The Great Lover
by Jill Dawson
A convincing narrative voice is a challenge for any writer and doubly so when that voice belongs to a real person. Whilst poems, letters and other material might appear initially to give a writer a head start on rendering them, it can be those same pieces which gradually restrict your ability to write confidently yourself (I say this as someone who has tried and failed in the past to write from historical sources). With this in mind and also the impending responsibility of literally giving voice to Rupert Brooke in an audio-book recording of this novel I was truly intrigued by how Jill Dawson would cope with that challenge. As the pages flew by in this engrossing, atmospheric and beautifully crafted novel I could feel my shoulders relaxing. When the writing is good enough, everything you need to know is there in the text, and all you need to do is serve it.
Dawson begins things with a letter from Arlice Rapoto, a Tahitian woman who claims to be Brooke's daughter. This letter is received by Nellie Golightly ('Which sounds like something out of a music hall') who served as a maid at The Old Vicarage, Grantchester at the time when Brooke stayed in a room there. Arlice asks the same question that I began with:
I have read two poems by him but I would like to hear his voice. I would like to read his letters but mostly hear his living voice, to know what he smelled like and sounded like.This allows Nellie to plunder her memories of that time and her thoughts alternate with the letters and journal entries of Brooke himself. I'm not a huge fan of that kind of structure to a novel but when it's done well as in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George you almost don't notice the convention and Dawson skilfully builds a rhythm to these exchanges which adds to the overall impact of the narrative.
Nellie is able to answer Arlice's question almost immediately with one of her early encounters with the poet. Late one evening in the garden she is startled to be met by a completely naked Brooke.
'Glorious evening, Nell- '
I opened my eyes then, thinking he had passed, and his hand flew down to his private parts and, widening his legs comically, he said: '"Down, little bounder, down!" as Edmund Gosse said to his heart,' and then he laughed, rudely and very loudly. He passed so close that I could smell the scent of the muddy river that wrapped his skin.
Nellie reels away from this encounter, finding it stirs up memories of her recent past, reminding her first of her brothers swimming in the summer back home and then of the 'poor stiff body' of her father that she had to lay out and bathe when he died. This bereavement, which has led Nellie away from home in order to support the rest of the family, has a lingering impact on her and her time at The Old Vicarage is one of personal, social, political and sexual awakening. One of the joys of this book is that none of these things are dealt with in a heavy handed manner. During this period, the height of the Suffragette movement, Nell is naturally exposed to the politics, both domestic and national, that dominate the country at this time. As a woman in service she is well aware of her place and indeed happy with it and Dawson illustrates this brilliantly by making Nell the daughter of a bee-keeper. As such she knows about the order of the hive- 'Bees have morals! They're loyal. They're devoted to their queen and they work so hard! There's no shame in service...Bees live only to serve!' It is through her own tending of the hives in Grantchester that Dawson creates one of the books most memorable scenes. The power structure is turned on its head when Nell takes Rupert to the hives, the bees themselves sensitive to the energy between them and Nell alive to the danger that this places Rupert in as his flirtations grow. When he lifts his veil to kiss her the bees sense their opportunity.
Now he is mine to rescue..One bee is on his chin, edging up towards his mouth.The terror in his eyes is quite real. I see by the wildness in his look that he wants to flap and scream and run about but puts his trust in me, like a small boy, like one of my brothers. It is this, finally, that is my undoing. I could have held off, I reckon, if it weren't for this. His teasing, his naughtiness, his insults, his demands, his flirting. Even the sight of him naked as the day he was born. I could resist them all, but not that one small thing. A glimpse of the boy.
Until this point Nell has perceptively identified Rupert as someone who 'has spent too much time in the classroom with other boys, giving the same boys too great an importance, with their secret games and private names', which cuts right to the heart of his emotional immaturity. A man still behaving like a schoolboy, having moved from one institution to another and indulged by those around him, the big surprise about Brooke is that at this point in his life 'the handsomest young man in England' is in fact a virgin. More than that, he is wrestling with his sexuality and Dawson again uses great subtlety and skill in depicting the clumsiness and shame of his various forays into sexual maturity.
There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored. The oxygen of indifference is what I need: it surely makes my heart pump healthily. I am a Poet, so I must be the one doing the loving. The Great Lover, that's me, not the beloved. the beloved is despicable. That's the role of a girl.
The relationship between Nell and Rupert, like the rhythm of their alternating voices, is filled with echoes. As Nell awakens to the world around her, so too does Rupert through his Fabian Society tour of the country and visit to the continent. There are moments when they can drop the class barrier that separates them - 'Whenever I let slip the mask for a moment, Nellie never fails to respond. It is not in what she says - Tradition and Centuries are difficult to undo - but in her glances. That is where the truth between us resides', - and when Brooke loses his father it is Nell he thinks of first, finding comfort from what she had said to him of her own loss.
When he leaves for the South Seas there is a danger that the energy built up between them will dissipate but Dawson cleverly counters it by altering the synchronicity of their respective voices; whilst Rupert is away, Nell remembers an event before his leaving and we learn of that as we see how Brooke ends his days, bringing everything full circle with a very satisfying close.
I only hope I can do it justice when the time comes to record it. Watch this space for more information about that nearer the time.