The Stranger's Child

  • Alan Hollinghurst
  • Knopf
  • 448 pp.

Reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s Maurice, this novel examines the vanity and fluid sexuality of a celebrated English poet over several decades.

Reviewed by Ananya Bhattacharyya 

After a writer has written a critically acclaimed and widely read fourth novel — The Line of Beauty (Booker Prize 2004) ― I imagine he must feel free to cast off the shackles of trying to please anyone but himself. In his fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst appears to indulge himself while writing with enough layered insight, wit and nuance to please his readers. The narrative hurtles disconcertingly from 1913 to 1926 to 1967 to 1979 to 2008, with much left unexplored. By structuring his novel in five sections separated by vast tracts of time, the writer has chosen to tell a story readers don’t expect and may even resist: a mercurial examination of the legacy of a celebrated, yet average, poet. But if you accept the darting narrative, Hollinghurst tells the story he wishes to tell exceptionally well.

In 1913, Cecil Valance arrives at Two Acres, the modest home of George Sawle, his friend from Cambridge. It is a visit that upends the lives of both George and his sister, Daphne. Cecil, a published poet, composes “Two Acres” in Daphne’s autograph book, a poem that becomes renowned in the World War I era, quoted by Churchill himself. Already George’s lover, Cecil also has an affair with Daphne, who ends up marrying Cecil’s insufferable brother, Dudley. Subsequently, friends and biographers become obsessed with Cecil’s celebrated poem and also with his life. In other words, Cecil’s six-day visit to Two Acres propels the story from 1913 to 2008.

The following reading to which Cecil subjects his hosts at Two Acres exposes Cecil’s vanity as well as Hollinghurst’s humor:

“‘Since someone so kindly asked,’ said Cecil, with a confident glance at Harry, ‘I’ll read a poem or two of mine before scaling the heights of, er, Mount Tennyson.’ He sat down, with a copy of the Granta held out under the lamp at arm’s length. ‘I hope it won’t seem immodest to read a poem about Corley. The place seems to call poems forth ― somehow!’ Varied murmurs of indulgence and respect were heard. Cecil raised his chin, and his eyebrows, and then, as if addressing a gathering, or rather congregation, of a hundred or so people, began: ‘The lights of home! the lights of home! / Clear through a mile of glimmering park, / The glooming woods, the scented loam, / Scarce seen beneath the horse’s feet / As through the Corley woods I beat / My happy pathway through the dark.’ The effect was so far from modest, Cecil chanting the words like a priest, and with so little suggestion of their meaning, that Freda found herself completely at a loss as to what he was talking about.”

If Cecil is fascinating in his narcissism, his brother Dudley is unendurable. The pleasure of encountering him is chiefly in realizing that we don’t know him in real life. But Daphne is married to him, and who can blame her for running away with Revel, who is gay? The other characters, especially Peter Rowe and Paul Bryant, two men who come into contact with Daphne in the late ’60s and are attracted to each other as well as interested in Cecil, are also fully developed.

Hollinghurst may be gay, and a writer, but he is not a “gay writer.” His homosexuality or that of his characters’ is irrelevant to his writing, which surpasses any such labeling. Also, he explores the zone of fluid sexuality: a gay man enjoys kissing a heterosexual woman; another gay man is married to a scholarly — if unattractive — woman, an apparently fruitful partnership (they are co-authors of a well-known textbook); and of course, Cecil’s affair with Daphne is at the center of this novel.

Hollinghurst’s master’s thesis at Oxford was partially on E. M. Forster, and Maurice reverberates in The Stranger’s Child. Both novels are partially set in turn-of-the-century England. Both explore class differences and chronicle the lives of young, homosexual men. But while Forster was insistent that Maurice should have a happy ending, happiness isn’t Hollinghurst’s concern. For example, toward the end of the novel, Paul Bryant (Cecil’s biographer) and his partner, Bobby, attend the funeral of Paul’s former lover, Peter Rowe. A character asks Paul and Bobby if their partnership is civil. “[Paul] Bryant said, ‘Hmm, well, some of the time,’ and Bobby, with a sweet but tired grin at him, said politely, ‘Yes, we’re civil partners.’ ”

From the vantage point of 2011, Maurice seems hopelessly romantic. Yet it was written in 1913, when writing about homosexuality explicitly, less than two decades after Oscar Wilde’s trials, must have been foolishly brave (or bravely foolish) — so much so that the novel could not be published during Forster’s lifetime. It is the ancestor of The Stranger’s Child, paving the way for the latter’s starker realism with its joyful idealism.

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C. area. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing (fiction) from George Mason University and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Mumbai. Her short stories have appeared in So to Speak, Phoebe and Washington Square Review. She is working on her first novel.

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