Saturday, July 11, 2009

'The handsomest young man in England'

Jill Dawson's latest, The Great Lover, is a fictionalised account of the latter years of Rupert Brooke's life, the English poet who died tragically of septicemia during the First World War. He is most well-known for his poem "The Soldier", which has the lines:

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England."

The following is a brief biography of Brooke from a website:

Rupert Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, where his father taught classics and was a housemaster at Rugby School. In his childhood Brooke immersed himself in English poetry and twice won the school poetry prize. In 1906 he went to King's college, Cambridge, and became friends with G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, and Leonard Fry, members of the future Bloomsbury Group. In 1910 Brooke's father died suddenly, and Brooke was for a short time in Rugby a deputy housemaster. Thereafter Brooke lived on an allowance from his mother. In 1911 he worked on a thesis on the playwright John Webster and the Elizabethan drama, and travelled in Germany and Italy. In England he was a leader of a group of young 'Neo-pagans', who slept outdoors, embraced a religion of nature, and swam naked - among others Virginia Woolf joined the swimmers in Grantchester. However, sex was something that was not part of the fun - "We don't copulate without marriage, but we do meet in cafes, talk on buses, go on unchaperoned walks, stay with each other, give each other books, without marriage," Brooke once told to his friend.

It is this fertile period of Brooke's life that Dawson fictionalises in The Great Lover. Nell Golightly is a maid at the Old Vicarage in Grantchester. The house is famous for hosting artistic types and one summer, it plays guest to Brooke. To Nell, the upright daughter of a bee-keeper, Brooke and his circle represent the waywardness of artists — a fundamental difference from her staid maidishness — which, while she resents, Nell is also drawn to.

The book pays hearty tribute to Brooke's politics, his many left-leaning causes that ended with a whimper, and yet, which also made him overlook class divides and appreciate the repressed intelligence of Nell. Their romance, never spoken of, is that drip-drip pattter of subdued tension that ends in a night of emotionally charged lovemaking.

But more than anything else, the novel is a tribute to a way of life, a freedom that encompasses magnanimous love yet refuses to be tied town, sometimes to shocking effects. The long line of Brooke's conquests—men and women—are ever-present in the background, hurtling in and out of Brooke's racing conscious. Dawson has exonerated Brooke of any scheming though. As Nell tells him tenderly at one point, yes, there are two kinds of people: those who marry and those who can't.

For, there could have been no scheming. Not from one whose pen emitted these lines:

...Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make

New friends, now strangers...
But the best I've known
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown

About the winds of the world, and fades from brains

Of living men, and dies.

Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again

This one last gift I give: that after men

Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,

Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say "He loved".

(From "The Great Lover" by Rupert Brooke)

Dawson's book has the pallor of tragedy hanging over it, as the reader accompanies Brooke through his nervous breakdown and his visit to Tahiti where he will find succour in Taatamata, a local woman he will eternalise in his poetry—and his subsequent return to England. But all this is known before-hand and when the book ends with a haunting letter Brooke wrote to a friend a few days before his death, it is all a bit too much to bear.

A playful, highly affecting novel!

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