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In Gay and Crumbling England

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Poster for London & North East Railway, with art by Fred Taylor, 1935

The year is 1913, and the poem is being read by Cecil Valance, who although still an undergraduate is already on his way to becoming a well-known poet himself; he’s written a number of poems about Corley Court, the great Victorian country seat belonging to his family, and several have been published. The recitation occurs halfway through Cecil’s weekend stay at Two Acres, the suburban home belonging to the family of his lover George. During the course of the weekend Cecil repeatedly ravishes the swooning George (whose clueless mother, Freda, is merely happy to see that her hitherto shy and friendless child has blossomed at school); but he also flirts with, and makes an aggressive pass at, George’s sixteen-year-old sister, the highly impressionable Daphne, a girl already breathing “the air of legend.” Cecil’s apparent polymorphous perversity gives rise to a series of metastasizing misunderstandings that, over the course of the novel’s subsequent sections—the second is set in 1926, the third in 1967, the fourth in 1979, and the coda, fittingly centered on a memorial service, brings us to 2008—come to obscure a truth that, we are told, is of some cultural significance.

For by the end of his stay Cecil has written a poem called “Two Acres” in Daphne’s autograph book, which goes on to become a sentimental national favorite for a time after Cecil is killed in the Great War: we’re told at one point that Churchill makes much of it, and that it has, as someone remarks, “entered the language.” (Cecil is clearly modeled on Rupert Brooke; as with the real-life poet, Cecil’s posthumous reputation is the object of a fierce though civilized struggle between his mother and his biographer.)

With each new section, each of which is tellingly pegged to a major historical or political event—the General Strike in 1926, the decriminalization of consensual homosexual relations in 1967, and so on—the passage of time further blurs the truth of events the exact nature and motivations of which were already murky when they occurred. Daphne thinks “Two Acres” was a love poem written for her; George believes it was written for him. Their mother thinks it’s a poem “about her house.” Jonah, the handsome local boy who serves at Two Acres, steals some torn-up pages that are an important clue to the poem’s meaning.

And meanwhile, a true gay love story, more profound and more moving than Cecil’s lordly toying with George, is taking place right under the Sawles’s noses: a slowly stoked passion the secret of which won’t be uncovered for nearly a hundred years, and by accident—by someone who, in the novel’s last lines, is shown to be too preoccupied with his own amours to give this poignant discovery much thought. (Another recurrence of that favorite theme.) All this is meant to bear out the rueful truth of Tennyson’s lines—that the passage of time will inevitably make “A fresh association blow,/And year by year the landscape grow/Familiar to the stranger’s child.”

In many ways, this sentiment ideally suits Hollinghurst’s penchant for playing secret gay histories against “history” with a capital H—and for enlisting allusions to other favorite novels to make his point. This time around, he’s riffing on Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which similarly makes a young girl’s misunderstanding about grownup sexuality the basis for a series of increasingly grave errors.

Daphne’s fantasies about Cecil lay the groundwork for what is, to my mind, the most successful element of the book: a richly layered, subtle, and often witty exploration of the way in which the stories we tell ourselves can occlude (comically or tragically) the real story—how “our” truth ends up obscuring “the” truth, whether in poetry, history, or biography. Or in fiction: it’s amusing that, from the start, Daphne is a kind of novelist manqué. When we first meet her, she’s already an impressionable fabulist: waiting for her brother George to show up with his glamorous Cambridge friend, she starts to imagine that something dreadful has happened to their train, and glows with self-important pleasure at the thought of spreading the news of an accident: “She…saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.”

This turns out to be both a prophecy about Daphne and a forecast of the theme of the book itself, which shows how each generation interprets—which is to say, rewrites—“Two Acres” and its history in a way that reflects the assumptions, interests, and preoccupations of the times. (By 2008, the queer theorists have gotten their hands on the poem.) At the center of the deliberately vague narrative is Daphne herself. By 1967, when a young man called Paul Bryant enters the now-elderly Daphne’s orbit—years later he’ll write a controversial tell-all biography of Cecil—he is given to believe not only that “Two Acres” “had been written specifically for her” but that Cecil “wrote pretty well everything for her.” (Like Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty, Paul is a Charles Ryder character, pressing his long nose against the Palladian windows of his social superiors: a not necessarily attractive type that recurs in Hollinghurst’s fiction and for which the author has a peculiar and affecting sympathy.)

Years later, when the middle-aged Paul (who turns out to have some secrets of his own and is—an amusing paradox—both a good liar and an intuitive biographer) is interviewing the old lady for his book, she rather desperately continues to suggest that she is central to the Cecil story, despite what is clearly, almost amusingly, a lack of hard evidence in the poems themselves. (“In the poem I’m merely referred to as ‘you.’”) Paul may be haunted by a “curious feeling of imposture,” but everyone in this story turns out to be a bit of a fake.

