TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 June 2013
I haven't read any of Alan Hollinghurst's previous work, but I'm impressed by this one. What follows are notes on aspects of it that I found interesting;
TITLE: The stranger's child is Cecil Valance, who comes in 1913 as a visitor to Two Acres, home of the widowed Freda Sawle and her three children. The middle child, George, brings Cecil from Cambridge, where the two are members of the Apostles, an intellectual club-cum-debating society with a strong homosexual component to its membership. Cecil's family is from a higher social class -- his home Corley Court is quite grand in Victorian Gothic manner -- and he is a budding poet who, while at Two Acres, writes a poem in the autograph book of Daphne Sawle that becomes a "classic" of pre- WW1 England in something of the manner of Rupert Brooke's "If I should die . . ." (Brooke is mentioned, as is Lytton Strachey, as Apostles known, though not well, to Cecil and George). But Cecil is the stranger's child in another sense -- after his death in battle in 1916, and after his poems become better known, he becomes in effect the child of strangers, people in later generations who for aesthetic, economic, and sexual reasons are fascinated by his story. The final section of the book, set early in the 21st Century, shows him still an object of fascination. He is, however, never pinned down; he remains a mystery to the end. In the opening section -- the only one in which he is alive -- we are given no access to his inner life. All we know of him we have to infer from the reactions of the Sawle household. "The stranger's child" is also a phrase from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (T. had also been an "Apostle"), and the section of the poem in which it appears is read by Cecil in the first section of the book. It's no accident that it is by far more powerful and moving than anything that Cecil manages in the way of poetry, and it foreshadows the fate of Two Acres and of Cecil himself.
GENRE: The default mode of the novel, so to speak, is comedy of manners, and this is a considerable feat, for Hollinghurst has to manage a variety of modes here, since the manners of pre WW1 England are not the manners of 1926, 1967, the 1980's etc. One of the unobtrusive triumphs of the novel is the way in which Hollinghurst brings these different periods and milieux convincingly to life. What's common to all is the presence of characters who find themselves in social situations that they are unable to "read" with confidence. It's going too far to call these characters unknowing, but they are limited and are aware that they are. Both Daphne and Freda Sawle are such characters, and so is Paul Bryant who finds himself uneasy in a number of situations that his background has left him unprepared for. There's a lot of humor at the expense of such characters in the novel. But if the default mode is "comedy of manners," there are undercurrents of poignancy and pathos that engage us, in something of the way that such moments do in Austen's "Persuasion," although the plots and scopes of the novels are not at all alike. We never see WW1 directly, but we see the damage that it inflicted on survivors -- Dudley Valance, Cecil's brother is psychologically disturbed, and his marriage to Daphne (who had thought herself beloved of Cecil) ends early. Freda Sawle, in one of the book's most poignant moments, recalls at a distance of ten years getting the message of the death of her oldest child, Hubert; and Hubert figures again near the book's end when we are given access to some letters from the front written by him to an older male neighbour who was in love with him.
SEXUALITY: Most of the male characters are either homosexual or interested in both sexes. Some are comfortable with their sexuality; others are less so. Hubert Sawle is aware of his neighbour's infatuation, but it makes him uneasy. He is not presented as robustly heterosexual. Revel Ralph, Daphne's second husband, is clearly and apparently comfortably attracted to both men and women. Paul Bryant is homosexual, and his discomforts are social and intellectual. The women, except for one minor character, are heterosexual but sometimes drawn to homosexual men. A lot of the humor of the novel comes from the discomfiture about uncertainty about sexual leanings, as well as from social and intellectual differences. The ways in which these and other characters appropriate Cecil, or his memory, is what the book is about.
HISTORY: Throughout the first section of the novel (1913) war with Germany is imminent, and in the second section we see its effects, though we see other things too -- and in the third section, set around 1967, one character (the husband of Corinna, Daphne's daughter by Dudley Valance) is disturbed by the effects of his WW2 service. After that, what we might call later world-historical events don't impinge on the scene.
FINALLY . . . I've said nothing about the plot in detail. Read it and enjoy it.