The subject of “Time Revealing Truth” was a favorite one for Renaissance and Neoclassical artists; Tiepolo, Poussin, Bernini, and many others executed versions of the allegory. But Time, it must be admitted, doesn’t always reveal Truth. Memory is not only self-serving and selective; it is also appallingly unreliable. Someone who wishes to find the truth about the past, the real truth, confronts all but impenetrable barriers. Time may occasionally reveal truth, but it seems just as often to conceal it.
This subject is brilliantly explored by Allan Hollinghurst in his new novel, The Stranger’s Child, a rich and dense tale covering most of the twentieth century and beyond. Using the device of a literary biographer researching a half-forgotten poet, Hollinghurst communicates the sense of fascination we get from delving in to the past, even if the people whose pasts are being explored do not at first seem terribly interesting. For the past is interesting—fascinating—for its own sake alone and so is the human compulsion to resuscitate it.
The event from which all others in this novel flow is a 1913 summer weekend at “Two Acres,” a pleasant house in the suburbs of London. Young George Sawle has brought his Cambridge friend (and secret lover) Cecil Valance home for the weekend to meet his family. Cecil is a cut above the modest George: he is the heir to a baronetcy, a thousand-acre estate, and Corley Court, an extravagant high-Victorian pile. He is also a promising poet, having recently published three poems in the Granta (though, as George’s mother Freda points out, they all seem to be about his own house: “Corley,” “Dawn at Corley,” and “Corley: Dusk”). He is a member of the Conversazione Society at Cambridge—the famous Apostles—and has inducted George into the select group as well. He is a self-styled “pagan.” He is confident, sometimes crudely so, with a “lightly brutal worldliness.” He is consummately glamorous.
It is 1913, so of course the true nature of George and Cecil’s relationship cannot be stated. And the times were innocent enough that George’s mother and siblings, the older Hubert and sixteen-year-old Daphne, don’t suspect it either—or if Frieda does suspect, she hides the shocking thoughts even from herself. The boys keep their secret well. In fact, Cecil even makes a point of flirting with the susceptible Daphne, launching a romance that however half-hearted was at least socially acceptable. Daphne, smitten, asks him to write something in her autograph album. He responds with a poem—“Two Acres”—which, following his death in World War I becomes a classic, one of the most beloved and recited poems of the century.
The model for Cecil is obviously Rupert Brooke (though he is unlike Brooke in both looks and personality), and Hollinghurst, a poet as well as a novelist, has done a pitch-perfect job writing various fragments of Brooke-esque poetry for Cecil: works not of parody, as might so easily have been the case, but of imitation, perhaps even a sneaking homage. Here’s a bit from “Two Acres”:
The Jenny-nettle by the wall,
That some the Devil’s Play-thing call—
The book left out beneath the trees,
Read over backwards by the breeze.
The spinney where the lisping larches
Kiss overhead in silver arches
And in their shadows lovers too
Might kiss and tell their secrets through.
A simple love-letter to England, like Brooke’s “The Soldier,” “Two Acres” turns Cecil posthumously into a national figure, though (again, as with Brooke) the actual quality of his poetry is debatable, with a “tendency to sonorous padding that spoiled almost everything he wrote if judged by the sternest standards.”
Cecil achieves fame as a war poet, and World War I is a central presence in The Stranger’s Child. Yet Hollinghurst’s narrative skips the war, jumping directly to 1926. (Subsequent sections of the book will take place in 1967, 1979, and 2008.) Cecil has been dead for a decade. Daphne, after having achieved a certain notoriety as the girl to whom he dedicated “Two Acres” and presumably loved, has married his younger brother Dudley, now the baronet, and is living at Corley. A slightly dim young woman, she is no match for the cruel Dudley with his “dark autocratic face”: he treats her with an “unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent.”
Dudley has hired a fashionable London interior designer to modernize the Victorian Gothic Corley—conscious shades, here, of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. George is now a dull academic (a historian, appropriately enough) married to the even duller Madeleine, a bluestocking whose “sense of humour is really no more than an irritable suspicion that someone else might find something funny.” Cecil’s memory is being busily burnished, with a marble tomb and memorial going up in Corley’s Gothic chapel and a closeted littérateur, Sebastian Stokes—who clearly had been in love with Cecil himself—penning a memoir of the defunct poet that is painfully redolent of suppressed love and chiefly interesting, to those who knew Cecil’s true nature, for what it didn’t say. (Stokes is based on Edward Marsh, who performed the same service for Rupert Brooke.) Daphne, bullied by her husband, preens herself on the fact that the romantic Cecil once loved her—though she has to admit to herself that “he had always seemed happy when away from her (which was most of the time) and she had sensed more and more how much he enjoyed the absences he was always deploring. The War when it came was an absolute godsend.”
