The Secret Gardener

Photo: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

The success of The Line of Beauty meant that Alan Hollinghurst’s next book was surely going to be eagerly anticipated. But the seven-year wait for The Stranger’s Child and the steady unfurling of its ambition over the novel’s 435 pages has had another effect too. It has dawned on people that Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer—that is, the writer whose talents sit most comfortably within the contours of the form.

Of course, for verbal pyrotechnics no one is likely to surpass the Martin Amis of Money, but The Stranger’s Child stands comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for the way that the sweep of the narrative, its simultaneous flicker of comedy and drama, is matched and sustained by the precision and the leisurely economy of its individual sentences: “On the main road back in to Corley, with the windows down, a new smell blew in, the moist sweet night smell off the fields and trees, all the more mysterious when the nights were so short.” “He had a full head of hair and the perfect but impersonal dentures that give their own helpless eagerness to an old man’s face.” The two writers also share an ability to orchestrate intricate dialogue within an ensemble of subtly animated characters. But while Franzen benefits from the marvelous inclusiveness of American speech, Hollinghurst basks in and exploits the rhythmic confines of the English ruling class, from the Edwardian era to the clipped and faintly diluted present.

Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, was set in the gay demimonde of London in the summer of 1983—“the last summer of its kind there was ever to be,” the narrator William Beckwith says of his own “belle époque,” “high on sex and self-esteem” and blissfully unaware that AIDS loomed on the horizon.

The new novel begins in the original “last summer of its kind,” 1913, with no inkling of the war that would begin the following July and consume a generation of young British men. For readers, of course, history works differently; for them, the glow of Hollinghurst’s Arcadia is enhanced by the shadows stretching back toward it from the future. At the same time, the new novel feels like a kind of prehistory of the books Hollinghurst published after The Swimming-Pool Library. Those novels reveal both a remarkable consistency of theme and style and a deepening organizational ambition—the ambition Nicholson Baker identified as “the retroactive homosexualisation of poetic history.”

The Swimming-Pool Library had introduced a heady mix of impeccably textured prose, clarity of perception, and explicit gay sex. (John Updike was particularly taken by the “rectal smell” of a lover’s anus, its “soft stench like stale flower-water.”) The Folding Star continued in the same vein, tracking English teacher Edward Manners through the streets of a Flemish city as he succumbed to a Death in Venice–style crush on one of his pupils. The Spell, pitched as a “comedy of sexual manners” and the only slight setback of Hollinghurst’s career, focused on the way a shy gay man (a recognizable type in all of Hollinghurst’s fiction) falls for a gorgeous younger man (ditto) who draws him into the nocturnal world of clubbing, house music, and ecstasy. While critics were still susceptible (how could they not be?) to Hollinghurst’s ravishingly measured prose, they took exception to its male-only world and suggested that the by-now-middle-aged author had himself fallen victim to his protagonist’s infatuation.

And then came The Line of Beauty, which rendered the 2004 Booker Prize race pretty much suspenseless. The novel, which followed a young Henry James scholar in Thatcher’s England, consolidated all of Hollinghurst’s signatures: the excitement of a man’s first encounters with the world of “actually existing gayness,” lyrical evocations of the city and the countryside, and an adoration of the trappings of wealth balanced by a ruthless eye for the rigidities and cruel comedy of class difference. If the gayness of The Spell had seemed to some restrictive, in The Line of Beauty, sex opened the novel up, extending the protagonist’s life way beyond the patrician, somewhat parochial world of his straight friends: Sex was a democratic, even subversive promise, lodged within a social niche where the bright gleam of privilege is also a kind of obliviousness. Hollinghurst is no more a natural storyteller than James. But his stories are similarly full of tells, of revealed conceals: “one set of secrets nested inside another,” as he puts it himself in the new novel.

The Line of Beauty covered four years. The Stranger’s Child spans almost a century. And here, too, sex opens up the novel, though the thing unlocked is not the small, cloistered world of Edwardian privilege but all of English literary history. The book’s sections are linked by two houses that, in their different ways, stand witness to social decline: Corley Court, a Victorian pile, home of the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance; and the more modest Two Acres family home of George Sawle. It’s here that the book begins, with Cecil coming to stay with George, his friend, and lover, from Cambridge. In the course of the weekend, Cecil writes a poem that ensures his fame after he is killed, on the first day of the Somme. The literary merit of Cecil’s poem and the circumstances of its composition are mythified and contested by successive generations of relatives, admirers, and biographers, each more or less conscious of—more or less scandalized and more or less moved by—its rumored homoerotic origin, that the poem might have been inspired not by Daphne Sawle but her brother George.

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.

The Stranger’s Child
By Alan Hollinghurst.
Knopf. $27.95.

The Secret Gardener