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Alan Hollinghurst: The Stranger’s Child

I have a a certain fascination for the literature of World War I, though, to a certain degree, I am inclined to agree with Sir Dudley Valance in this book , who says the great war writing was all in prose, and appeared ten years later. Nevertheless, there were some fine World War I poets, though it is not clear if Cecil Valance, the key character of this book, is one of them. Hollinghurst divides his book into five sections set, respectively, in 1923, 1926, 1967, 1979 and, more or less, the present day (i.e. 2010). Cecil Valance, though the key character of this book, is only alive in the first part (he is killed in World War I). The rest of the book is about people who are involved with him in various ways – family members, former lovers and those writing about him. Hollinghurst skilfully portrays Cecil obliquely through these various persons (living, of course, long after he has died) and, in doing so, gives us a portrait of a country changing socially and economically but also in its attitudes to homosexuality.

The book starts with Cecil Valance’s arrival at Two Acres, the residence of the Sawles. Mr. Sawle died of pleurisy a few years before. His widow lives there with her two sons and her daughter. Hubert is the oldest son, a solitary man who manages his mother’s affairs and who will be killed in World War I and play little part in the book (except for a little touch at the end). George is at Cambridge with Cecil Valance and they have become both friends and lovers, with Cecil having proposed George to The Apostles. Though Cecil and George are having an affair, both are bisexual. Cecil will proposition Daphne, George’s sixteen-year old sister and will later propose both to her and another woman (more or less at the same time) shortly before his death in World War I. George will marry Madeleine and will, as far as we know, remain decidedly heterosexual for the rest of his life. Cecil is also an accomplished poet and, just before leaving Two Acres, will write a poem called Two Acres in Daphne’s autograph book, based on Rupert Brooke’s Old Vicarage, Grantchester (Cecil himself is clearly based on Brooke). Daphne has clearly fallen in love with Cecil. The poem will become famous, along with his war poem Night March, and will affect not only Daphne but many others, including George, Sir Dudley Valance, Cecil’s younger brother, Mrs. Sawle and other relations of Cecil’s.

Hollinghurst cleverly tells us about Cecil from various perspectives. Firstly, there are those who knew him best, such as his brother (who resents his fame) and George and Daphne Sawle. Then there are the relatives who hardly knew him or, in some cases, did not know him at all but obviously feel the effect of his life and his posthumous fame. Finally there are those who never knew him but have taken an interest in his life, particularly Paul Bryant, who is writing a biography of him and has to speak to the various key players, many years after Cecil’s death, when their memory is not entirely clear and when they have their often strong views not just on Cecil but on the attention paid to him, not always positive. Indeed, it is Paul’s biography and his interview with these characters that gives Hollinghurst a way of revealing certain key facts about the life of Cecil (and other protagonists). But Hollinghurst also uses this an opportunity to show changing social mores, particularly as regards homosexuality. Apart from Cecil and George, Paul is the other main homosexual character in the book (and one of the beneficiaries of Sexual Offences Act, which legalised homosexuality between men over the age of 21 years of age).

But the book, unlike his earlier ones, is not devoted to homosexual themes. As well as giving us a changing picture of England and telling an excellent story, looking at a character, long since dead, through different eyes, Hollinghurst gently mocks the way in which we remember minor literary figures, as Cecil, clearly not a great poet, has his reputation built up after his death to an extent that might have shocked even him, arrogant though he was. Whether Hollinghurst is mocking Brooke’s reputation or literary reputation in general is not clear and not really important. He tells his story well and keeps us entertained with his wonderful and witty writing. However, his novel is not a story of England. Apart from one character, who seems to be there mainly for his homosexual attraction, the working class seems to be pretty much excluded from this book. While women do make a greater appearance than in his earlier works and not just as minor characters, they still seem fairly incidental. The other criticism of this work is that, fine though it is, it still seems more pastiche than great literature, as though Hollinghurst is more concerned with his educated mockery, his literary gossip and his continual revelations (which alter both our view and the view of the characters on who did what to whom) than getting to the root of the issues he is discussing. Corley Court, the Valance ancestral home, which will later become a boarding school, is described by one character as cut off from the outside world and yet bearing witness to it and, in many respects that describes the events of this novel.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Picador