I possess them in 1952.”

The summer is hot, too hot for Leo in the warm winter clothes he has brought with him to Norfolk. Marian offers to buy him a new set of clothes more suited to the weather. They leave for Norwich to go shopping on the following day. Leo, the adolescent boy is delighted, but the adult reader already has the dark, uncomfortable stirrings of duplicity.

The violation of Leo’s twelve year old soul has begun.

Leo's romantic imagination favours heroes and villains. At Brandham, he invents his own fairy story. He is the hero, already in love with the beautiful princess and like many before him, his love will be his downfall. The reader already knows that Marian will betray him.

After they have finished their shopping in Norwich, “she dismissed me,” and Leo wanders around the cathedral for an hour. Leo is happy; excited. “Never had I felt in such harmony with my surroundings.”

Leo leaves early to the appointed meeting place. He catches sight of Marian.

“She seemed to be saying goodbye to someone, at least I had the impression of a raised hat.”

Leo does not say anymore than that. He doesn’t have the reader’s sophistication of suspecting a liaison; an assignation.

But if naïveté is his defining characteristic, Leo’s naïveté is his fatal flaw. In a cruel twist the flaw is made tangible by the Lincoln green suit gifted by the Maudsleys on his birthday;

"It is your true colour," chants Marcus, "Green, green, green."

The reader is older, wiser than the boy Leo. The boy’s powers of intelligence are inferior to ours, so we have a sense of looking down on the events with a notion of absurdity. Of course it is absurd that the boy Leo, should imagine himself in love with the beautiful Marian and Hartley draws the reader in to a mood of smug complicity. But the reader has to respond sympathetically to the boy Leo’s dilemma. Leo’s world is introverted and unworldly; Hartley presents the reader with a very grown up situation, in which the child has no defence against the power of adults.

This is something we can all relate to; when adults had conversations while we were present. Their words laden with innuendo. We can remember feeling disconcerted, that something is being said that we don’t quite understand. There is laughter that confuses and disorientates us; is the laughter at our expense? We remember the dark, hot discomfort. We recall being compromised at having to break a sacred vow. Adults shouldn’t do this to children; but they do. It must have happened to L.P.Hartley too, for him to know.

The man Leo, imagines the boy Leo confronting him with the life he has wasted.

“If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: 'Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people's books instead of writing your own?”

The older Leo, has his answer ready.

“Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.”

The hot weather continues, but Leo doesn’t mind it now that he is wearing cool summer clothes.

The heat, brings out notions of sex, as it does for all of us. And Leo is no different; but his ideas of sex are hazy and he simply imagines his own nakedness. He experiences his first feelings of erotica.

“My notions of decency were vague and ill-defined, as were all my ideas relating to sex; yet they were definite enough for me to long for the release…of casting off my clothes, and being like a tree or a flower, with nothing between me and nature.”

There is a bathing party planned and Leo is disappointed to learn that he will not be allowed to swim. He won’t have the pleasure of wearing the swimming suit that Marian has chosen for him. His mother has written to Mrs Maudsley, telling her that he is frail.

As the party approaches the place where they are to bathe they see a man diving into the river. As he swims towards them, Denys, Marcus’ elder brother, realises that it is Ted Burgess, the tenant of Blackthorn Farm. He has a right to be at the river. He is not a trespasser; it is his land. Ted Burgess is a man glowing and shining with health; he is in his prime.

While the rest of the party are bathing, Leo spies on Ted Burgess. Leo is the voyeur.

“ Believing himself to be unseen by the other bathers he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well it might. I whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what it must feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own strength and beauty? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?
Now he had a plantain stalk in his left hand and was rubbing it gently along the hairs of his right forearm; they glinted in the sun and were paler than his arms, which were mahogany coloured to above the elbow. Then he stretched both arms high above his chest, which was so white it might have belonged to another person, except below his neck where the sun had burnt a copper breastplate; and he smiled to himself, an intimate, pleased smile, that would have looked childish or imbecile on most people, but on him had the effect of a feather on a tiger -- it pointed to a contrast, and all to his advantage.”

The passage is highly erotically charged and is intensely homoerotic, as Leo awakens to the sheer beauty of the male. But it frightens him too, as he recognises unadulterated masculine power.

After the group has finished bathing, Marian indulges herself in a dalliance; a little flirtation with Leo. He helps her to dry her hair. Marian is simply amusing herself. For Leo it is entirely different. He tells the reader;

“A labour of love it truly was, the first I had ever done.”

The stage is set, when Leo’s friend Marcus develops the measles and Leo is left to his own devices. The tragedy gathers pace when Leo stumbles on Ted Burgess’ farm house and is caught sliding down the farmer’s haystack.

