The Young Brits During the Early 1950s



L’articolo ripercorre brevemente le vicende di un romanzo famoso di Leslies Poles Hartley che vide la luce agli inizi degli anni ’50, The Go-Between. Il romanzo mi apparve importante perché s’interessava dell’adolescenza, in contemporanea con la pubblicazione avvenuta più o meno in quegli stessi di un libro non meno importante  di E. H. Erikson, che affrontava il tema dell’adolescenza da un punto di vista eminentemente psicanalitico. Il lavoro di Leslies Poles Hartley mi apparve degno di considerazione proprio perché affrontava secondo una particolare angolazione il problema dell’adolescenza, adombrando quel fenomeno psicologico che E. H. Erikson definì, con espressione estremante efficace, il “breakdown of ego identity”, ossia la “scissione dell’io”, che si sarebbe riverberata nella vita adulta. The Go-Between è pertanto un romanzo storico, nel senso che segna la storia di un’educazione sbagliata che espose molti giovani ad una vita difficile da adulti.


Leslies Poles Hartley became known to the large public after the publication of The Go-Between, 1953, in which he tells the disturbing story of the difficult relationship and the psychological development of an adolescent, Leo Colston, who found  a diary he wrote when he was a 12-year-old boy.  Leo remembered several events that took place in the early 1900s,  when he met Marcus Maudsley, who  belonged to the upper-class that seemed utterly astounding to him.


Marian, Marcus’ sister, was a beautiful girl, and Leo did anything for her, including taking secret messages to a certain Ted Burgess. But Leo dramatically soon realized what these messages were, discovering Marian’s relationship with Ted Burgess, and also that she was to marry Lord Trimingham. So Leo refused to take any more messages, but at the same time he not only lost faith in the adult world, but also his self-confidence, experiencing  psychosocial problems which he will have to endure for the rest of his life.


Leo’s personality literally collapsed upon itself, and he discovered the chasm that divides the ideal world from the real one, which created in him the breakdown of ego identity. In that sense Hartley was a great psychologist, and his work was so heartfelt that it’s hard not to appreciate it, because it offered us an interesting  psychological explanation for why a young man might choose a solitary life.

E. H. Erikson published a book on psychoanalysis in the early 1950s. In his Foreword to the First Edition, Erikson stated that his book “originated in the practice of psychoanalysis,” having determined to treat “anxiety in young children, apathy in American Indians, confusion in veterans of war.” However, he emphasized that his research was dedicated especially to “childhood,” because of “all people start as children.” (E. H. Erikson).

The 1950s were discovering studies on adolescence, and back then it was rare to find research focused on it.  Undoubtedly, the years immediately  following the second world war represented the start of new lifestyles in Britain (consumerism, advertising, sexual freedom) that had a strong impact on adolescents.

Therefore, according to the report of the former Ministry of Education, the young Brits  “[were] subject to continuous and considerable mental, emotional and physical changes” ( A. Ferrebe),  producing in them the  breakdown of ego identity (E. H. Erikson, p. 44), that is the breakdown of previously established patterns of thought and behavior, while the ego was overwhelmed by a deep fear of failure, resulting in relationship difficulties and identity crisis.

The fact is, that in the early 1950s  in England not only psychoanalysts but also writers began to be more interested in adolescence, and one of the most important of these writers was Leslies Poles Hartley, who denied to be familiar with Freud and psychoanalysis, and that his work was based upon a personal experience. But why is The Go-Between important today?  This is because Hartley’s novel is a historical novel,  in the sense that it  marks a decisive point in the history of adult-child relationships which often cause a very hard time in the life of young people.





Leslies Poles Hartley, The Go-Between, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1953.

E. H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, New York & London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993 [First edition 1950], p. 16.

Cited from A. Ferrebe, Literature of the 1950s: Good, Brave Causes,  Edinburgh University Press, 2012, p. 19.



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