The Stranger’s Child

I’ve been away for a week at the seaside. It rained, mostly – but never mind, I had Alan Hollinghurst’s long and crafty new novel, The Stranger’s Child, to keep me absorbed. Since then, the novel has been given a place on the 2011 Booker longlist – deservedly.
Like quite a few recent novels, Hollinghurst’s book hinges on the First World War, though its clever skipping from decade to decade means that the War years are never actually described. We just see their effect, on the women left mourning, and the men left disturbed.
The one character to whom all the others relate is Cecil (sometimes pronounced Sizzle) Valance, an aristocrat of dazzling charm who writes poetry in the Rupert Brookish style. He is pansexually priapic. In the book’s first section, he visits the Sawle family at their Stanmore home, ‛Two Acres’ for an enchanting weekend in the summer of 1913. Cecil romps passionately with fellow-undergraduate George Sawle, but also flirts with Joshua, the young manservant, and thrills the innocent soul of sixteen-year-old Daphne, who begs him to contribute to her autograph book. He writes a charming poem, ‛Two Acres’, for her.
The novel then jumps to 1926, and to Corley Court, the far more stately home of the Valance family. Cecil had been killed in July 1916, and his distraught mother has commissioned an ornate tomb (complete with sculpture of the poet) in the house’s private chapel for the repatriated body of her son. (The implication here is that the Valance family was rich and powerful enough to break the rules and have the body transported back, when ordinary soldiers had to be buried in France. Did this happen? I thought the authorities were very strict about the principle of bodies staying in France, and didn’t make exceptions even for the elite. I’d welcome information on this point, from anyone who knows of instances where grand families managed to arrange repatriation.)
The poem ‛Two Acres’ no longer has only the private meaning that Daphne found in it. Winston Churchill quoted it in The Times after Cecil’s death , and, rather like Brooke’s ‛Grantchester’ it has come come to symbolise the world that was lost in 1914. We discover that Daphne’s manuscript is not the only version. A magazine prints lines that relate it explicitly to the coming war, and George remembers other lines addressed to him, and quite unprintable. “The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes…” Sebby Stokes, a man of letters who is also a top civil servant (based on Eddie Marsh?) is writing a biography of Valance. Though Sebby is clearly homosexual, his book will give a very cleaned-up and conventional version of Valance’s life.
The next jump is to the ninteeen-fifties. The Valance family no longer live at Cawley Court, which has become a school. Peter, a music teacher at the school, has an affair with Paul, an impressionable young bank clerk, who sees Valance’s tomb in the chapel, and becomes obsessed enough by him to begin researching a new biography.
When that biography (titled England Trembles) is published, it is full of sensational reinterpretations of the history.  Valance is presented as a gay pioneer, and ‛Two Acres’ now becomes a tribute not to Daphne, but to George. Later sections of the novel allow the reader to grasp that Paul’s version of the truth may be far from complete and final.
This is a very clever and wily book, and it’s hard to answer the question: ‛How does Hollinghurst see the Great War?’. All the sections of the novel are mediated through the consciousness of a some character or other, none of whom are quite reliable narrators.
So when Paul Fussell is praised as having written the best book on Great War literature, and Jon Stallworthy is ticked off for under-playing Wilfred Owen’s homosexuality in his biography, it’s hard to tell whether Hollinghurst agrees with these judgements, or whether they belong solely to Paul, the gay researcher.
What I do sense as a subtext of the book is a dissatisfaction, even an exasperation, with Great War literature. When Valance’s poetry is praised, it is almost always by the most conventional and unquestioning characters. One of them says it“will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things,” which is a rather limiting sort of endorsement, especially when the novel later memorably  defines the essence of Englishness as an assortment box of Peak Frean biscuits.
Less woozy characters are more critical, suggesting that by and large the war poets are second-raters. Does Hollinghurst agree with them? Well, the example of Valance’s trench poetry that he offers seems to be weak, and I think he wants us to recognise it as weak. But the last sections of the novel involve a search for Valance’s lost poems, the ones that showed his mature judgement on the War.
Hollinghurst therefore seems to be fitting Valance’s career into the mould suggested by Gardner’s slightly misleading anthology Up the Line to Death, which suggests that war poets in general went on a journey from innocent patriotism to disillusion. (To be fair to Gardner, he used the ‛journey’ metaphor long before it became a cliché of reality television shows.)
By imagining the possibility of these lost poems, he also seems to be one of those who long for a War literature that was never written. This longing is seen in Fussell, when he bemoans the fact that the War had to be described by poets brought up in the ‛language of traditional literature’, and that ‛Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound, Yeats were not present at the front to induct them into new idioms that might have done the job better.’
The same dissatisfaction is seen in the writings of the generation who were just too young to fight. Noel Coward in his Post-Mortem of 1930 imagines that the horror of the War can only be expressed in a book that goes much further than the works of the current war-book boom, a book that ‛will go too far and say something that’s really true’ so that it’s author will be ‛flung in prison for blasphemy, immorality, lese majesty, unnatural vice, contempt of court, and atheism.’ Evadne Price must have had the same kind of ambition when (disguised as Helen Zenna Smith)  she wrote Not So Quiet…, the sensationalised account of women’s ambulance work that goes so far in brutality beyond what any actual serving V.A.D.s wrote about their participation in the War.
Maybe it’s this sense of ‛unfinished business’ that keeps writers like Hollinghurst coming back to the subject of the War and worrying at it (our ‛National Ghost’, as Ted Hughes called it). In this case the result is a very rewarding novel indeed, with much to say about the changes in England over the century.
Still, I wonder about the choice of a Brooke-type poet as the possible agent of ultimate truth-telling. The profoundest accounts of the War would come not from glamorous aristocrats, but from outsiders like Frederic Manning and David Jones.

