The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

18/06/11, The Times

The opening section of Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is in a mode that has become a signature for him: the pastoral. All his novels offer up some versions and subversions of the pastoral: think of the beautiful central section, ‘Underwoods’, of The Folding Star or the bold urbanisation of the form in The Spell. The Stranger’s Child opens in 1913; over an enchanted summer weekend Cecil Valance, young aristocrat (3rd baronet, Corley Court, Berkshire) poet and Cambridge friend of George Sawle, comes to visit the Sawles’ home, ‘Two Acres’, in the vale of Stanmore in Middlesex. Several things happen over the weekend, not all of which it would do to give away – seductions, a dinner party and, most crucially, the gift of a poem called “Two Acres” written by Cecil in the autograph book of George’s sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne.

From this Stoppardian beginning, the book proceeds through four successive sections, set in 1926, 1967, 1980 and 2008, that cumulatively achieve an intricate, witty, playful meditation on what is now beginning to emerge as one of Hollinghurst’s chief concerns: Englishness. Comedy of manners, investigation of class, changing political and social landscape – all the reliable pleasures that his fiction offers are here in their dense, detailed richness but this time it’s a subtle and secret lens through which he sees them. Read on.

The long second section, ‘Revel’, sounds the end of the already threatened pastoral of the first. Cecil has died in the war (as has George and Daphne’s older brother, Hubert); Daphne, now married to Dudley Valance, Cecil’s younger brother, is the mother of two children, Corinna and Wilfrid; George Sawle, married to Madeleine, is now a retreating, buttoned-up academic, who lives and works in Birmingham. Structured around a huge dinner party, another of those miraculously handled Hollinghurst set-pieces, its chief revelations, amongst many, are the apotheosis of Cecil, largely the doing of his adoring mother, and the terrifyingly fragile personality of Dudley: a bitter, angry, cruel bully, forever overshadowed by the myth of his more famous brother. (We’ll learn in a later section, through excerpts from his second book, Black Flowers, exactly what Dudley made of this burden.) The implicit moral commentary on the casual cruelty of the braying classes, something Hollinghurst has already wrought to perfection in The Line of Beauty, enriches the music. Threaded through all this is the greater matter of George’s memories of his own relationship with Cecil, now locked up in him forever.

It will take someone from a different generation, Paul Bryant, introduced in the third section when he is in his early twenties, and featuring centrally in the fourth, to interview three octogenarians – George; a very reluctant Daphne; and Jonah Trickett, the servant-boy in ‘Two Acres’ when Cecil came to visit – to assemble the jigsaw pieces for his revisionist biography of Cecil and hypothesise about the poet in a way we know is closer to the truth than anyone else in the novel can know or acknowledge. Cecil, by now, is firmly established in the English canon as a minor First World War Poet; “a less neurotic – and less talented—epigone of [Rupert] Brooke”, Hollinghurst inserts in Paul Fussell’s 1975 classic, The Great War and Modern Memory. Daphne, the veteran of four marriages, now well into her eighties and looked after by Wilfrid, proves a particularly ungiving interviewee. Reasonable speculation about the paternity of several members of Daphne’s huge extended family yields up some surprises. The literary trope that provides the book with its scaffolding is a heightened and sustained version of dramatic irony; readers are let in on the true nature of events in the opening section, “ ‘Two Acres’ ”, which characters across future generations then try to piece together without ever arriving at a truth that is unclouded by speculation. These repeated future attempts at the reconstruction of the events of the pastoral provide the novel with its epistemological dynamo.

Hollinghurst moves characters between background and foreground in different sections, meticulously picking up figures, information, ideas strewn earlier to shine a different light on both past and present: the technique of staggered information, always a mainstay of narrative, has been fashioned into something altogether more transformative, more pointed. It is woven with stupendous deftness, its internal assonances making a complex, comprehensive harmony. But evolution is not just something that unfolds forward in time. As Lewis Carroll reminded us, ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’; the timed-release information in the novel changes present and past and is itself changed in the act of understanding.

It is in the short final section that the climax of this art occurs, felicitously enough in the domain of book-collecting, in keeping with the book’s immersive engagement with texts (books, letters, reviews, annotations) and the already always approximate nature of textual representations. Of all the impeccably weighted secrets and surprises in the book, this, which revives Cecil, of course, and a minor figure from Section I, is the most unexpected and returns the book, in a graceful circle, to its beginnings, giving to it a magnificent coherence in its meditation on the slippages between lived life and its written or recollected versions. And crucially in this culminating repeated chord, sounded throughout the book, the nested secrets find an answering correlate in the ideological underpinning of the book – the way homosexuality and homosexual lives have been forced to remain secret throughout history until the gradual liberalisation of Britain via Wolfenden (1957), Leo Abse’s Bill (1967), New Labour. This is the ordering principle he has brought to bear on his canvas of a century of English history.

With this book, it becomes clear how unified Hollinghurst’s aesthetic has been so far. And aesthetics, always a matter of ideology, points to the fiercely yet subtly political heart of the book: in a daring act of appropriation he has interpolated within a history of textual ellipses, lacunae and silences a secret history of homosexuality, of what can and cannot be articulated at different historical junctures.