Forever England: Socio/aesthetic Politics of Memory in The Stranger’s Child

DSCN2831Hollinghurst, Alan. The Stranger’s Child. London: Picador-Macmillan, 2011.

To what extent is Rupert Brooke read nowadays? Perhaps more important, why? And how is he regarded? In fact, how does most of the poetry popular in the teens of the twentieth century appeal to us now? A quick review of Poetry of Today published in August 1915 by Sidgwick & Jackson for the English Association reveals stanzaic poems heavily dependent on what appear to be rather simple rhymes and heavy on, for want of a better word, Englishness. Yet, according to the unsigned “Prefatory Note,” the anthology was “compiled in order that boys and girls, already perhaps familiar with the great classics of the English speech, may also know something of the newer poetry of their own day” [my emphasis] (vii). Three of Brooke’s poems, “The Dead,” “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” and “The Soldier” are included as are four poems including “Vitaï Lampada” by Sir Henry Newbolt. Most of it feels far from new to the twenty-first century reader. And yet, at the time, Georgian poets such as Brooke felt they were doing something different from the Victorians and casting off the shadow of Tennyson.

DSCN2832So what does this introductory apparent digression have to do with The Stranger’s Child? Quite a lot. The construction of English taste and of the English Canon are germane to the novel, and one wonders how many today might in fact be tempted to describe Brooke as “a first class example of a second class poet who enters into common consciousness more than greater masters” (527). These words describe Hollinghurst’s Cecil Valance, an aristocratic young man who was just beginning to be known for his poetry when, as was Brooke, he was killed in the 1914-18 War. The poem that remains Vallance’s most iconic is “Two Acres,” a poem written in Daphne Sawle’s autograph book after a visit to the Sawles’ house “Two Acres” in 1913. Was the poem written for Daphne Sawle or was it written for her brother George, Cecil’s junior at Oxford?

The answer to that question and the place of Cecil Valance in the English canon engages his critics and biographers for much of the rest of the novel.

DSCN2831The Stranger’s Child spans nearly a hundred years but is in no way a family saga in the way of Galsworthy’s Forsyte books. Hollingsworth organizes The Stranger’s Child in five sections—“Two Acres,” “Revel,” “Steady Boys, Steady!” “ Something of a Poet,” and “The Old Companions—and so creates a succession of five miniatures, initially domestic and personal in focus, moments in time revealing the changes, societal and aesthetic, that occurred between the very recent past and the end of the Edwardian age.

DSCN2832Indicative of some of these changes are the fates of Corley Court and Two Acres. Corley Court, its Victorian opulence “boxed in” (114) by the fashionable designer Mrs. Riley at the request of Cecil’s younger brother Dudley, is ultimately sold off by Dudley after the second world war and becomes a preparatory school, where the boys are rather proud of the marble monument to Cecil, commissioned after the first war by Cecil’s mother, in their chapel. Daphne’s old home Two Acres, completely overtaken by the suburbia that was just a faint shadow on the horizon in 1913, is at the end of the novel awaiting demolition after having been a care home for the elderly.

DSCN2831The fortunes and misfortunes of the Valances and Sawles also record social change. In “Revel,” we learn that Daphne had married Dudley Valance, Cecil’s younger brother They have two children and Daphne is beginning an affaire with artist Revel Ralph; her brother George has married Madeleine, and they are both historians in Birmingham. In the third section, we meet Daphne now a Mrs. Jacobs living with her daughter Corinna, who is married to the manager of the bank where a young Paul Bryant is working. Paul begins an affaire with Peter Rowe a schoolmaster at Corley Court School. By the fourth section of the novel, Daphne is an old woman living in a cottage in Worcestershire with her unmarried son, and Paul Bryant is an aspiring journalist and biographer who wishes to interview her about Cecil. Dudley Valance and his second wife are living in Spain. Much of the last section of the novel takes place at the memorial for Peter Rowe where antiquarian bookseller Rob Salter meets Jennifer Ralph, a Professor of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and Daphne Sawle’s grand-daughter. One of the speakers at the memorial is Paul Bryant whom Jennifer Ralph describes as “something of a fantasist” (524). Bryant’s book presented a picture of Cecil at odds with what the family wanted to be the accepted version. As the novel progresses, the reader has seen more than some of the characters themselves so has a clearer sense of what is being kept secret and of what is and is not actually true.

DSCN2832Such questions about the reliability of memory and about truth in biography are central to the work. Dudley writes two volumes of autobiography in the first of which he treats his brother “very coolly” (362). Sebastian Stokes who visits Corley while Daphne and Dudley are still married also writes about Cecil. Daphne herself publishes some memoirs. One of the speakers at Peter Rowe’s funeral has edited Cecil’s poems. Hollinghurst draws our attention to the whole somewhat parasitic activity of biographical and critical production. To what extent is the life of a subject manipulated to serve the biographer’s own agenda, particularly when the biography is a literary biography? What is the role of an editor? How are reputations built and destroyed? How do the changing fashions in critical theory contribute to or detract from a writer’s place in the canon?

DSCN2831Hollinghurst underscores what I might call the social and aesthetic politics of literary production, suggesting that no writing no matter how innovative is ever sui generis. All writing is somewhat inter-textual, reflexive and reflective: it is responsive, reactive, to what has gone before and sensitive to what is expected of it. One senses this particularly in The Stranger’s Child because just as one cannot help comparing Cecil Valance with Rupert Brooke, one finds oneself drawing comparisons between Hollinghurst and other writers. Entering the milieu of The Stranger’s Child reminds one of Henry James and E. M. Forster. One catches echoes of Evelyn Waugh and even of Anthony Powell, and of more contemporary authors such as Ian McEwan. The Stranger’s Child calls attention to itself as belonging to a tradition. Hollinghurst further contextualizes his narrative by including prefatory quotations to some of the sections of the novel and, of course, in his title. Perhaps the most ironic of these is the last by poet Mick Imlah, to whom the novel is dedicated, from “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson”: “No one remembers you at all”(517). It is surely the irony of biography, no matter how painstaking the biographer, that it may not be true, especially if all the biographer has to draw on are faulty memories. Perhaps even more ironic is to have been famous and then completely forgotten.

DSCN2832The novel begins and ends with references to Tennyson whom I would hazard a guess not many people today outside academia find particularly interesting but who was an icon to the Victorians. Hollinghurst’s title is taken from Tennyson’s poem memorializing his friend Arthur Hallam. Male friendship and sexuality figure prominently in The Stranger’s Child: not least among the social changes examined through the novel being the shifting attitudes towards and legal acceptance of homosexuality.

DSCN2831So how did I feel when I finished The Stranger’s Child? I felt intellectually challenged and somewhat invigorated having engaged with a multi-layered, highly intelligent and sophisticated work. It is carefully plotted; the characterization, utterly believable. Hollinghurst’s evocation of time and place is almost painfully exact; his ironies even cynicism satisfyingly disturbing.

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