Wistful, chaste, and utterly captivating.
Resembling both Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Michael Frayn’s Spies in its plot, this 1953 novel, recently reprinted, tells of a pre-adolescent’s naive meddling in the love lives of elders, with disastrous results. Set in the summer of 1900, when the hopes and dreams for the century were as yet untarnished by two world wars and subsequent horrors, this novel is quietly elegant in style, its emotional upheavals restrained, and its 12-year-old main character, Leo Colston, so earnest, hopeful, and curious about life that the reader cannot help but be moved by his innocence.
Leo’s summer visit to a friend at Brandham Hall introduces him to the landed gentry, the privileges they have assumed, and the strict social behaviors which guide their everyday lives. Bored and wanting to be helpful when his friend falls ill, Leo agrees to be a messenger carrying letters between Marian, his host’s sister, and Ted Burgess, her secret love, a farmer living nearby.
Catastrophe is inevitable–and devastating to Leo. In descriptive and nuanced prose, Hartley evokes the heat of summer and the emotional conflicts it heightens, the intensity rising along with the temperature. Magic spells, creatures of the zodiac, and mythology create an overlay of (chaste) paganism for Leo’s perceptions, while widening the scope of Hartley’s focus and providing innumerable parallels and symbols for the reader.
The emotional impact of the climax is tremendous, heightened by the author’s use of three perspectives–Leo Colston as a man in his 60’s, permanently damaged by events when he was 12; Leo as a 12-year-old, wrestling with new issues of class, social obligation, friendship, morality, and love, while inadvertently causing a disaster; and the reader himself, for whom hindsight and knowledge of history create powerful ironies as he views these events and the way of life they represent.
Some readers have commented on Leo’s unrealistic innocence in matters of sex, even as a 12-year-old, but this may be a function of age. For those of us who can remember life without TV and the computer, it is not so far-fetched to imagine a life in which “mass communication” meant the telegraph and in which “spooning” was an adults-only secret.
Notes: The author’s photo is part of the genealogy which a family member has been compiling on the internet: http://www.hartleyfamily.org.uk
The film version of this book, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize in 1971. The credits and theme song by Michel LeGrand last for 1 minute, then the first scene begins: