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52 Books #28: The Stranger’s Child

July 13, 2011

Alan Hollinghurst, whose last novel The Line of Beauty won the 2004 Booker Prize, returns with The Stranger’s Child (Picador), a huge and largely engrossing novel that tells, in five discrete but interlinked sections, a secret history of England in the twentieth century, from before the First World War to the age of emails, mobile phones and civil partnerships.

We begin in 1913, with the Sawle family and the visit of the young poet Cecil Valance to their Middlesex home. The youngest Sawle, Daphne, a precocious girl of the Briony Tallis school, becomes obsessed with their guest, but it’s on his friend and fellow Cambridge student, Daphne’s elder brother George, that Cecil is focused. The relationship is teasing and touching; in the setting (chronological and geographical), the tone and even some of the details, E.M. Forster shines through, even down to the homoerotic bathing scene straight out of A Room with a View. Cecil writes a poem for Daphne, ‘Two Acres’, named for the Sawle family home and seemingly addressed to her (he has also kissed her, to her pleasure and discomfort) but clearly alluding to his friendship with George.

This section is the key to the rest of the book: we are shown, relatively straightforwardly, with few elisions, what ‘actually happened’; the remainder of the book follows the descendents and pursuers of these characters, who will spend cumulative decades trying to piece together the facts we have been give, influenced and obstructed by their own politics and prejudices.

The Stranger’s Child is structured around the changing fortunes, over the next hundred-odd years, of Daphne, of the poem ‘Two Acres’, and of the homes of both the Sawles and the Valances. The latter, Corley Hall, is chiefly described in terms of its “jelly-mould domes”, a phrase Hollinghurst’s characters use so often and so rapturously it starts to take on the air of some absurd in-joke. (It probably didn’t help that I didn’t look up exactly what “jelly-mould domes” are until after I’d finished the book — not that the Google results proved all that helpful.) The house is variously coveted and despised, with one owner determined to disguise the period features, a potently symbolic mission in a book all about revelation and concealment.

In the second part, we skip ahead to 1927. Cecil is dead, killed in the trenches, and a would-be biographer, Sebby Stokes, has come to interview the family members. Daphne has married Cecil’s older brother Dudley; George has married Madeleine, a marriage we sense raises more problems than it solves (‘The thing about seeing George with Madeleine was it made you fonder of George’, decides Daphne, a double-edged kind of compliment (p.139.)). A country-house story of misunderstandings, thwarted romances, mysteries and seductions plays out over the next hundred-off pages, and makes for the book’s most engaging and straightforwardly enjoyable section.

As we progress, it starts to become apparent that Hollinghurst’s prose is aiming for what might be called “maximalist precision”, or referred back to Hollinghurst’s beloved Henry James. Although his characters’ motivations may be murky and their (self-)deceptions take time to be revealed, there’s no room for ambiguity in the prose, the text qualifying and elaborating every character’s utterance, almost without exception. Here for instance is a snippet (pp.149–50) of George talking to the valet, Wilkes, about Sebastian Stokes’s interviews with those who knew Cecil:

‘You probably knew [Cecil] better than anybody.’

‘It’s true, sir, in some ways I did,’ said Wilkes modestly, and with something else in his hesitancy, a hazy vision of all the people who nursed the illusion of ‘knowing’ Cecil best of all.

‘Lady Valance made it clear at luncheon that she wants as full picture of his childhood years,’ said George, with a hint of pomp. […]

Wilkes’s pink, attentive face absorbed the idea of this new kind of service, which would evidently be a very delicate one. ‘Of course I have numerous memories,’ he said, rather doubtfully.

‘Cecil always spoke of you with the utmost… admiration, you know,’ said George, and then put in the word he’d just dodged, ‘and affection, Wilkes.’

Wilkes murmured half-gratefully, and George looked down for a moment before saying, ‘My own feeling is that we should tell Mr Stokes all we can; it’s for him to judge what details to include.’

‘I’m sure there’s nothing I wouldn’t be happy to tell Mr Stokes, sir,’ said Wilkes, with a geniality close to reproach.

And so — with a pause, a guarded look, the air of confidences and secrets hinted at and rarely put into words — on.