It is at this point that the reader starts to glimpse some of Hollinghurst’s deeper purposes: he treats romantic subjects, in this case subjects with historically romantic associations, but he is brutally unromantic about his characters. There are people in the book we grow fond of but no one we can unreservedly like. Cyril is too arrogant, George too passive, Daphne too stupid, etc. In fact it’s a lot like real life, where one very seldom finds true heroes. The author is also ruthless toward his characters in the futures he fashions for them: again as in reality, their lives tend to be disappointing and unresolved, pointedly lacking in the poetic justice or “closure” that fictional existences tend to have. “True love”—deep and lasting romantic love—doesn’t exist for any of these people; and perhaps it doesn’t exist at all. Desire and affection are limited and mutable. Daphne, for instance, lives well into her eighties, has three unsatisfactory marriages, and never achieves any measure of self-knowledge; her version of her life, as told in her memoir, The Short Gallery, is full of misunderstood events and half-comprehended clues.
This theme becomes even more pronounced as we move ahead to 1967. It is a significant date, for this was the year of the Sexual Offences Act that decriminalized homosexual acts in Britain. It has come all too late for someone like George, now mired for decades in the self-protective lies on which he has built a life and a career. But a new generation is not only changing the current game rules but starting to re-evaluate the past with new eyes, too. Michael Holroyd’s groundbreaking biography of Lytton Strachey is not yet out, but rumor has it that it contains spectacular revelations about Strachey’s sex life. “Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?” Yes; the time of outing, even posthumous outing, had begun.
Cecil, dead now for half a century, is a subject of speculation, at least for a few people. Peter Rowe, a music master at Corley Court (the great house has been turned into a school), confidently gay in the new Sixties style, ponders on the poet whose presence still haunts the place for him and whose rather unsatisfactory marble effigy still presides in the chapel:
Were people interested in Cecil? How did he rank? Undeniably a very minor poet, who just happened to have written lines here and there that had stuck. . . . But his life was dramatic as well as short, and now everyone was mad about the First World War—the Sixth Form all learned “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by heart, and they liked the Valance war poems he had shown them. There was something a little queer about several of these poems.
Peter confides his suspicions to his latest conquest, Paul Bryant, a young bank clerk on the make. Paul soaks it all in, including Peter’s condescending comments about Cecil’s poems, keeping “silent about what they had always meant to him.” The two discover remnants of Gothic Corley, covered up decades ago by the vengeful Dudley. They climb onto the roof, from which Cecil and George had once observed the world they meant one day to go out and conquer. They communicate their enthusiasm to one of Peter’s small pupils, who years later will author pioneering studies in Queer Theory from a chaired professorship in California.
It is Paul, not Peter, who becomes the biographer, and the pages Hollinghurst devotes to his mission are probably the most interesting in the novel. The parallels to The Aspern Papers are surely deliberate, for this is a most literary novel that engages with countless other literary works. Paul—it is now 1979 and he has developed a reputation as a clever book reviewer—surveys the unsatisfactory material on Cecil. There is the Sebastian Stokes memoir, to Paul all too obviously a pathetic love letter to the dead Cecil in the guise of manly literary biography, “dodgy and second-rate. It seemed a kind of warning to Paul”—though the now-aged Dudley deems it “perfectly good, shows its age a bit, but it tells you all the facts.”
Then there is The Letters of Cecil Valance, edited by the elderly George Sawle. Conspicuous by their absence, needless to say, are Cecil’s letters to George himself. The central fact about Cecil’s life has still never been mentioned.
Paul’s travails as a biographer are fascinating, particularly the interviews in which he tries to read between the lines of the less than honest information he is afforded and the faulty memories of his interviewees. On the subject of memory and its failings Hollinghurst is superb:
It was appalling what they couldn’t remember, and with his primary witnesses, all in their eighties, he had a view of them stuck in a rut, or a wheel, doggedly chasing the same few time-smoothed memories along with their nose and their paws. When he’d gone through “The Hammock” with Daphne, hoping to goad her memory, she had carried on using the same words and phrases as she had in her book, and probably had for fifty years before that. In her book she’d made such a thing of this youthful romance, and he could see that the thing that she’d made had replaced the now remote original experience, and couldn’t be usefully interrogated for any further unrevealed details.
Paul does finally succeed in arriving at the truth, or something close enough. But secrets remain: secrets kept by both Corley Court and “Two Acres,” some of the octogenarian interviewees, and some ever-elusive letters and papers. The Stranger’s Child is beautifully constructed in a circular form, time folded in on itself, but Hollinghurst knew better than to give too much symmetry to the pattern. He has made a noble attempt to be true to life as it is experienced, and every life has untied ends.
Although he is enormously respected (his last novel, The Line of Beauty, won the 2004 Booker Prize), Hollinghurst’s principal reputation is that of a “gay novelist.” The Stranger’s Child is undoubtedly a gay novel too, but its real subject, the cycles of time and our response to them, is universal: time’s wave moves relentlessly forward, while its compensatory backward pull deposits significant bits of flotsam behind it on the shore. The story is also indescribably moving, without the author’s having for a single moment indulged in sentiment. Emotion, wit, a broad culture, tremendous skill and ability, a fine understanding of the human heart: Holling-hurst is one of the few living novelists to possess the full package.