The Past is a foreign country - Sample Essay
“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. ” Referring to L. P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between” and Philip Larkin’s poetry anthology “The Whitsun Weddings”, explore the significance of the past. “What’s gone and what’s past help, should be past grief. ” L. P. Hartley’s novel and Larkin’s poetry demonstrate the lack of reality in this philosophy, a point that Shakespeare clearly implies with the use of the auxiliary verb “should”.
Although “a foreign country” our capacity of memory allows us to continue living in that strange land making the events that occurred there very much present grief. The devastating history of The Go-Between epitomises the power that the past has to dictate our lives. That one summer in adolescence can affect the next fifty years of a man’s life illustrates the influence that the past has on the present. Similarly, the poetry of Philip Larkin portrays how alive and existing the past is, in memorabilia, in our children, in artifacts and in ourselves.
A “post mortem” of Leo Colston’s metaphorical death, the novel The Go-Between, tells the account of how a boy was prematurely forced into adulthood, an adulthood never lived out. The events that occurred at the age of twelve crippled Leo to such an extent that even in his sixties he has not recovered; he is “dried up, the husk of a man”. One summer in his youth holds more significance for him than any other time, it is the only time in his life that Leo lived but also the time at which he gave up on his existence and died.
The Leo Colston of pre-1900 remained at Brandham Hall, where “they do things differently”, and it is only at the age of sixty-four when he returns in person that he is able and dares to start living once more. After opening Pandora’s box, his diary from that eventful year, he decides to confront the past. Despite Leo’s advance in age he still possesses childhood nostalgia contained in a box, which like him is “battered”, all these years later. He stored away memorabilia from his early days, evidence that he had not recovered from what happened in the past.
In this “searching exploration of the nature of memory” as termed by Douglas Brooks-Davies, we are shown the ability that the faculty has, as well as memorabilia, to contain the past. Colston was unable to throw away his physical memories just as much as he was unable to rid them from his mind; he did not have closure on the events that took place in Norfolk, it was unfinished business. The prologue of this bildungsroman sees Leo Colston unable to resist the “enervating power” of his boyhood diary, and so he once again opens the door to his disturbing past.
Both the prologue and epilogue of the novel are evidence of the great significance the author places on the past, shown in the pathetic life he has created for “green” Leo Colston, a now “cindery creature”, “a dull dog”. Many factors contributed to the “breakdown” of the young go-between, not solely the revelation of the sexual act. The twelve-year-old Leo Colston was emotionally immature. He knew nothing of the facts of life and believed that by being a go-between he was a “messenger of the gods” so high were the Maudsleys in his esteem.
Therefore when plunged into water too deep for him, acting as “the lynch-pin of the whole business”, he was destined to get hurt. After weeks of manipulation by his adored “Maid Marian”, amounting to psychological child abuse on her part, he was then sadistically forced by a hysterical Mrs. Maudsley to witness the “two bodies moving like one”. Leo’s downfall had almost reached its peak. The climax arrived however with the news that Ted Burgess “had gone home and shot himself”, releasing the metaphorical trigger that was to kill Leo the schoolboy and force him into an unpleasant adult world.
The “Diary for the year 1900” is a snapshot of naivety, as regards to both Leo and society, echoing the line from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV: “Never such innocence again”. Both Leo and England were ignorant of the capabilities of man. Later England was to be disillusioned by the atrocities of two world wars and on a personal scale Leo was to lose his faith in the morality of man. It could be argued that had this novel not been set at the turn of the twentieth century but one hundred years later at the turn of the millennium, Leo Colston would not have suffered a nervous breakdown.
Due to advancements in technology there would have been no need for a messenger to aid a secret love affair. The romance between Marian Maudsley, aristocrat and the farmer Ted Burgess would probably not have needed to be a secret at all due to the lack of such a segregated class system in today’s society, and also due to the much improved status of women who are now far more liberated as regards sexual relationships and marriage. It is also improbable that an adolescent approaching thirteen in today’s society could be as nai?? ve as Leo concerning the facts of life.
The past therefore also has significance in terms of context and as the setting for L. P. Hartley’s novel. In The Go-Between L. P. Hartley accurately recaptures the mood of the late Victorian period, through his novel the reader is allowed to witness not only Leo’s past but also the age in which Leslie Poles Hartley lived. The novel contains many similarities to the author’s life and to a certain extent is autobiographical. Lord David Cecil praised Hartley’s ability as a historical and social commentator believing him to be “One of the most distinguished of modern novelists…
(And) a sharp-eyed chronicler of the social scene”. The Epilogue of the novel shows most effectively the relationship between the past and present. When Leo Colston returns to the village near Norwich where the “frightful trouble” occurred, it is to a landscape as foreign to him then as when he first arrived there as a pubescent schoolboy. Whilst Leo has lived a monotonous existence for fifty years “the most changeful half a century in history” has taken place in the world around him. Yet other things remained unaltered.
Marian Maudsley still has the power to bewitch Leo, to emotionally blackmail him, to make him carry out a final “errand of love”. Despite himself Leo is compelled to enter the world of Brandham Hall once more to deliver Marian’s words to her grandson, Ted Burgess’ grandson, the character of Edward symbolising the legacy we create in our children. As long as people continue to procreate they will never truly die, but live on through their offspring. Although his farmer friend had taken his own life all those years ago, Leo sees Ted Burgess once more in the face of his grandchild.
On seeing the Hall, Leo allows himself to start recollecting fully the time he spent there. As he revisits the “foreign country” of his past he allows himself to stop being a stranger there and to understand that past land and the events that took place there. Also “a foreigner in the world of emotion” his entire adult life, Leo Colston will be no longer as he attempts to lay his ghosts to rest. In his anthology The Whitsun Weddings Philip Larkin explores the concept of past and its different aspects.
With Afternoons he examines the passing of time; generations growing old without hardly noticing, then looking back at their pasts, their youths, from the “hollows of afternoons”. Mr. Bleaney was a person of the past and yet his personality lives on through the tales of his landlady and the stamp of bleakness that he left on the “hired box”. Yet it is in poems such as Love Songs in Age where Larkin truly observes the role that the past plays in our everyday lives, the ability nostalgic souvenirs have to comfort and move us as well as to disappoint.
As in The Go-Between a tatty keepsake is the key to unlocking the past, again memories both fond and painful. The tone of the first verse is very matter of fact, simply informing the reader of how a widow accidentally stumbles upon some old, uncared for songbooks. Although unloved she could not face throwing them away as “they took so little space”. The simplicity of the language used complements the everyday value of the subject matter whilst at the same time informing the reader of the domestic situation of the lady in question.
The repetition of “One” emphasises the lack of importance that the items held for the widow, but almost as though they knew of their own significance “they had waited”. Now however, in the autumn of her life they awaken nostalgic recollections as she vividly remembers “the unfailing sense of being young” and in love. The second stanza of the poem creates an optimistic mood, an illusion of sentimental love that makes her feel youthful once more “like a spring-woken tree”.
Yet in the closing stanza Larkin’s underlying theme of cynicism emerges as the widow realises that the ideal of love portrayed in the song words is merely an illusion. Alliteration emphasises the lack of truth in the promise love makes “to solve, satisfy and set unchangeably in order. ” In confronting this painful reminder from the past the widow also has to face the reality of the present, the two are entwined. The sentimental illusion of romance aimed too high and could not fulfil its promises; “It had not done so then, and could not do so now. “