Obviously this is designed partly to demonstrate the class-related awkwardnesses between the two characters (and after the first section, very few pairs of characters are from exactly the same shade of class). But the effect is somewhat like having someone tell you a joke and then explain every subtlety of the setup and punchline. It’s difficult not to feel that The Stranger’s Child gets much of its heft — nearly 650 pages — from this unwieldy accretion of detail. It also ensures that the occasional irruption of a less heightened English has rather a bathetic effect: after the aforementioned nude bathing scene, Cecil swaps hats with George, ‘whisking his green tweed cap onto George’s bigger, rounder bonce’ (p.84), while on p.178 Daphne  stumbles away from an awkward meeting into ‘the hall, where the grandfather clock was now mellowly stating the time […] with no sense of the mortifying scrumple of her feelings as she hurried to the front door’. (Hollinghurst is also not above resorting to well-worn formulations: one character finds a thought unspoken “on the tip of his tongue”.)

The middle section is set in the 1967, when Corley Hall has been transformed into a boys’ boarding school, and describes the sweet, tentative relationship developing between Peter, one of the teachers, and Paul,  a bank-teller new to the area. Here I had the sense Hollinghurst was treading water: the influx of new characters wrenches us away from the engrossing Valance/Sawle history of the first two parts, and is heralded by an infuriating list of supporting figures on the first page of the section. (The nice man at Clerkenwell Tales,  where I bought my copy, was halfway through reading the novel and described the difficulty of keeping tabs on all the madly proliferating characters: I assume he’d just read this bit.) Paul more or less tells the reader directly to pay close attention, as he has, to the names of his co-workers, because of  ‘the need to tell them apart. Heather Jones and Hannah Gearing; Jack Reeves, the chief cashier; Geoff Viner, the second cashier [and] Susie Carter, a good-natured chatterbox, who was off today, attending a funeral in Newbury.’ (p.245.) For all we know, the funeral might as well have been her own, since if she is even mentioned again in the text this information has long since drifted out of mind, even despite the egregious ‘good-natured chatterbox’ description.

By now Cecil’s ‘Two Acres’ poem has been set to music, and is performed at a recital as a birthday treat for the now septuagenarian Daphne. On her third marriage, she’s now simply Mrs Jacobs; the link to her family has gone from her name, but the poem survives, and there’s a delightful subtle sense of how much she resents that it, unlike its writer and its intended recipient, will not die.

It’s a bold thing – bolder than many writers seem to think, given the frequency such devices are employed in literary fiction nowadays (Adam Foulds, Barbara Kingsolver and the recent glut of books featuring Leonardo Da Vinci come to mind) – to insert a fictive character into a real-world framework, and Hollinghurst is careful and conscientious in the way he weaves Valance into ‘history’. Unlike the much-lauded cameo appearance of Mrs Thatcher – ‘The Lady’ – in The Line of Beauty, ‘real people’ make no appearances here, being at most referred to by name (Forster, to whom, this reader feels, Hollinghurst views himself natural successor, is mentioned; Rupert Brooke is used as a comparative figure both for his work and his looks, Cecil being neither as ‘neurotic’, ‘talented’ nor as beautiful; the Bloomsbury writers are occasionally invoked, though Cecil ‘just misses’ that period). This works rather well, partly because Hollinghurst has chosen to make Cecil first a rather minor and then a rather neglected figure, very plausibly designed as ‘a first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters’, rather than a huge star, whose work comes, over time, to be dismissed as a rather idealised depiction of pre-War England which only gained widespread renown because the War so utterly shattered it.

While the blooming nervous relationship between the nervous, parochial Paul and the more worldly Peter is sweet and well-drawn, the work of a supreme observer of human behaviour, it seems irrelevant to the flow of the book; only when Peter, musing on the old-fashioned memoir of Cecil Valance which Sebby Stokes ultimately produced, has a notion of writing his own life of the poet (whom he doesn’t much rate), do we see the direction Hollinghurst is taking us. It’s also a peculiarly anodyne vision of the time for a writer whose 1913 and 1927 came alive so clearly; despite the occasional mention of Chelsea boots or the Sexual Offences Act, I had no sense that these scenes could only have taken place in 1967 (at least until characters go to a nightclub and start jiving – which itself seems to strike a slightly dud note); even the circumspection of Peter and Paul’s courtship could be down to Peter’s schoolteacher profession more than to the mores of the time.

In any case, we see little of Peter after this section, and it’s Paul, the bank-clerk, who ends up writing the biography. In Part Four, set in 1980, we see him diligently researching – or, rather, being prevented from researching – Valance’s life. The charms of this section derive mainly from its insights into a recognisable literary world (there’s an affectionately acerbic description of Paul’s visit to the TLS offices, where Hollinghurst used to work), the interest one takes in reading about another’s work, in this case Paul’s research, and the extracts from various books characters have written which seek to refigure the events we have previously seen in Parts One and Two according to the axe each author has to grind. Part Four also contains the only joke I was able to identify in this novel, a book which has wit and charm but little in the way of humour, as Paul searches a stack of review copies of books for useful material: ‘Paul saw a promising mauve cover deep down, gay books keeping generally to that end of the spectrum, but when he dug it out it was a survey of historic thimbles, which wasn’t quite gay enough.’ (p.419, and bonus marks for satirising publishing and literary reviewing, as well as sneaking in the fact that the word ‘gay’ has reached common use by 1980.) Daphne once again recurs here, aged eighty-three, enduring and obstinate, accompanied by the nervous and significantly unmarried Wilfrid (a character seemingly modelled in part on Toad of Toad Hall), both of them determined to obstruct and misdirect hapless Paul’s investigations.

Meantime, the ‘maximalist precision’ of The Stranger’s Child goes for broke, as Hollinghurst lavishes almost an entire page of description (p.501) on a hotel-room tray of coffee (‘the pitted metal pot with the untouchable handle, the bowl of white sugar in soft paper tubes…’) and a plate of biscuits. Very few nouns in this book come unencumbered by adjectives, and when the reader encounters the phrase ‘the rebarbative ginger-nut’ (surely soon to be a band, a song, or the villain of a confectionary-themed children’s TV show?) we are surely in the realm of self-parody. It only gets worse, though, as Paul finds himself ‘touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life, as crystallized in the Peek Frean assortment box’. Really? Really? At that same moment, your reviewer was gripped with speechless rage at the sheer inanity that swells this book and which belies my hope that people no longer judge the quality of a book by its page-count. The problem, too, is that in the work of an author who really does not write comedy, this biscuit-tray portentousness, intended maybe as a bit of a lark, just looks foolish.

Back to the plot, and the full extent of Paul’s early hunches about the family’s Dark Secrets™ are made clear only in the final section, set in 2008 and seen from the perspective of yet a new character, a long ex-lover of Peter Rowe’s, and set in part at Peter’s funeral. By this time his book – improbably, for a biography, entitled England Trembles – has been and gone, its revelations have shaken the families involved, and the reader is left in the predictable situation of having none of Paul’s ideas explicitly confirmed or denied. The Secrets of the Valance and Sawle families are rather tediously ‘literary’, and are hinted at by the title – it’s ‘revealed’ that various children of various generations are were fathered by men other than those their mothers married: either ‘queer’ men (Cecil fathering a child assumed to be his brother Dudley’s) or straight men standing in, as it were, for husbands who proved to be gay themselves. (Most people are bisexual in this book, whether they think of themselves that way or not; Daphne explictly rejects another woman’s come-on, but is almost alone in her ‘straightness’.) The problem with these kinds of revelations – a very Victorian problem – is that nothing is ever truly unexpected (space aliens did it!) and we’re long past the point where extramarital affairs among the upper-middle or lower-upper classes make for a shock twist in a novel, even one as stolidly old-fashioned in its construction as The Stranger’s Child. What’s more, the text’s refusal to confirm whether or not Paul’s findings are correct suggests to the reader that Hollinghurst well knows this.

