The old-fashioned novel appears to be enjoying a literary comeback this October. Jeffrey Eugenides’s "The Marriage Plot” offered a 21st-century defense of the 19th-century romantic plot. Now, Alan Hollinghurst, who won the Booker Prize for “The Line of Beauty,” ably takes on 100 years of British social comedy and literary tropes in The Stranger’s Child.
Offering echoes of writers such as E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh, all the way through to Iris Murdoch, “The Stranger’s Child” follows the literary legacy of poet Cecil Valance, a kind of “upper-class Rupert Brooke. Upper class but second rate.”
The book opens the summer before World War I, when Cecil is visiting his college chum, George Sawle. Over the weekend, he romances both George and his younger sister, Daphne. (“My brother was accustomed to admiration, and as a rule was gracious to those who provided it,” Cecil's younger sibling, Dudley, later writes.) When he leaves, Cecil writes a poem as a memento in Daphne’s book, called “Two Acres.” Cecil, like Brooke, is killed in World War I, and Daphne goes on to marry Dudley and becomes chatelaine of the family’s Victorian monstrosity, Corley Court, of which both she and her brother were enamored.
Who “Two Acres” is really for and what its ultimate legacy will be is the question at the heart of the rest of the novel, which examines the waning fortunes of the Valances and Sawles, as well as Valance’s biographer, Paul Bryant, who readers meet first as a closeted bank clerk, at various periods from 1926 to 1980.
“The Stranger’s Child,” which is set up in five movements like a symphony, avoids pivotal events – even the world wars occur offstage – in favor of their elegaic aftermath. Hollinghurst is a master of misdirection and what he leaves out is almost as telling as his cutting descriptions. He is certainly not the first to mine the lives of the Bloomsbury Group, but, as with Ian McEwan’s World War II novel “Atonement,” the insights are original even if the material is familiar.
Poor Cecil, now petrified “under a quantity of Carrara marble” in the chapel at Corley Court, is trapped in people’s distorted memories, with the leftover scraps of his life mined to fuel a biographer’s agenda. Even in pictures, he’s just a nose and a “gleam of a smile.” This would be depressing in the extreme for someone who advised life as a pagan because it “means you can do what you like without having to worry about it afterwards.”
The limits of biography, the vagaries of literary fashion, and the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1967 all play into Hollinghurst’s work. It gets its title from a verse from “In Memoriam,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, another poet whose reputation has waxed and waned over the years.
Daphne tires of her reputation as a muse, which she once worked hard to burnish, but can’t quite extract her identity from the boy she was “once potty about for five minutes sixty years ago.” Hollinghurst has a great deal of fun with Paul, who develops delusions of pretension in middle age. Daphne, for one, has his number as he tries to get her to spill the details on whether she and Cecil had an affair before he died. “He was pretending to be a friend – something no interviewer, probably, had ever been. Paul Bryant … he was like some little wire-haired ratter, with his long nose and his tweed jacket and his bloody-minded way of going at things.”
As with this year’s Booker Prize winner, “The Sense of an Ending,” the fallibility of memory is a recurring theme. “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say,” Daphne thinks before meeting a biographer for an “unnatural little chat.” Daphne can’t recall books if she tries to too hard to remember them; the closer Paul listens to people, the less he feels he takes in. In “The Stranger’s Child,” the past “persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether.”