*Jacqueline Rose, Professor of Humanities at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, writing in the London Review of Books on 19th November, 2020.
Image: “Cupid and Psyche” (1817), by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825).
“Aristotle (the tutor of Alexander the Great) made the first recorded instance of the word “psyche”, meaning the human spirit or soul in reference to a butterfly, in his treatise The History of Animals (c 350 BC). It stemmed from the belief that caterpillars’ cocoons were like tombs, and the butterfly emerging was like the “anima” (soul) fluttering free from the prison of the corpse after death. In Greek myth, Psyche, the goddess of the soul, is often depicted with a butterfly.” (BBC.com)
“David used the story of Cupid and Psyche to explore the conflict between idealized love and physical reality. Cupid, lover of the beautiful mortal Psyche, visited her nightly on the condition that she not know his identity. Cupid was usually depicted as an ideal adolescent, but here David presents him as an ungainly teenager smirking at his sexual conquest. David took inspiration from a number of ancient texts, including an obscure, recently published Greek poem by Moschus that describes Cupid as a mean-spirited brat with dark skin, flashing eyes, and curly hair.” (Cleveland Museum of Art)
I was fascinated to hear Dominic Guard interviewed (above), though surprised that the only parallel he drew between L.P. Hartley’s story of The Go-Between and his practice as a child psychotherapist was the question of “Something that is washed over, is ignored, nobody’s transparent about it…”. Perhaps he’s keen to underplay more disturbing themes for the sake of his clientele; or perhaps he is back in role as the innocent Leo.
Hartley himself wrote that he set out to tell “a story of innocence betrayed, and not only betrayed but corrupted….” (In the summer that the book was being filmed, he wrote to his sister: “A friend tells me that “The Go-Between” is [to] be “shot” near East Dereham, though not at the house where it happened.”) He gives the adult Leo the words “I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued, looking not into the past but into the future; and I should not be sitting alone…”
(The link to the feature film is at the end of this post.)
At the beginning, the decorous twelve year old Leo arrives at his friend Marcus’s grand estate for a holiday. As they climb the stairs, their shadows are thrown on the wall: foreshadowing has its place in the narrative. They are the only children in a houseful of adults.
About forty minutes into the film, farmer Ted Burgess concedes to young Leo: “All right – I’ll trust you…”, as though Leo has requested this privilege (of carrying a love letter to Miss Marian), when in fact he has no awareness of its significance. Not long afterwards, Viscount Trimingham (Hugh), whom Marian’s mother fully intends she should marry, calls Leo “Mercury, the messenger of the gods”. (Trimingham is played by Edward Fox, of whom John Sessions said, “Eddie Fox, the only man with a bicep in his face.”) These people do indeed take for granted their godlike status, not only in relation to the child, but in society.
Mercury is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. Trimingham’s epithet proves to be an unconscious disownment and projection (plus a prediction). Leo is responsible for carrying messages and for a little divination, but everything else belongs to the adult world of privilege. When Leo defines Mercury as the smallest planet, he describes himself more accurately.
Trimingham calls Leo from a distance: “Come here, I want you!” No one can find Marian, and in a scene which is repeated more dramatically later in the film, Leo is dispatched to find her. She is dishevelled, and at first speaks sharply to the boy: “What are you doing here?” There is, of course, no reason why he should not be there – she is the one who has strayed.
Sitting beside the coachman on a carriage outing, Leo asks him what he thinks of Ted Burgess. The man replies that he’s “A bit of a lad”, which puzzles Leo – for Ted is a grown man.
Leo tells Marian that he’s happy to carry messages between her and Ted. “Because you like him?” she asks eagerly. “Yes,” confirms Leo, “and because I like you.” She kisses him on the cheek, less in genuine affection than in celebration of her happy love affair.
Leo’s sunny fulfilment of his role as messenger is blighted when, in her haste to hide a letter from Trimingham, she hands Leo an unsealed envelope. Halfway between the Hall and its farm, he reads the contents and is devastated to find that it does not concern business matters as Marian had assured him it did. Angry and distressed, he arrives at the farm, and politely informs Ted that he can no longer keep his missions secret from Marcus, and must curtail them.
Ted, more experienced than Marian in bargaining, begins a line in emotional blackmail: “You want her to like you, don’t you? She used to cry, before you come along.” He turns to talk of the farm. Confused by Ted’s reference to the mare being in foal, Leo hazards: “I didn’t know horses could spoon…” Ted arrives at a potential bargaining point, having heard that Leo’s father is dead, and offers to let Leo in on the facts of life “on condition you carry on being our postman.”