This final part contains a number of further twists, in addition to the conclusion of the recurrent tropes regarding social mores and manners (civil partnerships have been legislated; a man can casually be described as another’s ‘husband’; fifty years of progress have had concrete, pleasing outcomes). One shows Cecil up as more of a scoundrel than we had suspected, and undermines the romantic and sensitive relationship between him and George in the opening part of the book (Part Five’s narrator, Rob, who has no direct link to the Sawle/Valance continuum, views George, somewhat surprisingly, as ‘a cold fish’). In another throwaway line we hear that Paul Bryant became a writer after being fired from his bank job, which is cue for (a) a plaintive cry of ‘So what?!’ from the reader; and (b) great irritation at the fact we had to put up with all that sodding bank-clerk stuff in the first place. ‘There was more, much more’, we are portentously warned, to Rob’s attendance at Peter Rowe’s funeral than simply (he’s a dealer in second-hand books) wishing to buy Peter’s library, a claim rather belied by the scant forty pages left of the book, and indeed by the fact that by this late stage The Stranger’s Child is coasting along on an empty tank, knocking over bollards marked ‘tie up the loose plot threads’. If there was ‘much more’, my interest had waned such that a shock revelation must have passed me by completely.

A third of the way in – before the invasion of the bank staff – I was so engrossed by this book that I was ready to forgive Hollinghurst all the things I’d disliked in his work previously (principally, the fixation on class, which I’m far less interested in than he is, though his dedication to teasing apart the microscopic subtleties of class differences is second to none). By the end, it was back to my usual feeling of ambivalence. He’s an extraordinarily talented writer, an acute observer, and a demon plotter (even if the results of that plotting – the Dark Secrets of parentage – are less enthralling in this book than I feel they should have been). On the other hand, the unremitting lavishness of his prose can be stifling (remember — as though anyone could forget — the rebarbative ginger-nut), the chronological leapfrogging of the five different sections here makes for a disjointed novel whose second half doesn’t compare to its first, and the intended plot-revelation fireworks in the last fifty or hundred pages fizzle rather than thrill.

What he does do is firmly, unapologetically and rather subtly, I think, move things forward. By 2008, when Hollinghurst has shown the reader what has bloomed in the near-century since 1913’s cloistered and secretive world, we have civil partnerships, men dating men as openly as men date women, vastly increased racial and sexual equality. The Guardian’s compendium of reviews of The Stranger’s Child concluded, perhaps rater unfairly, with a snippet from a gushing review in Country Life, of all publications. Interesting, the Guardian highlighted CL’s reviewer declaring this novel had ‘more charm’ than The Line of Beauty since it was not, ‘thankfully, nearly as graphic’ as the earlier book, despite again featuring its author’s ‘regular hobby horse, gay politics’. At Peter Rowe’s funeral, when mention of civil partnerships is made, ‘[t]here [is] a sort of yearning in some of the older faces not to be startled by it’, and Paul Bryant is glad ‘to see the gay subject… brought home here under the gilded Corinthian capitals of a famous London club’ (p.535). Ignorance and insensitivity still need to be challenged, even in the gilded pages of Country Life; and if this novel makes its points less forthrightly than some of his previous ones, it remains the case that few authors challenge orthodoxies quite as sweetly and sophisticatedly as Hollinghurst does in The Stranger’s Child.

Other reading in Week #28:

Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (Serpent’s Tail)

Robert Coover Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid (Penguin Modern Classics)

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2 Comments
  1. alexi permalink

    “my usual feeling of ambivalence”

    I think this sums things up perfectly. I was engrossed by the first part of this book – a McEwanesque ability to describe things minutely but never tediously. But after that I became sick to the back teeth of the one bloody poem on which the whole book hangs. Having said that the book is probably a very accurate reflection of how up its own fundament the literary profession is, that a biography can be written about someone killed in their twenties, just on the basis of their aristocratic background and the fact they’ve knocked out a few “second-rate” poems one of which happened to catch the mood. I nearly abandoned the book, but a stoical persistence set in, and I’m glad it did, as I (contrary to you dear blogger) enjoyed the section with Paul working at the bank most of all. Then the Paul-as-biographer section went into full literary-pretension mode and I lost interest again.

    What a cast of unappealing characters (Paul excepted, and possibly Peter Rowe), though perhaps this was intentional and there is much more inverse snobbery to the book than is explicitly realised.

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