I have the strongest feeling of foreboding. Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen. I don’t know what it is but I know I’m right because I’m almost there. I’m approaching it with every rattle of this coach’s wheel.
Relax; you’re in safe hands. Jill Dawson’s last novel, Watch Me Disappear, was one of my favourite books of 2007. However it was unrepresentative of her work (if such a thing can be said of such a protean writer): her previous novels, Fred & Edie and Wild Boy, were based on real people, fictionalised extrapolations of life. With her new novel, The Great Lover, she again turns to history for inspiration, with an interpretation of periods in the life of Rupert Brooke.
Brooke is a perfect subject for novelisation: a recognisable name about whom relatively little is widely known: war poet; ‘think only this of me’; died young; ‘is there honey still for tea’; er, that’s it. Oh yes: he was also good-looking, referred to by Yeats as ‘the handsomest young man in England’. It is his poetry and his sexuality which stand at the centre of the book.
We’ll live Romance, not talk it. We’ll show the grey unbelieving age, we’ll teach the whole damn World, that there’s a better Heaven than the pale serene Anglican windless harmonium-buzzing Eternity of the Christians, a Heaven in Time, now and for ever, ending for each, staying for all, a Heaven of Laughter and Bodies and Flowers and Love and People and Sun and Wind, in the only place we know or care for, ON EARTH.
In The Great Lover Dawson adopts two voices, that of Brooke (through which she splices real passages from his letters, such as that above), and of Nell Golightly, a housemaid in Grantchester, where Brooke stayed as a guest near the Old Vicarage (now the home of another writer of great personal beauty). There is a framing device by way of a letter in 1982 to an elderly Nell from a Tahitian woman, Arlice Rapoto, who claims to be Brooke’s daughter (“My mother always told me that my father was a very famous man, very pretty. She called him Pupure. (This means Fair One.) He was a sun god, she said, and a famous poet, very pretty”).
This gives Nell the opportunity to revisit her memories of Brooke’s times in Grantchester, and Dawson the opportunity to inhabit two alternating voices with fluency and skill, and to investigate whether Brooke really was “ruled by high undoubting purpose,” as Churchill’s obituary of him claimed. In Nell’s reply to Arlice Rapoto, she says that biographies “set too much store by facts and not enough by feelings,” which may be an indication of flights of fancy to follow. Yet she also identifies herself as someone “able to face, very easily, the ugly facts of things. I can look squarely at them and not look away.” This she proves with an immediate portrayal of her father’s death, rich in Dawson’s evocative, surprising prose:
I saw his white shape slip over like a bottle of milk and I knew before we reached him exactly how much of him had been spilled. … His funeral was like all funerals in this part of the world. The fen soil shines like black oil when the harvest blade turns it up and is far too soft and rich for any to be buried in it. … [My sister and I] surely looked as the land itself does: as if something of huge, terrible weight had just rolled over us.
It is not surprising that there should be a frisson between Brooke and Nell – who is “startled [to find] my own heart leaping about like a dog when a visitor arrives” at the mention of his name – but Dawson’s sinuous way with what becomes of it is surprising, and satisfying too. The irony of Brooke’s position as a beautiful man is that at the time of his first stay in Grantchester – he is 21 – he is a virgin. He dithers in his attraction to various women – real figures in Brooke’s life such as Ka Cox and Noel Olivier, and the fictional Nell – but loses his virginity to a male friend (“Then it was purely body to body – my first, you know!”) in a scene of exquisite tenderness which shows that few can write sex as well, and as clear of clumsiness or embarrassment, as Dawson.
Brooke tortures himself over his duality – desired but uncommitted – “Am I capable of loving one person for more than one day? Is everyone capable of this, or is denied to some of us?” – and as a successful published writer he feels “inexplicably ridiculous. A fraud. An idiot – to see one’s own ambition and limitations writ large.” Underlining these personal contradictions is a supporting matrix of dichotomies on the social scale: the distinctions between Nell’s world and Brooke’s. This expands into wider consideration of the limitations on the role of women in society at the time, which leads to its own contradiction in turn: the world of Brooke and his Bloomsbury friends is easy, effortless, on several levels seductive; but at once oppressive and limiting.
There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored. The oxygen of indifference is what I need: it surely makes my heart pump healthily. I am a Poet, so I must be the one doing the loving. The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved. The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.
It is the immersive quality of Brooke’s world which is perhaps the most impressive feature of The Great Lover. Dawson, a subtle stylist, conjures up a world we think we know even as Brooke is warning against “longing” for a past which “never was, but exists only as a sentimental constructed memory.” It is one of those books which tipped me in its favour so early that I could happily overlook elements I didn’t care for (such as the symbolic honey bees, or indeed my general apathy for historical novels). Also, a couple of weeks after finishing it, it is beginning to look like one of those books which, by some authorial sleight of hand, becomes more powerful and striking as time passes from the reading. Pure poetry.