The village and the Hall come together for the annual cricket match. Leo, the “twelfth man” for the Hall, is the hero of the hour when he catches the ball off a big hit by villager Ted, who comments, almost prophetically, “I never thought I’d be caught out by our postman.”
Apparently inevitably, the engagement between Marian and Viscount Trimingham is announced. At first, it seems this may clarify matters for Leo. He’s seen in reflective mood when Marian appears with yet another note for him to deliver. He protests uncertainly, “Hugh might be upset.” Marian flies into a temper and tells the boy not to be silly. As he still hesitates, she becomes more virulent: “are you too stupid?” She resorts to her full sense of (over) entitlement, telling him that as a guest he is “A poor nothing, out of nowhere – you have the damn cheek to say you won’t do something that any tuppeny ha’penny ragamuffin in the street would do for nothing – you want paying, I suppose?”
The insult is too much to bear, and Leo snatches the message and runs to the farm. Ted looks up from the task of cleaning his gun – he has been staring down the barrel – and, seeing Leo’s tear stained face, offers to shoot something for his diversion, then invites him to stay for tea. He explains that his daily housekeeper doesn’t attend on Sunday, and looks up sharply as Leo enquires: “Do you have a woman every day?”
Ted invites Leo to stay for tea. His domain gives him greater latitude than does Marian’s in which to negotiate for Leo’s service: “What can I do to make it worth your while?” Leo reminds him of his promise to explain adult relations, and becomes increasingly agitated, demanding: “Are you a lover? What do you do? I won’t take any more messages for you unless you tell me.” Ted panics, no doubt at the prospect of Leo reporting back to the Hall, and shouts at the boy, who tears away.
In a heart rending scene, Leo writes to his mother to say “I am not enjoying myself here”, and asking to return home.
He sees Trimingham going to the smoking room, and follows him in. Troubled by what he is beginning to piece together, Leo asks Hugh about a hypothetical point of honour. Trimingham informs him firmly, “Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.”
Marian’s father joins them in this male sanctum, and they discuss the problem of Ted Burgess: “A bit of a lady killer.” When Leo hears Mr Maudsley say that Ted has “A woman up this way”, he pipes up innocently, “I know,” referring, as the two men realise after a moment, to Ted’s housekeeper.
Believing that his mother will arrange for him to return home, Leo calls on Ted to take his leave, little knowing how final it will be. Ted now offers, perhaps disingenuously given that others are in earshot, to explain the facts of life to Leo, who declines, stuttering slightly, with, “I wouldn’t dream of troubling you. I know s-several people who can tell me.” He asks if Ted will join the Army, as Trimingham seemed to expect. Ted replies that the choice is Marian’s: “It’s what she wants.”
Leo remains confused, and asks Marian: “Why are you marrying Hugh?” She replies, “Because I must.” Leo and Marian embrace while she sobs on his shoulder, and he comforts her. It’s inappropriate: Leo stands for the parentified child at this point.
Marcus confides in Leo that Marian plans to present him with a green bicycle on his birthday, teasing him: “You are green yourself, Marian said so.” Leo is stung by this reference to his gullibility from the young woman who has taken advantage of his devotion to her, and starts to show off to Marcus that he alone knows where Marian goes when she disappears.
Leo seems overwhelmed by knowledge that should not be his and which he does not know how to decipher. He gathers deadly nightshade from the old garden to use in his “black magic”: “Die, all evil. Delenda est belladonna.”
The next day, Marian approaches him brightly. Leo asks if she thinks that summer has come to a close. She asserts “Of course it isn’t over!” before trying to press another note on him. Leo had thought she was inviting him on a walk. When she discloses, “You see, it’s this kind of walk” (to Ted’s farm) he whimpers “oh no”.
They scuffle as Marian tries to press the note on Leo, and attract the attention of Marian’s watchful mother. (Watchful, that is, for unimpeded progress towards an advantageous marriage. Pure care and affection towards Leo is represented by the friendship of Marcus and, below stairs, by a cook who lets him lick the mixing bowl.)
From here the plot reaches a fairly swift denouement, but not before Mrs Maudsley has subjected Leo to a cross examination. Witheringly, knowing that Leo is concealing the note from her, she demands: “Has no one ever told you not to stand with your hands in your pockets?” Hellbent on tracking down her errant daughter, Mrs Maudsley inadvertently exposes Leo to a sort of “primal scene”. Finally, Marian, her mother, and Ted, have forced on him in blatant form the knowledge he required.
In an epilogue which takes place fifty years later, the older Marian, still absorbed in her own emotional world, tramples over Leo’s traumatic experience, telling him: “Remember how you loved taking our messages? the child of so much happiness and beauty…”