There is something, observes one of the broken-spirited younger scions of the unhappy aristocratic family in Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel, "almost surprising in a person being ... completely true to type".That goes for the author himself, whose apparent indifference to the danger of typecasting continues to impress.He has one subject, explored with ever greater subtlety and breadth of view, though to increasingly conventional effect, across what now amounts to five novels. The theme is the peculiar perspective and secret systems of codes and signals that English society bestows upon gay men.The typical Hollinghurst hero is a middle-class social climber whose tendencies bring him into contact with men from many other walks of life, in something approaching the masonic fellowship of an office smoking room.
Occasionally there is a threat of humiliation and exposure - facilitated by historical settings, especially if the 1980s count as "period", as they surely must in 2004's Booker-winner The Line of Beauty.All the same, the interest is generally less dramatic than, so to speak, documentary, Hollinghurst giving almost his full attention to the disguises that allowed gay life to flourish in the more or less recent past.On first glance, The Stranger's Child is a different beast. It follows many characters, even taking a dutiful peek inside one or two female minds.
It is emphatically historical, beginning on the eve of the First World War and leaping forwards in increments of 10 to 20 years.It is a literary detective story about a made-up Georgian poet. The obvious comparisons are with AS Byatt's Possession and works of generational portraiture such as Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and it merits them.Hollinghurst has always had an eye for social nuance, a knack for caricature, and both work well in a story about biographical intrigue.Less predictable at the outset is his skill with pastiche. Yet the poetry of Cecil Valance ("a less neurotic - and less talented - epigone of [Rupert] Brooke") is pitched at just the right level of sonorous silliness to let us believe it could have entered Britain's collective memory in some indelible, vaguely embarrassing way.Valance is a strapping young lordling, heir to a Victorian pile in Berkshire and a member of the Apostles, Cambridge's now very famous secret highbrow club.
He writes tumpty-tump patriotic verse full of hymns to Corley Court, his family seat and coy classical references ("Are hamadryads ever seen/ Between the dancing veils of green?"). He swaggers up mountains, throws himself into unsuitable roles in student plays and seduces nearly everyone he meets, irrespective of gender. One such victim is the suburban bourgeois George Sawle, a "cold fish" to his family, though grateful for Cecil's advances at Cambridge.
Unwisely, George invites Cecil to visit his family home in Harrow and Wealdstone. This puts the household in a tizzy, not merely that George should have found a friend at all but that he should turn out to be a real-life poet and gentleman.
Cecil, however, is a crushing presence. He fouls up the guest room, derails dinners and jovially terrorises the staff. A treasured Sawle family anecdote concerns something said to George's late father by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, met by chance on deck during a crossing to the Isle of Wight.
The remark itself is incidental -the point of the story is the family connection to so august a person.Cecil listens, then lets slip that Tennyson was on good terms with his grandfather. "Oh, really?" Mrs Sawle exclaims, distraught. "Oh, Lord, yes," said Cecil, his loud emphasis followed by a total loss of interest; his face went blank and heavy and he turned away.
Despite this cavalier hurtfulness, Cecil is a hit. In particular, he captures the imagination of George's 16-year-old sister Daphne, who asks Cecil to sign her autograph book.
From / The National