At the time of his death in 1915, Rupert Brooke was held up as a glamorous romantic poet, a spokesman for heroism and martyred youth. Yet every new revelation brings out his psychosexual difficulties, his egotism and self-loathing, his longing for purity and sense of shame. "There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored," he complains in Jill Dawson's novel. "The oxygen of indifference is what I need." This nicely catches his self-mockery and the preening insouciance which made it difficult to know what he really felt.
To translate this well-known figure into a novel, with all his contradictions, requires capacious knowledge and a gifted imagination. Fiction and fact are here blended with sureness and subtlety. The Great Lover opens with a letter from Brooke's (recently discovered) illegitimate daughter, Arlice Rapoto. Aged 67, she wants to learn more about her father, with whom her mother Taatamata had sexual relations in Tahiti at a time when Brooke needed to "get away". The letter is sent to the Orchard Tea Rooms, Grantchester, where Brooke once lodged. It is passed by the owner to Nell Golightly who, now in her nineties, lived in the Orchard as a housemaid when young. She promises to send Arlice Christopher Hassall's biography of Brooke, but warns that "After all, a biography is written by a person and a person does not always understand another as well as they might think."
Nell is entirely fictional. When the narrative slips back to 1909, this bee-keeper's daughter has just joined the Orchard and Brooke is shortly to arrive. Later he moves to the Old Vicarage and, despite comings and goings, spends some three years in Grantchester. Nell is threaded into his story in a way that enhances the reader's understanding of Brooke's dilemmas, not least his anxiety over his virginity.
Dawson cleverly weaves into her tale expert knowledge of bees, of hives and honey, handling metaphors with panache, and language with emotional precision. Phrases, conversations and even entire letters have been lifted from published sources and embedded, for the most part seamlessly, into this fictional narrative. The only jarring note is her inaccurate use of the Edwardian phrase "pump ship".
Many of the Bloomsbury and Edwardian figures who took part in Brooke's life are given walk-on roles. A persistent rightness of content and tenor marries biographical accuracy with fictional invention. Brooke did indeed "copulate" first with a man at the Orchard. They are overheard by Nell, who picks up the soiled sheets. This upsets her, but does not end their romance, which develops in the interstices of Brooke's carryings-on. The tale alternates his voice with hers.
Brooke's desire to break with stale conventions lies behind his provocative remarks, his salacious humour, his nude bathing, his Fabianism and his desire for a more democratic approach to the arts. These small touches resonate within a well-structured plot. Dawson brilliantly evokes Brooke's volatility, his inner dissolution and ultimate breakdown at Lulworth in 1913. Behind his tortuous relationships with women lay a desire to be not just the loved but the lover.
The title is drawn from a late poem: the great lover, after what seems like idle boasting, mounts a paean to ordinary things, among them "white plates and cups, clean-gleaming", wet roofs and "the cool kindliness of sheets". What he sought at Grantchester and in relationships he ultimately found in the prosaic, a vein that is more endearing than his patriotic attitude to a war which other poets debunked.
Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat' is published by Pimlico
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