Ted gives him a “business letter” to give to Marian, but only when she is alone. Leo is sworn to secrecy; there would be “trouble” if anyone should find out.

Leo doesn’t understand a lot about the world of adults, but he understands that a secret is sacred. The bond should never be broken.

And so Leo becomes “postman” for Ted and Marian. Lord Trimingham has already christened him “Mercury, messenger for the gods”, because Leo once took a message to Marian for him. Leo likes the allusion; he also likes Hugh Trimingham and he likes Ted. And we know that he loves Marian. He is torn.

"Why don't you marry Ted?" Leo asks Marian.
"Because I can't," she replies.
"Then why are you marrying Trimingham?"
"Because I must."

She understands, and she is tough enough to endure. The victim in this story is the boy, who is scarred sexually and emotionally by his summer experience. He is on the verge of puberty; adolescence. The experiences of those hot, stifling summer days have turned the adult into a sort of bloodless eunuch.

And the day comes when Leo discovers what Ted and Marian’s “business” is really about. Lord Trimingham enters the room, just as Marian is handing Leo a letter for Ted. He succeeds in thrusting it into his pocket without Trimingham seeing. But in her haste, Marian has forgotten to seal the letter. Eventually, on his way to Ted’s farm, Leo succumbs to temptation and reads the first few sentences. What harm can it do?

“Darling, darling, darling,
Same place, same time, this evening.
But take care not to -”

“The rest was hidden by the envelope.”

Leo isn’t just devastated, he is mortified. He is hot, then cold.

“Not Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, could have been more upset than I was”.

But most of all he is acutely embarrassed. He knows nothing of sex; the facts of life. He is at an age at which boys giggle and sneer at courting couples holding hands. They are “spooning”. Stolen kisses are a joke. He likens Ted and Marian and whatever they have been doing, because he doesn’t really know, to dirty postcards he has seen at the seaside. He sees them as ridiculous and he cannot believe that his Marian would sink so low. “Spooning” is what they called it in 1900’s England, even if Leo doesn’t know what it really involves. But it is degrading, dirty, something to giggle and nudge about.

I’ve just finished re-reading “The Go-Between”. I watched the 1970’s film adaptation yesterday. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and Joseph Losey directed it. The beautiful Julie Christie is Marian, Alan Bates is the handsome Ted, with Edward Fox as Trimingham. Dominic Guard is the boy Leo and he won a BAFTA for his performance. The film is well worth renting and the book is simply stunning to read.

There’s still a few chapters that I really do need to discuss, but I’m going to stop writing now, except to say that the boy Leo suffers a complete mental breakdown after the tragic dénouement.

The reader can see it coming. The strain is too much for his young emotions. He has experienced pure ecstatic love and putrid betrayal in the same time frame. It’s enough for an adult to comprehend, let alone a twelve year old boy.

“And I had a curious experience, almost an illusion, as though a part of me was stationed far away, behind me, perhaps in the belt of trees beyond the river; and from there I could see myself, a bent figure, no bigger than a beetle, weaving to and fro across the ribbon of road”.

Leo’s young mind is fracturing.

I don’t want to spoil it, give anymore away for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, nor read L.P.Hartley’s superbly crafted novel of complexities, which is “The Go-Between”.
I’ll go back to where I started, with Freud and his theory of repressed memory.

“Psychological repression, is the psychological attempt by an individual to repel its own desires and impulses towards pleasurable instincts. Such desires, impulses, wishes, fantasies or feelings can be represented in the mind as thoughts, images and memories. The repression is caused when an external force puts itself in contrast with the desire, threatening to cause suffering if the desire is satisfied, thereby posing a conflict for the individual; the repressive response to the threat is to exclude the desire from one's consciousness and hold or subdue it in the unconscious.” WIKI

Our repressed desires return to our conscious minds in “Freudian slips,” dreams, blunders, wishes and fantasies. The stories that we tell.

Is Freud right? Well, that really is another discussion. Whether he’s right or wrong, what Freud has done for us, is to give us the tools to have an unfolding dialogue.


  1. Great review...I want to read it and see the film now. Freud's theories are fascinating and I believe correct.

  2. The BBC did a new adaptation just a few weeks ago -- I found it lacking in something -- maybe the pace was too fast -- they did squeeze it into a 2 hour slot. The book is great Chris and the 1973 film is brilliant -- but then Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay so it was bound to be good. I think that the film is available on Amazon -- maybe Netflix as well..enjoy..

  3. Perfect...I'm gonna track down the book and the 1973 film... Keep up the great work.