and a catch-up chance with some [very] old titles and other relatively new fiction including Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicling homosexuality in 20th century Britain. The latter begins in 1913, with a handsome Cambridge poet named Cecil Valance, modelled on Rupert Brooke, who likewise dies in WW1.
I was intrigued because my DPhil was based on this period and this poetry, transitional between the weighty Victorians and the startling Moderns, which sought and half-achieved a new voice before being eclipsed by the war and consigned to critical oblivion thereafter. Sadly, Hollinghurst’s characters take the same view, but it was cute to read of Valance’s most famous poem being first published in New Numbers. (Possibly a mistake to give Valance some of Brooke’s key attributes, including a mother nicknamed the General in homage to Brooke’s Ranee, while also making Brooke his university acquaintance, alongside Lytton Strachey.) The linking story is of memories and versions of Cecil’s sexual biography, as in many books about Bloomsbury, but though the page-turn seems to be will-he-won’t-he be outed, there is no dramatic revelation. As the reader knows from the opening narrative that Cecil was actively if not exclusively gay, it seems perverse to conclude with an unresolved debate between his (gay) biographer, who asserts it, and family members who call the biographer a fantasist. But I loved the patchwork account of biographical interviews, travels and researches, hunting and stitching fragments to camouflage missing pieces.