I recently (OK, some months ago) wrote a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy, Under Heaven, for the BSFA’s Vector. In it, I reflected on the author’s curious approach to using historical settings in fantasy fiction. Kay has made a habit of transplanting whole periods into a fictional environment, retaining politics, geography, society and culture but giving the places and the people funny names, as a way of ‘universalizing’ historical stories. I’m dubious about this approach for a number of reasons (not least that it simply seems an easy way to steal stories and not admit to the theft), but if Kay has a strong argument in his defense it is this:
The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss. Some might weigh that against the loss of any balanced picture of Richard, following that brilliant piece of propaganda on behalf of Shakespeare’s Tudor patrons. I’m a writer and a reader. I’ll take the play with deep gratitude – but I can see an argument the other way and if we think of some more recent works of political propaganda designed to bolster regimes and shatter the reputations of opponents, that case is easier to make.
At a late juncture in Alan Hollinghurt’s latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, we learn something of the reaction to a short memoir published by Daphne Sawle, the first wife of Sir Dudley Valance, and the young woman to whom his famous brother, the war poet Cecil Valance, dedicated his best known work. “People had been amazed by what she’d dredged up for her book, but much of it, as she’d nearly admitted to [Cecil’s biographer] Paul Bryant, was – not fiction, which one really mustn’t do about actual people, but a sort of poetical reconstruction.” [pg. 497] On the face of it, this support’s Kay’s squeamishness about doing a Colm Toibin; but Hollinghurst is teasing us, since for 500 pages he has been painstakingly fictionalising the life and entanglements of the somewhat less aristocratic war poet, Rupert Brooke.
Christopher Tayler has done a good job in the LRB of writing a primer for those of us interested in exactly how closely Hollinghurst has matched Valance’s life to Brooke’s (the answer is ‘fairly’); as a review of the book itself, though, I was left less certain of his position, beyond a vague disappointment that it isn’t The Spell. This seems a shame, because The Stranger’s Child is a novel which might divide clearly stated opinion: it is undoubtedly exquisitely written (indeed, Tayler is spot on when he writes that the novel’s prose is so consistently pure that the reader comes to take its high quality for granted); by the same token, it rumbles on for a long time without ever quite justifying its length. At one point, Daphne’s mother reflects on her reaction to discovering, when both had gone to war, the love letters between her son, George, and his Cecil, his lover at Cambridge: “She should never have read them; but once she’d found them, taken one from its envelope with a shifty but tender curiosity, and then read its astounding first page, she found she couldn’t stop.” Likewise, had Hollinghurst not included in this novel such a high quotient of soap opera, the reader may well have put it aside, high style notwithstanding.
This is not to say that The Stranger’s Child is not enjoyable – indeed, for a novel its size I fairly gobbled it down. But its diversions are too often reliant on figuring out who is now sleeping with whom – the book is split into five sections, often with decades lying between them, and Hollinghurst makes the reader work to fill in the gaps for themselves. It is an old-fashioned family saga, focusing on the fates of both Cecil’s and Daphne’s broods. Yet it also clearly has ambitions elsewhere: its central figure is a poet, after all, and a significant percentage of the novel is devoted to the machinations of an at first under-qualified, then unscrupulous, sensationalist biographer. On its very first page, a teenage Daphne’s attention drifts from her reading, “and the words began to hide among themselves” [pg. 3]: The Stranger’s Child therefore sets out to justify its size by way of examining how we receive literary products – how we fictionalise their genesis, how we alter the reputations of their writers, how we reforge them for the convenience of an age. “I think Uncle Cecil’s poems are awfully imperialist, Granny,” complains one of his descendants in 1967 [pg. 263].
What Hollinghurst adds to this over-mined seam (as recently as 2009, we had another critically lauded novel about Rupert Brooke, let alone all those other literary novelists falling over themselves to ask questions about all those other literary reputations) has to do with, of course, his treatment of sexuality. Even here, as again Tayler points out, there’s some recycling at work (“one of Hollinghurst’s trademark pants-sniffing scenes”); but there’s also something about the choice of dates – 1967, 1979 – that lead us to read the reception of Valance’s work also as a reception of his sexuality. Late in the novel, we learn that Nigel DuPont – an academic who was educated in a school housed within the ancestral pile of the Valance family – has made Cecil central to his queer theory reading of 20th century poetry; seventy years earlier, Cecil’s first biographer “was going to say nothing in this memoir of his, [Cecil’s mother] Louisa was in effect his editor, and this weekend of ‘research’, for all its sadness and piquancy and interesting embarrassments, was a mere charade” [pg. 184]. Hollinghurst is too shrewd, of course, to depict this as some Whiggish march from the closet – DuPont is depicted as something too much of a prig to entirely be taken seriously as the agent of Cecil’s emancipation.
This ambivalence is carried through to the novel’s treatment of class: again, the book offers little that we haven’t seen before, but Hollinghurst elegantly questions the very basis of his own work: why should Cecil Valance be remembered in this way? It is for the same reason that he was buried in England whilst Daphne’s humbler brother lies unmarked in Flanders: “the aristocratic reach across the Channel that had brought him back, when tens of thousands of others were fated to stay there till doomsday” [pg. 194]. In his occasional, dignified set-pieces featuring serving staff and bank clerks, Hollinghurst puts this injustice right as best he can given the context – that is to say, not very well. This is literary fiction as if the angry young men never happened – and when Daphne concludes decades after his death that “Cecil means nothing to me – I was potty about him for five minutes sixty years ago” [pg. 500], we wonder why we, too, should not feel similarly unmoved.
All this said, and however much the noble aesthete Valance seems somehow less interesting than Brooke himself, The Stranger’s Child is a mature, beautifully written, and even soulful novel. It reads like a dream, and entertains whilst it nourishes. If what it does with all this doesn’t quite justify the preamble, then the novel’s page count at least affords a depth of field which adds considerable emotional weight to what are otherwise familiar themes. Simply on the quality of its writing, it seems a shoe-in for the Booker shortlist; but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the complex, overlapping and often unspoken personal relationships which give this novel its texture, The Stranger’s Child doesn’t reward re-reads in a way which will curry it yet further favour.