:: Article

And The Rest Is Biography

By Max Dunbar.


The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst, Picador 2011

Thinking of the poem by his dead friend Cecil Valance, which becomes a pastoral anthem, a character in The Stranger’s Child reflects on earlier drafts and tells us that ‘The English idyll had its secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes’. The book centres around a country house, and it’s difficult to think of such a setting in fiction where nothing untoward and sinister is happening – fascist plots, fierce repressed sexuality, the horrors of morphic resonance. Hollinghurst though, wants to explore the darkness under the surface not just of domesticity but of literature.

Valance is a war poet who dies young, but who has none of the urgency and talent of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. ‘Soldiers Dreaming,’ which ends up being learned by rote in schools, goes like this: ‘Some stroll through farms and vales unmarked by war,/Not knowing in their dreams/They are at war for just such tranquil fields,/Such fleet-foot streams.’ From a love poem: ‘When you were there, and I away/But scenting in the Alpine air the roses of an English May’. Despite his pedestrian craftmanship, Valance becomes a renowned poet and a name that echoes down the century: he is ‘the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters.’ Talentlessness is almost as hard to understand as talent itself, and over the course of the novel we watch Hollinghurst construct a secondary industry of literary dross around Cecil’s reputation, spawning liggers, associates, biographers like Japanese knotweed.

Although the poet’s tomb states that he ‘Fell at Maricourt’, Valance’s friend George Sawle believes this to be ‘a sonorous formula, rather than the strict and messy truth.’ The romanticised, dispatches version of a soldier’s death – the graceful and painless ‘fell’ – contrasts with the real circumstances of Cecil’s death, which from Madeleine’s line (‘Yes, he hung on, didn’t he, for several days’) was probably experienced in a state of bewildered agony. Even then, he had preferential treatment: ‘the aristocratic reach across the Channel that had brought him back, when tens of thousands of others were fated to stay there till doomsday.’ Another family death is almost ignored because ‘Hubert wasn’t clever or beautiful, had never met Lytton Strachey or climbed anything higher than an apple-tree’.

Cecil’s brother Dudley, the book’s most compelling character, sees through the great poet from the start, and says that the famous verse ‘really needed the War to make its point – it seems hopelessly sentimental now.’ He writes aggressive satires on the aristocracy, demolishes half of Two Acres, and keeps a collection of priceless artifacts, devalued by the phrase ‘Stolen from Corley Court’ which he has engraved on the base.

For most of the century Cecil’s homosexuality or bisexuality is a family secret. Even the verse doesn’t arouse suspicion: ‘They had given him special rights, as a poet and a member of the upper classes; he’d been allowed to break things, to stay up all night, worship the dawn…’ The poem that made his name, ‘Two Acres’, is named after the country house of Corley Court, where Cecil spends six nights. Ostensibly it’s about sixteen-year-old Daphne, who Cecil propositions. Decades later, a biographer suspects that in reality ‘Two Acres’ was about George, Cecil’s lover.

The Stranger’s Child spans almost a century and charts a gradual liberation of gay sexuality. (Anyone who seriously believes that progress is a myth needs their fucking head examined.) This comes through partly because Hollinghurst is such a tactile writer. When two lovers kiss for the first time, there is ‘a faint comedy of self-consciousness creeping into their murmurs and half-smiles between kisses’. The Two Acres set jump into a car for a trip with ‘the sharp little comedy of sudden proximity’. Hollinghurst can describe ‘the barbaric intensity of people connecting.’ He’s an explorer of the physical world. The house, too, seems to have a physical presence: ‘another of those sites where half-glimpsed fantasies, always in the air, touched down questioningly for a minute, and then flitted on.’ A place of magic in which one can read everything into everything.

Although there are dissenters (one teenage girl embarrasses a family dinner by declaring that ‘I think Uncle Cecil’s poems are awfully imperialist’) Cecil’s reputation grows with the times, attracts a rival of rewriters, autobiographers pushing their own version of events. The effect is of a barroom of squabbling barristers – or vultures scrabbling over a corpse. If anything, Hollinghurst doesn’t go far enough with this: although the book extends as far as 2008, we don’t really enter the Wikipedia age, where reputations can be seriously damaged by one man with a grudge and a broadband connection and not much else going on in his life. Too much of the novel is taken up with repeated adverbs, cheap psychological speculation disguised as wit, and what one would call longeurs.

As an old woman, Daphne becomes irritated with Cecil’s bumbling biographer, who doesn’t seem to understand that ‘memories were only memories of memories.’ The line between recollection and narrative is fine and ragged – we are always redrafting events in our head, fabulating and legend-making; we are the storytellers of our own lives, and perhaps all that literary biography does is to heighten and intensify this process. With his usual sardonic contempt, Dudley describes his mother trying to contact Cecil through a seance: the messages she receives ‘created the impression of something exact while containing various ambiguities.’ This is close to Hollinghurst’s method as well.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 11th, 2011.