‘…and it was then we saw them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs Maudsley’s repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella.’
Within this quotation from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between lies an image which confounded me at 17. Over the intervening years, several conversations have led me back to the text and inevitably I find myself bemoaning the phrase. Of course, what is laid before the reader is the earth-shattering and life-destroying moment of passion shared by Marian and Ted, the class-crossed lovers, whose affair is narrated and in a sense consummated by Leo, the naive middle class boy left to holiday among an upper class family in the baking heat of a Norfolk summer. In this moment the affair is stripped bare – in every sense of the phrase – as Leo has inadvertently led Marian’s mother to the place, at the moment, where the nature of the two lovers’ relationship is made explicitly clear.
I recall feeling very strongly about this novel. I remember thinking that although I really didn’t like it, it was extremely well written and therefore I could certainly enjoy it from the point of view of critically appreciating the language. With hindsight, I suspect that I have often re-packaged my own feelings of intense confusion (or straight-up lack of understanding, or perhaps a struggle to empathise) as rejection of some form. It’s an emotional shortcut that protects me from having to deduce what is really going on. Of course, in the long run, it’s counter-productive as it means I am closing doors to further exploration and understanding.
In this instance, Hartley again provides an apt quotation – possibly one of the most memorable in the English literary canon: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Indeed, my earlier years do feel a like a foreign country, the past is banded into BCD – Before Clinical Diagnosis, and ASD – After Spectrum Diagnosis (I do mean that with some humour!). So whilst I am genuinely stirred to read the novel again, in its entirety, chuckling at my extremely eager adolescent annotations, I am also confident that my interaction with the text would not be dominated by rejection – I would be able to embrace the themes with deeper understanding and ultimately satisfaction. However, I still categorically do not get the image!
My broad division of time into BCD and ASD does serve to illustrate a far broader point. Throughout my adulthood, I have enjoyed occasionally revisiting certain novels or films; nothing particularly unique in that! However, I have perhaps felt more keenly, certainly differently, the development of emotional maturity, identity, feelings. My course has been slower, more circuitous, almost certainly delayed – and let’s class the plentiful mistakes as scenic detours! Therefore, in some peculiar and arbitrary way I have been able to measure that progress through my responses to literature and film.
Although I’ve not fully re-read The Go-Between (rather, a hurried flick through its final chapters, knowing more or less exactly where this passage lies) I am sure – based on the parts I did briefly skim through – that this is a novel I would fully enjoy and appreciate now, without any need for delineating between my critical faculties and my emotions, and without needing to stubbornly insist I loathe all examinations of class. Yet, needless to say, I still do not understand that ridiculous image.
The shift in perception coupled with romance and class allows me, I hope, to introduce Richard Curtis’ classic Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film I first encountered in my late teens – the weight of two crushes weighing heavily. John Hannah, who had recently won my heart in Sliding Doors, and Kristin Scott Thomas, whose poise and/or fluent French are always absolute scene stealers. What a film! I truly adored it…until I watched it again at university and was knocked sideways by its appalling sexism and ridiculous stereotyping and obsession with the upper middle class and that appalling Wet Wet Wet song which is just nauseatingly cheesy and…I realised that something had changed.
Where had the sweet innocence of my earlier viewing gone? Evaporated by a hard, hot breeze of intellectual isms, perhaps? My word, it was disappointing, sad, cruel. Yet, like a cinematic boomerang caught on the curve, Four Weddings was returned to me, by me, a further few years down the line, when my raging critical faculty had subsided, backed down, decided to nestle in amongst the mainstream admirers, and understand that here was a sweet little film to cherish. Unlike, for instance, Love Actually, which will never ever win me over, in the same way Hartley’s image will never, ever make sense to me!
At this point in time, I suppose I really ought to pinpoint the image which has caused me such distress. You may laugh, but it all comes down to that damn umbrella. My brain shrieks (it is now!): that doesn’t make sense! I have literally opened and shut umbrellas in a bid to understand this image and my mind’s eye stubbornly refuses to grant this metaphor access. Now, please don’t assume that because the phrase ‘to get turned on’ makes me think of light switches I take everything literally – sexual or otherwise...I have had fun mapping out the literal lines along which my mind appears to run. For instance, I am told that in normal everyday interaction I can be very literal – there’s no surprise there really. I am aware of it myself and can generally quickly re-route phrases back through my processing system in a bid to auto-check and adjust for meaning. It’s noticeable to me and presumably others at times, but probably without really realising what exactly is happening.
I suppose the way I process is intrinsically linked to my idiosyncratic communication style – therefore to the wider world, in many ways, I am simply Zoe – and that is how I’d like to be. However, me, Zoe, I am autistic, and over the years I have come to realise that the written word is by far the friendlier option for me. With written language, my brain takes an over-actively ambiguous stance to meaning, actively conjuring those most and least likely interpretations with easy and rapid abandon, gleefully sifting through alternatives. And yet, this - ‘a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella’ – this will never speak to me of passion, of wild abandon, of sexual entanglement – it will quite simply be a bright light, a brolly and an awkward teenage shadow.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.