ALAN HOLLINGHURT'S AMBITIOUS, century-spanning saga, The Stranger’s Child, explores the artistic legacy of Cecil Valance, a middling English poet. Opening with Cecil’s 1913 visit to Two Acres, the modest home of his fellow Cantabrigian and lover, George Sawle, the novel traces the aftershocks of Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle family, especially George’s spry, enamored teenage sister, Daphne. Through the years, the poem Cecil writes in honor of the “two blessèd acres of English ground” ripples through the imagination of schoolboys and statesmen alike. The title is drawn from “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegy for a friend, and signals the nostalgia and admiration that drive Cecil’s biographers once he falls victim to a World War I sniper. The novel repeatedly pits such sentimentalism against the persistent degradation over the following decades of everything from characters’ bodies to architectural façades, suggesting that Hollinghurst’s objective is actually a wry, subversive critique of memorialization. When we look too closely at the past, trying to preserve its beauty or breach its secrets, it eludes us. Commemoration not only fails to preserve the past, it dissolves memory: in grasping at tradition, it speeds the irrevocable transition to modernity.
Hollinghurst’s previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, set in Thatcherite London, chronicles in luminous, torrid prose the love affairs of Nick Guest, a young arriviste using a wealthy Tory politician’s home as a pied-à-terre. Stylistic differences aside, though, these novels have similar messages. The Line of Beauty takes its title from the ogee curve, formed by the convergence of two S-shaped arcs; for Nick, the undulation of a lover’s hips mirrors this architectural motif. On the surface, it’s an arresting figure. But it’s also a dangerous one; those who come too close to its ideal face the growing menace of AIDS, first named and pathologized during these years.
The Stranger’s Child adapts this vision, but leavens and tempers it with the modesty and prudery appropriate to its historical moment. Views of the male body are mediated and distorted. Cecil and George’s “mad vertiginous adventure” is set in a pastoral idyll of late-Edwardian England: they only know each other’s bodies in the partial obscurity of the forest, their features shrouded by leaves and shadows, their emotions cloaked in shyness. George, mystified by “the unseen jostling of different magics,” feels “he would never stop taking [Cecil] in. He loved the beautiful rightness of his bearing, that everyone saw, and he loved all the things that fell short of beauty, or redefined it, things generally hidden.” Cecil finds George nymph-like, “some shy sylvan creature, unused to the prying eyes of men. Perhaps you’re a hamadryad.” George retorts, “Hamadryads are female … which I think you can see I’m not.” “I still can’t really see,” Cecil returns, before “pranc[ing] down the leafy slope like a satyr, sun-burnt and sinewy calves and forearms darkly hairy.”
Where George sees little, Daphne, aware of the “hint of a mystery” and “secret throb of color,” sees even less. She’s more innocent than, say, Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement; she’s perennially confused about her sibling’s sexual exploits, and equally unsure of her own place with the sibling’s lover. Cecil’s mild flirtation becomes an “extraordinary unwholesome thing, her mind chasing and confirming and losing the story in vivid fragments of memory … with each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less.” His hermetic poem is no better as a key to his feelings, for “the harder she looked at it, the less she knew.” The Sawles’ frustrated sight, and the lack of understanding that follows from it, is encoded in Cecil Valance’s names, denoting blindness and curtains — doubly resonant in their opacity.
Corley Court, the Valances’ sprawling country estate (like one of its antecedents, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead) has a grand architectural masterpiece that seduces newcomers like Daphne, who loves its Gothic molding and “functionless, unwieldy” décor. Throughout the novel, though, disdain toward the Victorian implicates the characters in its forceful erasure, a razing of their own past. Daphne’s husband, Cecil’s brute brother Dudley, calls Corley “a Victorian monstrosity … of exorbitant ugliness and inconvenience” and hires a “thoroughly modern” interior designer to redecorate it. Carraveen, the home of Daphne’s daughter Corinna becomes “some now completely forgotten home or holiday place that someone had loved long ago.” Corley itself is requisitioned as a World War II military hospital, then converted to a boys’ school, its “jumble of Victorian furniture … roughly stacked and locked away … at some unknown date,” and Two Acres, “decrepit,” “disheveled,” and wearing “its own mild frown of self-regard,” is given to developers to rename “Old Acres,” and ultimately, to demolish. Daphne herself is one of many women labeled “shabby” and “a Victorian” late in the novel.
This intentional, carefully wrought destruction is a counterweight to Cecil’s biographers’ efforts to commemorate him and reconstruct his narrative. Neither the crumbling homes nor their inhabitants yield insight into the gnomic poet, for memory is an impenetrable cloister. A sculptor commissioned to build a marble effigy for Cecil’s tomb misses his mark, and photographs, George notes, “only told their own truth … All these depictions were in a sense failures.” The sculptor gets the hands wrong, while George’s own memories are “vague as well with touching and retouching.” George dismisses the characterization of Cecil by an early biographer, Sebastian Stokes, as “sweeping talk.” Stokes is denied even George’s tempered vision of Cecil, for “the English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes.” And his successors, increasingly intrusive in their investigations, are held at an even further remove. Dudley categorically refuses additional details; Daphne directs them to her own memoir , a work of “poetical reconstruction” in which “she had made up all the conversations” and is maddeningly elliptical (“well, quite …” and “hmm …”). The succession of biographers in their varied, vain efforts to reconstruct the story bring us no closer to its truth.
What does the accretion of all this damage and dissimulation signify? What are the implications of writing a novel that maps halcyon memories and literary and architectural heritage, but undermining it all with an epigraph warning that “no one remembers you at all”? In a sense, Hollinghurst’s objective pivots on that warning. The family’s guardianship of its secrets and the resounding failure of their collective efforts show Hollinghurst’s artful mockery of the elegiac act itself. For as the narrator reminds us, stories are ephemeral: Even a book can become an amorphous, forgettable form, “a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle.” That his characters — biographers who turn out to be liars and charlatans — spend 90 years trying to unmask a mere poetaster whose crowning achievements were but “a goodly few” poems worth remembering is irony enough. The past is not just obscure, Hollinghurst suggests, it is a “burial chamber long since pillaged.”