Alan Hollinghurst: The Stranger's Child (2011)

It is seven years since Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker prize for The Line of Beauty, his Jamesian account of an eighties arriviste moving in high Tory circles. That novel confirmed his reputation as an acute chronicler of gay experience and its subterranean relationship to English networks of social and political power. His substantial new novel, The Stranger’s Child, extends this project, sumptuously retelling a familiar narrative of English decline through a series of friendships and encounters which form a sort of daisy-chain of erotic and literary influence, stretching from the long Edwardian summer before the First World War to the present day.

The novel deals with the short life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a Georgian poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches. In the opening section, Valance, the privileged scion of an aristocratic family, visits the family home of his Cambridge friend and lover George Sawle. The name of this house (‘Two Acres’) and its location (rural Stanmore, soon to be absorbed into the suburban sprawl of London’s metroland) locate the two men very precisely in the English class hierarchy whose dissection is one of Hollinghurst’s main fictional preoccupations. George’s discreetly-alcoholic mother and starry-eyed sixteen year old sister Daphne are filled with a sense of occasion that such a glamorous youth, already a published writer, will be visiting them. While at Two Acres, Valance writes a long poem, ostensibly addressed to Daphne, which is destined to enter the canon, ensuring that the events of the weekend, which are described with tenderness and sensuous immediacy, will be pored over by generations of academics and admirers, their true contours gradually disappearing into a bibliographic haze.

The novel’s title is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H, the paradigmatic high Victorian elegy to male friendship. The poet (who figures in a Sawle family anecdote, and hovers more generally over the novel as a sort of tutelary spirit) describes the trace of his love fading from the landscape, to be replaced by a ‘fresh association’, as the countryside ‘grow(s) familiar to the stranger’s child’. This melancholy image of generational change governs the tone of Hollinghurst’s book, which is concerned with the vagaries of memory and the construction of literary tradition. Its final section has an epigram by Hollinghurst’s contemporary, the poet and critic Mick Imlah, who died in 2009. From a poem entitled ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’, it reads drily, ‘no one remembers you at all’.

Hollinghurst’s own commitment to the canon of English literature and the construction of literary memory has taken him from a lectureship at Oxford to a long spell on the staff of the Times Literary supplement, and as the play of title and epigram suggests, The Stranger’s Child is nothing if not a book about books. Besides Tennyson, a partial list of the novel’s most direct allusions would include the Waugh of Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Forster (particularly Maurice and Howard’s End) and Hollinghurst’s acknowledged master Henry James, particularly The Aspern Papers and What Maisie Knew. While this is a realist novel about England, written in an elegant, conservative prose, it is also a highly self-conscious performance about the construction of Englishness through literature and (to a lesser extent) music and art. The effect of all this nodding and winking is sometimes stifling, and the opening section contains passages that feel perilously close to Bloomsbury pastiche, as the young lovers (down from Kings, Forster’s college) refer, inevitably, to their membership of the Apostles and drop the name of Lytton Strachey. As soon as the conversation turns to Rupert Brooke, and ominous mention is made of the coming ‘German war’, the reader knows, by the logic of literary tradition, that the handsome, youthful Cecil is doomed.

Sure enough, in the second section, which takes place in 1926, Cecil lies entombed in marble in the family chapel at Corley, a Victorian gothic pile now under the stewardship of the poet’s bitter, war-damaged brother Dudley. Relatives and friends have been gathered to be interviewed, mined for their reminiscences by the editor of a volume of the fallen hero’s verse. Already, the immediacy of the writer’s experience is being obscured under layers of cant, hypocrisy and deliberate evasion. The reality of the weekend visit to Two Acres (a secret tryst in the woods, a lifeless recitation of Tennyson) has been replaced by the faulty, partial memories of the participants. Lived experience has been shoved aside by the poem whose celebration of a muted English pastoral is already, eight years after the Armistice, being harnessed to the ideological project of celebrating and mourning the dead, and (tellingly, in this year of the General Strike) lamenting the collapse of a social system irrevocably transformed by wartime mobilization.

