Drifting like an epigraph over the opening section is Robert Lowell’s comment on A. E. Housman, a selection of whose poetry Hollinghurst has edited: “One feels Housman foresaw the Somme.” In a book about literary archaeology and inspiration, it is impossible not to see the experience of the British war poets in the central love poem. Sublimated or not, such urges found frequent coded expression on the front—by Owen, Sassoon, and others.
The Stranger’s Child is, in this regard, a kind of self-deciphering code, and one that helps decode the larger project of Hollinghurst’s fiction: to track the emergence of homosexuality, that “unimagined and yet vaguely dreaded thing,” as a shaping force in British society at large, shaping not only through liberalization but also under repression. With the novel Hollinghurst imaginatively insists that our literary tradition would be unrecognizably depleted without the submerged current of homosexuality. And that The Stranger’s Child itself is the culmination of not only Hollinghurst’s archival ambition but that secret literary tradition to which it is addressed. It is a claim that is hard to dispute.