Walking through Soho with a friend one evening, just before the publication of The Stranger’s Child, I found myself face to face with Alan Hollinghust, immediately recognisable with his Mediterranean complexion, his dazzling white hair and goatee, his disarmingly candid eyes. He was dressed grandly in a long black coat: perhaps he was on his way to a late supper after the opera. For an instant I paused, beset with the fan’s customary hesitation. To approach or not to approach? And what to say? ‘I loved The Line of Beauty / The Swimming-Pool Library / The Spell’? What useful conversation could possibly result from such a declaration under such circumstances? Perhaps I could have asked about his love for Henry James and how their works are linked on an intertextual level, but I rather suspect The Master would have told me politely to shove off. Hollinghurst, I sensed, was cognizant of my dilemma, especially as I had, rather clumsily, elbowed my friend to draw his attention to the great man’s presence in our vicinity. He looked mildly flustered. For all I know he gets mobbed in the street every time he goes out, but I suspect not. At any rate, the moment passed and we continued on our separate paths.
The anecdote (if I can dignify it as such) is not entirely irrelevant, as The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, concerns itself with literary celebrity, as well as the manner in which reputations are shaped both during and after a writer’s death. The story opens as Cecil Valance, an undergraduate, comes down from Cambridge with his friend George Sawle to visit the latter’s family home, Two Acres. The Sawles are from solid middle-class stock while Cecil is a toff, and less than likeable. Hollinghurst delineates the inherent tension here with subtlety and humour. When Freda Sawle, George’s mother, relates a treasured family anecdote about a meeting with Tennyson, Cecil responds by saying that his grandfather ‘knew him pretty well, of course.’ Cecil is also sexually predatory towards both sexes. His friendship with George is predicated on their covert love affair, but, during his stay, he also propositions Daphne Sawle, George’s younger sister, who goes on to become his sweetheart until he is killed in combat during WW1. On the last night of his stay with the family, he writes a poem in her guest book, ‘Two Acres’, which, after his death, becomes one of England’s most celebrated war poems. For many, this posthumous acclaim is undeserved: ‘He was a first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters’ one character observes. Hollinghurst gives us fragments – but not, mercifully, all – of the poem: ‘All England trembles in the spray / Of dog-rose in the front of May . . . Two blessed acres of English ground.’ The sonorous, slightly heavy-handed iambic pentameters plod along thus, cannily mirroring famous examples of genuine national English verse. Relishing the war, Cecil dies a hero, his body returned to England and entombed in the chapel at his own family home, Corley Court. One of the great sadnesses of the book, which again underlines the class divide at play, is that Hubert Sawle, Daphne’s brother, also dies in combat, but the family can’t afford to follow suit and so he is buried in an unmarked grave in France.