The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
In context, the past here does not refer to some long-distant era that we cannot recall or understand for ourselves. It refers instead to the narrator’s own past. Upon discovering a long-forgotten diary from 1900, the year he turned 13, the narrator, Leo, looks back on that year, and especially on the hot summer holiday that he spent at the home of his friend Marcus.
This book reminded me quite a lot of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In both cases, you have an older man reflecting on a significant relationship from his youth, although Leo’s memories refer to a much earlier relationship. And in both cases, you have to deal with questions of reliability of memory. In Hartley’s novel the questions are there almost from the very beginning when Leo first comes across the diary:
I did not want to touch it and told myself that this was because it challenged my memory; I was proud of my memory and disliked having it prompted. So I sat staring at the diary, as at a blank space in a crossword puzzle. Still no light came, and suddenly I took the combination lock and began to finger it, for I remembered how, at school, I could always open it by the sense of touch when someone else had set the combination. It was one of my show-pieces and, when I first mastered it, drew some applause, for I declared that I had to put myself into a trance; and this was not quite a lie, for I did deliberately empty my mind and let my fingers work without direction.
So Leo’s memory is playing tricks on him or he’s playing a trick on us—most likely there’s a little of both. At any rate, we know that the memories he shares are at least a little suspect, whether it’s because he’s shaping them to give us a show-piece or because his memory is not as great as he thinks.
The story Leo conjures is one that puts him “in between” in a number of ways. At the heart of his story is the fact that he’s trying to move between classes. Marcus invites Leo to his grand home for a summer holiday partly because, Leo believes, Marcus thinks Leo is more wealthy than he is. However, it quickly becomes obvious that Leo doesn’t have the right clothes or know the right thing to do. I get the impression that Marcus invites him because he likes having someone to boss around. And Leo is eager to please those he sees as his betters.
This eagerness to please is what puts Leo in the literal position of a “go-between.” When Marcus is ill, his sister recruits Leo to carry secret messages to and from a neighboring farmer. Leo, all innocence, assumes the messages have to do with some sort of family business, and he happily undertakes the mission, glowing with pride that he is their Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Leo is convinced of his own importance, and his actions have repercussions. But the power he has is coincidental, not intentional. Any attempt he makes to exert his own will goes nowhere. He has no more actual influence over people’s lives than he does over the mercury in the thermometer, which he also likes to think he can have some effect on.
By the end of the book, even that grand statement with which Leo opens the book is called into question. In an epilogue, we see that his present is not all that different from his past. His worship of his supposed betters, even after their actions have rendered them unworthy in his eyes, still keeps him in that old go-between role. The past may be a foreign country, but human nature is a constant in all times and places.
I hadn’t heard of this novel until Jenny put it on my reading list for the year. I’m very glad she brought it to my attention. Another win for the book swap!