The difficulty of getting at the meaning of the past has always been on Hollinghurst’s mind; here, it often has comic overtones. There’s a very funny scene in which Paul, who has managed to track down and interview Jonah Trickett (the pretty servant boy at Two Acres, now an old deaf man living in a council flat), reads the transcripts of his taped conversation with Trickett and finds that his great scoop consists of the following:

PB: Did George Sawle (inaudible)?
JT: Oh, no, he didn’t.
PB: Really? how interesting!
JT: Oh, lord, no! (Cackles)
PB: So was Cecil himself at all (inaudible: fortunate?)
JT: Well he could be, yes. Though I don’t suppose anybody knows that!
PB: I’m sure they don’t! That’s not what you expect! (giggles)

Time, as Hollinghurst knows, always giggles at our attempts to get around it.

3.

And yet despite its often rich elaborations of this favorite theme, there is a hollowness at the center of this book.

Part of this has to do with a bold choice that Hollinghurst makes: aside from a couple of lines here and there, we never get to see Cecil’s poem (and what we do get suggests that Cecil would, at best, have become a pretty mediocre minor Georgian poet). Hence the center of all this narrative cleverness is a cipher—as if to suggest that the past we yearn to recapture is always evanescent, if not indeed substanceless. This notion is reflected in the most interesting technical feature of the book, which is built around a series of narrative “gaps”: from one section to the next, people disappear, relationships shift, deaths occur, and it’s left to the reader to puzzle out these reshufflings.

But organizing a very long narrative around a blank space, however intriguing a notion, fatally robs the book of any real stakes: in the end, you can’t really care that much about whom the poem was addressed to, or what the circumstances of its composition were. (By contrast, Hollinghurst’s marvelously inventive presentation of Nantwich’s diaries in The Swimming-Pool Library and of the Symbolist painter’s canvases in The Folding Star gives those books much of their rich texture and appeal.) And, as often in Hollinghurst—perhaps too often, at this point—there’s no character appealing enough that you have any real emotional investment in the proceedings.

What’s really missing here is the ornery soul that animated Hollinghurst’s earlier works and gave them their satirical texture and bite—the priapic figures dancing at the edges of the traditional landscapes he lovingly evokes. In The Stranger’s Child, for the first time, the landscape overwhelms the satyrs.

Already in The Swimming-Pool Library, you could feel a tension between the author’s gritty subversiveness and a certain sentimental nostalgia, “the irresistible elegiac need for the tenderness of an England long past,” as Will Beckwith puts it. This conflict is reflected in Will himself, suggestively divided between his subversive passion for pretty boys and his wholly conventional passion for beautiful buildings. By day, he toils away at a grand encyclopedia of architecture, and almost sheepishly admits that “the orders, the dome, the portico, the straight lines and the curved…spoke to me, and meant more to me than they do to some.”

They clearly mean a lot to Hollinghurst, too: in all of his novels, the rather tender descriptions of buildings and interior design schemes and artworks have a pointed symbolic function. In particular, the great piles built by prosperous and appetitive Victorians—they crop up in The Swimming-Pool Library, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty as well as in the new novel—seem like reproachful reminders of a more confident era: the gloomy fate of these admittedly often tasteless constructions, torn down, boxed in, callously modernized, cut up into flats, suggests a certain nostalgia for a grander, more aesthetically satisfying past.

So too in The Stranger’s Child. We learn—ironically—that even as the reputation of “Two Acres” evolves over time, the two houses associated with the poem—the grand Victorian Corley Court and the more modest but charmingly evocative Two Acres—lapse into decrepitude. This devolution and the emotions it provokes are foreshadowed in the first part, when Daphne, excitedly discussing local landmarks with the newly arrived Cecil and George, exclaims over the “sad fate” of a historic house that has been turned into a school. This, in fact, is what will happen to Corley. Already in the 1920s, before the house is sold, Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley (who ends up marrying Daphne), has had its exuberant Victorian excrescences boxed in and smoothed over. These come to light only in 1967, when an overflowing bath in the matron’s quarters causes a dropped ceiling to cave in, revealing unguessed riches at which Paul’s boyfriend, who teaches in the school, gazes in rapture.

As for Two Acres itself, by the time that Paul locates it in 1979, looking for clues about the past, it’s been despoiled—the house divided into apartments, the famous eponymous acreage zoned for “Executive Homes.” “There was nothing to see,” Paul thinks as he noses around the property, whose significance now lies wholly in the past, and in poetry. The passage of time, as we know from Tennyson’s poem, makes everything unrecognizable—our landscapes, our houses, ourselves.

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