The Stranger’s Child

In the United States, World War I is something of a cipher, overshadowed by the conflagration that came after it. But in Britain, more than ninety years after the Armistice, it’s still the war to end all wars. The biggest hit of last year on British television was Downton Abbey, an upstairs-downstairs drama whose new season visits the trenches of the Somme. The National Theatre’s play War Horse, set on the battlefields of France and Germany, continues to sell out in London. Just last month the Mercury Prize, Britain’s most prestigious music gong, went to PJ Harvey for Let England Shake, a brutal, uncompromising war album that visits the hell of Gallipoli, “an unearthly place” where “soldiers fall like lumps of meat.”

And now comes The Stranger’s Child, the first novel in seven years from Alan Hollinghurst, a century-spanning exploration of World War I’s effect on British life and literature. “People can’t get enough of the War,” one character says late in the book, and even though we are in Thatcher’s London there’s no mistaking which capital-W war she means.

In particular The Stranger’s Child looks at the tradition of war poetry, the verse of such soldier-writers as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke, whom Americans know only glancingly but British schoolchildren still read, if no longer memorize, as early as primary school. The novel opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance — that’s “SEH-sill” with a short E, though some of the novel’s archer aristocrats say it as “sizzle” — spends the weekend at the house of George Sawle, his boyfriend up at Cambridge. Cecil is already making a name for himself as a poet; George’s brother wants to know if he’s met “young Rupert Brooke,” whom his mother considers “an Adonis.” After dinner he gives a reading: a bit of Tennyson and a bit of his own work, which seems to consist largely of descriptions of his own house, a Victorian pile on a 3,000-acre estate in Berkshire. One immodest line describes riding there “clear through a mile of glimmering park.”

But before he leaves he inscribes George’s sister’s autograph book with a long poem about another house: the Sawles’ own, much smaller home in Stanmore, then still rural and now part of the London commuter belt known as Metroland. The poem is called “Two Acres,” and after Cecil is killed at Maricourt in 1916, it becomes a national touchstone. Over the next four sections of the novel, which are set in 1926, 1967, 1979-80 and 2008, we meet a dozen or more characters whose lives have been reshaped by Cecil’s death and subsequent fame: George, who is not unhappily married (to a woman) but still remembers Cecil and “their mad sodomitical past”; his sister Daphne, who has married Cecil’s brother Dudley and become Lady Valance in the process; Dudley himself, who despite being “a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and President of British Friends of Sherry” has always felt overshadowed; and a clutch of editors and biographers. But Cecil does not belong to them alone. Winston Churchill cites Valance in a war address. Evelyn Waugh mentions him in his letters. The fictional Valance is even included in Other Men’s Flowers, the very real, millions-selling 1944 poetry collection found on nearly every British bookshelf.

Hollinghurst has a lot of fun reconstituting Cecil’s poetry, though unlike A. S. Byatt, whose Possession featured entire pages of (fictional) verse, he only gives us a stanza or even a single line at a time. And he suggests that Valance is really not much of a poet at all. Into his customarily gorgeous phrases, the author inserts a clanger of Valance’s, such as this sub-Ogden Nash couplet: “I wonder if there’s any man more / Learned than the man of Stanmore.” Few others can write something that awful that well.

The Stranger’s Child revisits some of Hollinghurst’s enduring concerns: architecture and the social meaning of houses and buildings; the pastoral tradition and the relationship between city and country; and, most obviously, gay life and the construction of gay identity. (Not without cause: Wikipedia, which tolerates little in the way of sexual ambiguity, places Sassoon, Owen, and Brooke under “LGBT People from England.”) In 1913, the very vocabulary of gay love is limited, with one minor character noting, not disapprovingly, that George is “very attached to [Cecil], in the Cambridge way.” Cecil can only write about his love for George through indirection; “Two Acres” is disguised as an ode to Daphne, while George remembers “parts of it unpublished, unpublishable…secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes.”

By the 1960s, Cecil’s biographer Paul is in the closet, but he knows he isn’t alone. Change is afoot. At a party he speaks hesitantly about “the Bill” that none of the guests can rise to call the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized gay sex in England in 1967. (Though the age of consent for gays remained twenty-one, five years higher than that for heterosexuals; it wasn’t equalized until the Blair government amended the Act in 2000.) The vocabulary of gay desire is evolving, but indirection is still the watchword: perusing the personals in film pictorial mags, Paul alights on “Undisciplined bachelor (32) would like to meet strong-minded person with modern outlook.” Nothing so indirect is required by the novel’s last section. One character is described as “married,” and the clarification that he’s married to a man is not even necessary, while the rare-books dealer chasing Cecil’s papers is arranging casual sex via text message with a trick whose name he can’t remember.

Yet The Stranger’s Child is ultimately less about gay history — and still less about gay desire; compared to The Swimming-Pool Library, the author’s hothouse of a first novel, this new book is decidedly chaste — than about mythmaking, on both literary and national planes. In the 1920s section Dudley describes Cecil’s obituary in the Times as “largely unrecognizable to anyone who’d really known my brother,” and the misprisions go on for decades. Halfway through the novel the reader, who ingeniously has been let in on the truth about Cecil right at the start, may bridle as Hollinghurst’s characters reinvent his life and poetry for their own purposes, destroying manuscripts or eliding letters with square brackets. But by the end of The Stranger’s Child, such concerns seem overwrought. In a twenty-first century of endless war and instant celebrity, two horrors to which Britain has made a special contribution in recent years, Hollinghurst reminds us that the mess of real life can never be boiled down for public consumption and may not have any public meaning at all. Life is to live, “and the rest,” as one character says, “is biography.”