Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jill Dawson recreates Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester in a charming biographical novel.

I saw Jill Dawson’s novel in a local bookstore. I couldn’t recognize her name, but when I read the description of the story about Rupert Brooke and Cambridge, England, just before the First World War, I knew it would be intriguing.

The Great Lover

Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover (310 pages, Harper Perennial, $13.99) tells a story about Rupert Brooke, the early twentieth-century poet, and his imagined involvement with a servant girl at the Orchard Inn in Grantchester, England.

Grantchester lies just outside Cambridge in England, and Brooke made it famous by moving there and writing about it in his poetry in the years just before World War I. Brooke was trying to write a fellowship thesis for King’s College, but he spent his time worrying about his future, scribbling verses he was not sure he liked, and trying to date women as a way of persuading himself that his sodomitical impulses were not definitive.

Existing, as he did, on the fringes of Bloomsbury meant that he knew and entertained many who are familiar from that circle. James and Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf (née Stephen), Ka [Katherine] Cox, Gwen Darwin and Jacques Reverat, Augustus John: all these figures make their appearance in this novel, and the perspective Jill Dawson offers is both refreshing and informative.

Dawson is able to do this by way of her narrator, Nell Golightly, a maid-of-all-work at the Orchard, who has a great way with words and a healthy distance from everything that is happening around her. Well, at least it starts as a healthy distance, but before too long she finds herself rather falling for this handsome and disarming young man. I say disarming because one of her early encounters with him occurs when he is striding back from the river naked after an early morning swim. She sees him naked and erect, and try as she might to ignore him, she can only marvel as he chatters to his penis and slips past her into his room.

Little by little he charms her with bits of conversation and with discussion about his friends, his poems, and even the women in his life. Brooke seems to be infatuated with various girls, and with a certain Noel Olivier in particular, but it seems he is unable to remain committed to any relationship. Nell wonders whether he might be in love with the idea of love, and only rarely does she allow herself to imagine any portion of his emotional life for herself. Dawson creates a wonderful character in Nell, and this character does a lot to make the narrative come alive.

The other central narrator is Rupert Brooke himself, in his letters and his diary entries, some of which Dawson has quoted verbatim from available materials. When she doesn’t quote, she expands her material. She does so always in utterly convincing ways, and Brooke comes across as conflicted and self-involved and very much like the young man he probably was.

Because Nell does all of Brooke’s laundry and because she even washes his sheets, she is the only one who knows some of what transpires between Brooke and his male friends when everyone is asleep. At first the information of his sodomy shocks her, but quickly she puts it together with his background, his time in all-male school and university, and, in a sense, with his class. This also consoles her for not receiving his greater attention. He is not really interested in women, she tells herself.

While reading his own account, we come to know how unsettled all this is. Not only is he conflicted about his relations with men, he keeps trying to persuade himself to have sexual relations with a woman, and for one reason or another, that is hard to manage. The women of his class and position are intimidating to the point of making him impotent, and he finds himself more and more drawn to someone open and direct like Nell.

Dawson tells the story of their almost getting together and of all the other encounters Brooke has in this turbulent time of his life. She also takes him through, and largely explains, a nervous breakdown just after Cambridge; she follows him on various European excursions; and finally she explores his journey to the South Seas.

This novel offers a truly wonderful portrait of Rupert Brooke, and it does a superb job of recreating that magical moment in English history. She also creates a splendid character in Nell Golightly and gives her a story that is moving in its own terms and in the ways in which it helps to reveal the character of Rupert Brooke.
This is a superb novel, and I hope it gains a wide readership.

Jill Dawson

Available at Amazon, Powell's, and Vroman's.

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