Books: The dark side of Grantchester's golden Apollo

Intimate letters of the young war poet reveal how devious he was lassic
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The Independent Culture
Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914

ed Keith Hale Yale pounds 19.95

I once met a man at a party whose mother had been one of the poet Rupert Brooke's girlfriends. He explained how, after his mother's death, he had discovered the love letters which Brooke had written to her, and that he had had some thought of publishing them. They were tender, sometimes witty, and occasionally wise. However, while reading the correspondence of Brooke with another of his loves, Noel Olivier, he recognised almost exactly the same sentiments, the same rather precious emotions, couched in very similar language. There now seemed no point, he sadly concluded, in printing his mother's letters, and the project was shelved.

I was reminded of this cautionary tale while reading the latest volume of Brooke letters. Friends and Apostles is a collection of the correspondence between Brooke and James Strachey, Lytton's younger brother, who is remembered today as Freud's primary English translator. Brooke and Strachey were exact contemporaries. They first met at prep school, and were reunited at Cambridge in 1906 where Strachey was just one of the many male undergraduates and dons, some members of the Cambridge Apostles, to become infatuated with Brooke's golden Apollo looks. Friendship between Brooke and Strachey grew out of this infatuation which only foundered, most unpleasantly and acrimoniously, at the time of Brooke's mental and physical breakdown in 1912.

Brooke's letters to Strachey are supposedly among the most candid that he ever wrote; a minor myth has attached itself to them and their publishing history. Certainly, after Brooke's mother, Strachey received more letters from this most prolific of letter writers than anyone else in his circle. As the editor, Keith Hale, remarks, their publication after years of suppression by the Brooke Trustees provides one of the final pieces of the puzzle of Brooke's life.

And yet even Hale is forced to admit from the outset that these letters cannot provide "a completely accurate portrait of Brooke". Of course they can't. Brooke - and this is perhaps at the root of his very peculiar kind of early stardom - was adept at refusing to reveal himself, at posing as one thing or the other, at presenting contradictory and diverse sides of his character to different friends. We are all practised at this sort of deception, but Brooke went to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. It was part of his appeal, and it was also, ultimately, to be his undoing. As with those love letters, so with the letters from this tortured friendship. James Strachey, whose last recorded word on Brooke, after years of psychoanalytical work, was that Brooke wasn't nearly as nice as people imagined, but a good deal cleverer, puts his finger on this aspect of his old friend's character in a letter to him from 1909. Pleading with Brooke to continue writing to him, Strachey comments. "Are your letters perhaps generally dull for you because you're dishonest in them?"

As is often the case, the background to these letters is, if anything, more fascinating than the letters themselves. Brooke's mother, "the Ranee", and a succession of memoirists, executors, and trustees - chiefly Eddie Marsh, Dudley Ward, and Geoffrey Keynes - were so intent on preserving the image of the "man in marble" that Brooke's 1914 war sonnets had created, that they resisted with a tenacity that at times bordered on the hysterical, any attempt to dismantle the myth. In 1934 Hugh Dalton, one of Brooke's closest Cambridge friends (nicknamed "Daddy" in the Strachey letters) wrote to the Trustees, begging them to make public all the papers, to release Brooke from the "mythical land of the ever young"; and in 1936, Virginia Woolf (in a letter not quoted by Hale) wrote that "I can't help feeling that he has been smothered and castrated, and there he is, quite different, and memorable, could we disinter him."

Inevitably, it was Brooke's sexual ambivalence which was the explanation of this reticence. From Hale's introduction it is clear that Geoffrey Keynes deserves posterity's disapproval for the way in which he shamelessly bowdlerised Brooke's letters in the collected edition of 1968, harassed biographers, and blocked publication of the Strachey letters, even after most individuals mentioned in them were dead. And all for the fear that Rupert might be revealed as "queer".

So what, after all, does the Strachey correspondence reveal? Nothing, it must be said, that will surprise anyone acquainted with the salient facts of Brooke's life. There is much talk of "sodomy", much gossiping and giggling about who fancies whom, and there is the full text of the by now infamous letter (first referred to by Paul Delany, over a decade ago, in his excellent study of love and friendship in Brooke's circle, The Neo-Pagans) in which Brooke titillates Strachey with a description of his seduction of an old Rugby flame, Denham Russell-Smith. There is also a veritable fly-past of every Bloomsbury writer and intellectual one could think of, but little about them that is memorable or significant.

It is James Strachey who emerges as the true hero of this book. His early letters in which he explores the trials of unrequited love are very touching. But as a whole the book is over-edited to a point of academic nausea. Hale treats the letters as if they were holy writ, and his half-page footnotes, while containing much that is interesting, also include much that is irrelevant, information which might more usefully have been confined to biographical notes or a chronology.

And one almost forgets the part the poetry played in the manufacturing of the Brooke myth. Today it is fashionable to prefer the poems of Brooke's South Seas period - "Mutability", "Tiare Tahiti", and "Heaven" - rather than the 1914 sonnets whose mythical qualities have placed them almost completely outside the critical domain. But it's still interesting to reflect that in Brooke's famous call to arms, "Peace" ("Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour ..."), the "halfmen" he refers to are Lytton and James Strachey; and that the poem signals both the end of Brooke's friendship with James and his final rejection of Bloomsbury's prevalent homosexual lifestyle and pacifist beliefs.