Sunday, 9 January 2011
The Sunday Read: The Great Lover
I'll be honest; the cover of this book is what initially drew me to it. Such a beautiful image, such a sense of freedom.
I didn't know much about Rupert Brooke before reading the book, and so this novel seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore this literary figure. A war poet, Brooke was often hailed as "the most handsome man in England", and was associated with charisma, gossip, wit and an ambiguous sexuality; he was romantically linked with both men and women, and several of them, before his death while on active service in 1915.
The novel focuses mainly on Brooke's period living in Grant-chester, where Brooke lodged for three years on and off, before embarking on a journey to Tahiti, where he is said to have fathered a child. It is this wonderful rumour which sparks a great starting point for the book; a letter is written from Brooke's apparent Tahitian child, seeking information about his years in Grant-chester. And so enter the wonderfully yet unrealistically named Nell Golightly; a fictional creation of Dawson's, she is a maid in the vicarage where Brooke takes his lodgings.
Brooke's time in Grant-chester is, by all accounts, eventful: losing his virginity to an old male school friend, pursuing several well-to-do ladies, rather a lot of naked swimming, and, one would assume, writing poetry - although this is an avenue rarely explored within the book.
And Nell Golightly, what of her? She is a bee-keeper's daughter; an orphan, with many younger siblings to look after, she is working at the vicarage as a maid. Strong, sensible - and yet, inevitably, she falls in love with Rupert Brooke, and he with her (bet you didn't see that coming); they manage a lot of naked swimming together, and even a quick kiss, amidst his string of other romantic encounters with wealthy young women.
I do appreciate that the author required a voice from which the reader could get to know the young Rupert Brooke, and a voice which, indeed, could write back to his supposed illegitimate child. Nell Golightly, though, who falls so quickly under his spell, loses her headstrong ability rather swiftly; I suppose she is impressionistic, and so we can forgive her that... but from her set-up in the novel, I would've liked to see her with a little more backbone, please.
But maybe I'm just being defensive of poor little Nell because I don't want to see her fall in love with Rupert Brooke.
Here's the thing: I'm not even sure I like Brooke. Arrogant, ignorant, so totally self-centred, he's overly idealistic and by half-way through the novel I wondered if he would ever take his head out the clouds and look around at real life (apparently not). He is surrounded by the Edwardian class system, beautifully and accurately portrayed by the author, and, indeed, if he stopped to look around he would find some very real and very depressing sights. Sadly, all he manages to pay attention to in this novel are his string of meaningless relationships, which the reader must suffer through, and it is a little disheartening to witness the continual hurting of poor Nell, so desperately in love with him, although at times one does wonder why.
There are some beautiful moments in this book; the descriptions of some scenes are breathtaking, soft and romantic, and some tender scenes between Nell and Brooke, in which they discuss life's great mysteries and challenges, are truly touching; although a little unlikely, given their master-servant relationship, and his apparent attitude to the women in his life.
So now I know, apparently, a little more about Rupert Brooke. Is it a good novel, worth a read? Undoubtedly, if only for its poetic-like descriptions. But if Dawson's portrayal of Brooke is accurate, then I can't help feeling like I'd have been happier not to know about him. Enigmatic, charismatic, idealistic, yes, those are the stereotypes he carries; but after the novel I feel I can add arrogant, pompous and ignorant to that list - I'm afraid, not exactly redeeming qualities.