Hollinghurst has a feel for the fragility of memory, and the brutality inherent in the Modernist drive to ‘make it new’. Victorianism, with its sentiment, clutter, and decorum, has special importance in The Stranger’s Child, which is committed to a kind of salvage, a recuperation of modes of feeling, chiefly the romantic friendships of upper-class men, that have only survived as traces in the margins and the marginalia of the English tradition. One of the guests at the Corley house party is a decorator, the unappealing but throughly modish Mrs Riley, who has been commissioned by Cecil’s brother Dudley to ‘improve’ the Victorian house, boxing in the Gothic ceiling and creating antiseptic and functional spaces, like ‘rooms in some extremely expensive sanatorium’. Throughout the book, an appreciation of the Victorian is a mark of sensitivity, of a receptiveness to the evanescent signals of the past. In the nineteen-sixties, a young bank clerk, who will later write a revelatory biography of Cecil Valance, has an affair with a school-master, who has attended a ‘small rally’ to save St. Pancras station, addressed by the poet John Betjeman. In this and subsequent sections the reader has a sense of the novel as recessional, the summer weekend at Two Acres heading inexorably into the musty archival past. The obliteration of the landscape of Two Acres by encroaching suburbia and the transformation of Corley into a prep school are presented as part of the same process, by which the truth of Cecil Valance’s life and art (which is above all a sexual truth, the unpublishable truth of homosexuality) is gradually subjugated, first by the misleading narrative of his relationship to Daphne, then by a blanket indifference.

As an accounting with class and history, Hollinghurst’s novel will inevitably be compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It is at its strongest when teasing out nuances of social behaviour: Paul Bryant, the shy bank clerk, is so concerned to behave appropriately with his employers family that as he walks home after a party ‘the small muscular contractions of pleasure and politeness remained almost unconsciously on his face’. The fashionable decorator, Mrs. Riley, makes Daphne uncomfortable by observing her ‘in her disappointed and reducing way’.

As will be clear by now, The Stranger’s Child is a profoundly nostalgic book, in the strict Greek sense of ‘homesickness’: it longs to go home to the prelapsarian past, from whose sensuous immediacy (two lovers in a wood) we have been exiled into the rootless present. The modern world (and indeed the world of Modernism) appears to have few positive qualities. We hear that the poem ‘Two Acres’ ‘will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things’. The unspoken implication is that such an aesthetic appreciation is getting increasingly rare, and though this nostrum is placed in the mouth of Cecil’s editor, Sebastian Stokes, the reader feels that it is one with which the author has sympathy.

What beauty persists in The Stranger’s Child through the linked destructions of war, urbanization and downward class mobility? Very little. This frank conservatism, which might, in some hands, have reduced the novel to the aesthetics of the heritage theme park, takes on an interesting tension in combination with Hollinghurst’s wish to reinscribe into history the suppressed narrative of gay friendship - and gay sex, directly and romantically presented – which he sees, rightly, as having played an important part in the construction of the English cultural tradition in which he stands. The romance between George Sawle and Cecil Valance, in the halcyon days before the first world war, is never properly acknowledged by the public, even in the novel’s final sections, which take place in a literary London of queer theory, civil partnerships and abe.com. By this time, almost all material trace has vanished, and the inheritors of the two men - the ‘stranger’s children’, who are inventing their own gay lives, have no access to their tradition. In 1967, Paul Bryant pores over the coded pre-legalization gay contact ads in a magazine, fantasising about a work colleague, ‘a shadowy scene more thrilling and scandalous than anything described in Films and Filming – in fact a scene that, as far as he knew, had never been described at all.’

Throughout his career as a novelist, one of Hollinghurst’s preoccupations has been to puncture this ahistorical loneliness, to bring the homosexual tradition in English culture out of the shadows. Yet in this affecting, erudite novel, he transcends what might have been a purely backward-looking project, a filling in of the gay blanks. It is the signal achievement of The Stranger’s Child to show that, despite the silence in which relationships like that of Cecil and George were shrouded, their influence has echoed on through the years, as an unconscious patterm for other friendships and love affairs. In the present day, when the immediacy of a young man reciting Tennyson has been replaced by a website with audio clips mouthed by an animated Tennyson avatar, this tradition persists, against the odds.

This review appeared in The Guardian