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 28, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Thorough and quite brilliant. You have made me want to read the book.

  2. Roger
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Jones was a modernist- if a rather eccentric one, even by modernist standards- and even though ‛Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound, Yeats were not present at the front to induct them into new idioms that might have done the job better’, other modernists- Aldington, Rosenberg, Read, Rickword for example- were at the front and depended on the ‛language of traditional literature’ and ironic references to traditional literature as much as any of the other war poets.

  3. Posted July 30, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Is Rosenberg a modernist? Not in the same way as Eliot, etc.
    You are absolutely right about Aldington & Read – but few of their modernist war poems are anything like as telling as the best of Owen and Sassoon.
    Rickword’s ‘Winter Warfare’ I think is one of the best poems of the War. But is it a modernist poem?

  4. Roger
    Posted July 31, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Yes, you can’t call Rosenberg a modernist- he didn’t live long enough to settle on one side or the other, but he certainly wasn’t traditionalist, in either the good or the bad way. I probably thought of him through alliterative associations. Robert Nicholls is another instance of a poet trying to respond to war in a new kind of poetry. Unfortunately he wasn’t a very good poet.
    Rickword wrote other poems besides ‘Winter Warfare’- I was thinking particularly of ‘Trench Poets’. but his modernism was peobably more post-war and critical than in his war-time poetry.
    Even Read isn’t alwayd modernist: ‘the End of a War’- a fine poem despite Yeats’s admiration- consists essentially of good old blank-verse dramatic monologues. All the same, there were modernists in the trenches and their responses did the job of describing the war no better than those of the traditionalists.

  5. Posted August 2, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I thought the authorities were very strict about the principle of bodies staying in France, and didn’t make exceptions even for the elite.

    I think in the first year of the war the rules were interpreted a bit more flexibly. For instance, Sir Gawaine George Stuart Baillie, 5th Baronet, was killed while serving with the Royal Scots Greys near Ypres in September, 1914. His body seems to have been returned to his family at their request.

    William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse is another example, though apparently special permission had to be obtained from Sir John French via Hugh Trenchard. So it seems that even by spring 1915 the rules were being tightened up.


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