Beyond the myth

by Siobhan Harvey / 28 March, 2009
A fresh, fictional depiction of poet Rupert Brooke.

If poet Rupert Brooke hadn't lived, some smart writer would have invented him. Garrulous, libidinous, bisexual, hyper-intelligent, tragic and legendarily handsome, Brooke had a life - frenetic and cut short too early by septicaemia - that was the stuff of the archetypal fictional protagonist. Certainly, as Nigel Jones' Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth (1999) proved, a dry biographical recounting of it is never going to capture the true Brooke.

Like many cultural icons, especially those who die young (from Rudolph Valentino to Kurt Cobain), there's something illusory and speculative about Brooke. For a start, there's his public persona as a poet who expressed war's idealism, which seems at variance with his personal life as a pragmatist and strident Fabian. There are also those what-ifs that surround the mythologising of Brooke, such as the poems and books that might have been written had he not been cut down in his prime. It's the accumulation of these things - the meat of so many contradictions and thwarted possibilities, if you will - that's best suited to a novelist's imaginary examination.

So it proves for Jill Dawson in her remarkable novel The Great Lover. Taking a famous Brooke poem as her title, Dawson begins with the poet's Tahitian daughter, Arlice, as she searches to understand the father she never knew. From there, the novel fictionalises the last years of Brooke's life through imagined correspondence between him and his maid, Nell Golightly.

There's much that is traditional Dawson here. The epistolary form, for instance, is a customary technique (used in her terrific Orange Prize short-listed novel, Fred & Edie). The framework of fictional letters interspersed with confessional narratives produces a tight, classic novel structure that is also typical. Moreover, the writing is Dawson at her best: poetic and light in tone but deep in import. Significantly, the diction is also historically accurate and intriguing without ever being so overloaded that it burdens the reader.

It's the characters, though, particularly the privileged Brooke and his plebeian confidante Nell, who are the story's -triumph. As Dawson's study of post-

Revolution France, Wild Boy, showed, she's skilled in crafting characters geographically and emotionally displaced by their troubled times. In The Great Lover, capricious, parentless Nell, forced into domestic duty to feed her siblings, is a wonderfully imagined mirror for Brooke's own personal and public dislocation. The closer this couple get, the deeper they explore and the more they epitomise the social and political turmoil of pre-World War I England. It's in their discussions of female suffrage, Fabianism, fighting and artistic freedom, and their intimate connection to such notoriously dysfunctional souls as Augustus John, HG Wells, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, that we see not just the real Nell and Rupert, but also the chaos of the English body politic at the time.

Perhaps the finest compliment that can be paid to The Great Lover, however, is that for all the above reasons it offers a fresh depiction of Brooke. Was War Poet Rupert Brooke a Closet Heterosexual? titillated the Independent newspaper upon the release of the novel in the UK. This bi-line tapped into a standard image of Brooke, which depicts the poet as a clandestine gay man hermetically sealed in the belle époque of the Edwardian world. Dawson's The Great Lover, though, discounts this kind of typecasting in favour of a representation of Brooke that is rounded, human and humane. Neither equivocally gay nor straight, fop nor intellectual freak, ruthless conniver nor eternally honest, Dawson's Brooke is a person instead of a caricature.

Beyond this, The Great Lover is proof that its author is one of the finest practitioners of the literary historical novel and that this is her best novel yet.

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