Battle of the heart: Was war poet Rupert Brooke a closet heterosexual?

While researching her new novel about Rupert Brooke, Jill Dawson was seduced by one thought: that the war poet was a homosexual only reluctantly. She presents her evidence to Danuta Kean

Over the past three years, Jill Dawson has been involved with another man. The Fens-based author candidly admits her feelings were so intense that she once signed her name "Rupert" instead of "Ruby", the nickname used by her family. Rupert is Rupert Brooke, one of two narrators in Dawson's latest novel, The Great Lover, an exquisitely rendered fictional account of the poet's last years. Brooke's fellow narrator is Nell Golightly, a housemaid from the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester where Brooke was a tenant. She is dark and diminutive, with glittering eyes and a fierce intelligence. It is a description not unsuited to Dawson, who sits opposite me, a knot of intense enthusiasm.

There is one big difference, however: whereas Nell is tight-lipped and priggish, Dawson is vivacious. Sentences tumble from her, ideas skitter off in all directions. At times I feel she has provided me with as many questions as answers. "How do you write the appleness of an apple or the Brookeness of Rupert Brooke?" she asks. Later she muses on the literary possibilities of sea horses. Being in conversation with her feels like running after a greyhound.

Nell and Rupert are drawn together. Rupert desires Nell's certainty, stillness and self-assurance. Nell envies Rupert's exoticism, education and freedom. They dance around one another in a will-they-won't-they love affair that also features walk-on parts by leading free thinkers of the 20th century, including Augustus John and the salonista Lady Ottoline Morrell, as well as Brooke's lovers Ka Cox, Noel Olivier, Cathleen Nesbitt and the Tahitian Taatamata.

Sexist, a show off and a snob, Dawson's Brooke reflects his time and his youth, though he remains attractive. "I ended up a little bit besotted with him," Dawson confesses when I ask about her research from his letters and diaries. "I imagined at the start that I would feel infuriated and excluded by him – his very privileged world has nothing to do with me, I thought." Dawson's own background is steeped in the working class north-east: only two generations separate her from family who were in service like Nell.

She has also, like Nell, experienced the invisibility of the servant class. In her 20s she worked as an au pair to a wealthy family. "Nell tells her sisters who come to work with her that they must pretend not to hear or see anything. That is exactly how I felt as an au pair. I had to pretend not to see or hear the rows, the affairs, whatever, but to be there in an instant if suddenly I was required."

Though Nell feels an outsider to Brooke and his world – he spouts from socialist reports on poverty but mocks Nell's struggle to keep her family above the breadline – she finds him hard to resist, and, like Dawson, realises that beneath the crass class prejudices lies compassion. "The more I read his work and got involved in the novel, the more I felt he was more interested in me than I might have imagined," admits Dawson. "I feel very affectionate towards him now," she says with the smile of someone remembering a fond friend.

It is easy to see why the author fell for the Brooke of The Great Lover. He may have the face and body of an Adonis (a body that was often on show during nude midnight dips) and the ambitions of many a floppy-haired Cambridge man, but his idealism and self-doubt are appealing. He is not the fey creature of myth living in the shadow of a heroic death, yearning for an England seen only by posh boys buried in foreign fields. Tangled in with his dreaming is a bawdy youth, ironic and playful and desperate to shift the burden of his virginity – with man or woman, whichever comes first.

"He looked to people like Augustus John and Henry Lamb, these great seducers, and I feel a little part of him wished he was more like that. But he wasn't," Dawson says of Brooke's nagging desperation about sex. He is also hampered in his quest to lose his virginity by the fact that the women he is drawn to are strong, not necessarily attractive, but intelligent and aware of the potential disasters of sex – which are far worse for women than men. Sleeping with men, for this Brooke, is a question not of preference but necessity.

The decision to portray Brooke as a reluctant bisexual is the most controversial aspect of the book but his ambivalence in the novel reflects his real views, the author claims. "It was an area about about which I felt I had to be extremely cautious and not impose my views." The scene in which Brooke loses his virginity with his school friend Denham Russell-Smith is based on a letter to James Strachey. It is told with perfunctory detail and some humour, but there is no passion, just relief that the thing – his virginity – is gone. His lack of ardour in the letter leads Dawson to believe Brooke preferred women to men. "I felt that in his letters, poetry and other writings, his feelings were strongly about women. He is so open in the letter to Strachey that if he had strong feelings for men they would have been there – but they weren't," she says. "I felt I could take my lead from that and show his feelings torn between the idealistic women he can't have and the motherly one he can."

It comes as a surprise to learn that Dawson's inspiration for The Great Lover was not the poem of the same name, or stories of Brooke's sexual encounters, but a postcard picked up on a visit to fellow writer Martin Goodman. It featured two maids who worked at the Orchard House in Brooke's time, and though both were probably the daughters of Brooke's landlady, in Dawson's imagination one evolved into Nell.

It is not the first time Dawson has created a lead female whose ambitions have been denied by class. "She is slightly a version of Madame Guerin, who looked after Victor in my novel The Wild Boy," the author explains. "She wasn't educated but was very strong- willed and, had she been better educated, would have been a very different person. I think Nell is an amalgam of her and Edie Thompson, in her aspiration to do and be more." In 1923 Thompson and her lover Fred Bywaters were hanged for the murder of Edie's husband Percy. It was a notorious case, which Dawson visited in her novel Fred and Edie, published in 2000.

I wonder what attracts Dawson to mythologised people? As well as Edie and Brooke, The Wild Boy is based on a case from the early 19th century. "It is about trying to rescue someone from that myth-making but also trying to include the myth," she explains. "Edie has been written about in every decade since she was hanged. Each writer took a view of her that reflected their time: in the Seventies she was a battered wife who fought back, in the Fifties a poor victim. I think with Brooke there is something similar; with each decade, biographers have taken a different stance on him that reflected their own time." Biographers' interpretations of Brooke began with patriotic pride, moved on to discrediting his status as a War Poet (he died before seeing action), and more recently have reflected popular culture's obsession with sex.

Though Brooke's homosexuality has been the main focus of current interest, other details, especially about the naked dips that led Virginia Woolf to dismiss Brooke and his "neo-pagan" friends as "dew dabblers", embellish the legend. "His hard-ons were really famous!" Dawson blurts out loudly – so loudly that a group of tourists seated at a nearby table gawp and our waiter eyes us, sniffing the air like a terrier sensing trouble. Dawson giggles – as do I. It is a moment at which Brooke would have laughed.

That I can imagine Brooke laughing at a smutty comment says much for Dawson's ability to create vigorous characters. Nell and Brooke breathe. They feel nearby, full of blood and vitality. Before we part she tells me of a visit to the Orchard House when the owner, Robin Callan, left her alone in Brooke's old room, clutching the poet's diary. "I just sat with it and thought, 'he would have had that in his breast pocket, close to his heart'," she says. It is as if a lover has just left the room.

The extract

The Great Lover, By Jill Dawson (Sceptre £12.99)

"... He grins a glorious grin at me and the sun blazes through the door, warming my face to scarlet. He wears grey flannels ... and his face is rather innocent and babyish ... Perhaps that is the secret of the 'impression' he creates of extraordinary loveliness, the sort of loveliness you'd more often see in a girl, than a young man."

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