Alan Hollinghurst is to me that rare find, a novelist in total control of his material. His latest novel, The Strangers Child, stretched over most of the twentieth century and taking up the perspectives of multiple individuals as the scene moves from one era to another, tests this capacity to its utmost. The book begins in the years just before the First World War at the middle-class suburban London home of the Sowles, where the fifteen-year old Diana awaits the arrival of her slightly older brother George with a guest, an up-and-coming poet. Immediately, class comes into play as Cecil Valance, the poet, hails from minor aristocracy and has in Corley Court a much grander home to show for it. Before long the scene switches to the Valance home some years later, where Diana has married into the role of Lady Valance, though not to Cecil as we might have anticipated in the earlier pages. A third segment, set in the 1950s, brings us into the later fortunes of the Valances and the Sowles through two new sets of eyes, those of Paul Bryant and Peter Rowe. Bryant is a bank clerk with literary ambitions, Rowe a schoolteacher in what the British call a prep schoola boarding school for junior high boysnow occupying Corley Court. Again we jump, this time to London some years later as Bryant struggles unsuccessfully to extract information for his biography of Cecil Valance from the now impoverished Diana, and once more to a concluding scene at a memorial service at which Bryants shabby pretentiousness and evident literary success are equally apparent.What keeps the novel together is a poem, written by Cecil Valance on that first visit to the Sowle home. The poem is named for the house, Two Acres, and becomes a much-anthologized piece which schoolchildren learn as a matter of course. Everything else about it is matter for speculation. We never see the whole poem, though snatches of it are quoted here and there throughout the text. We are not even sure for whom it was written. Diana certainly thinks it was for her, and Cecil allows this, but our suspicion is that George may have been the real inspiration since he is surely Cecils romantic attachment. But as the century progresses both houses and the families that occupied them decay, while the poem persists. Written in a moment long ago by a long-dead minor poet, it continues just as the memory of Cecil is kept alive, less because of its or his essential significance, but just because it is there in the anthologies like Cecils white alabaster funeral monument in the chapel of Corley Court.
It is really hard to not keep thinking of Forsters Howards End as you read The Strangers Child, for the importance of houses certainly, but more so for the peculiarly English fan-dance of class-consciousness. From the beginning the Sowles are in awe of the Valances and Two Acresprobably a mansion by most standards todayis a poor thing beside the grand but apparently hideous late Victorian pile of Corley Court. As the century progresses, Hollinghurst skillfully reflect the changing picture of the social classes, though as any Brit can tell you, they didnt change much at all until two or three decades ago. This is best brought out in Paul Bryant, the bank clerk, as he tries to negotiate his way into a higher society that will never accept him. But he succeeds as the wealthy and landed others decline, which reverses the fortunes in Howards End, in which the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes find a modus Vivendi while Leonard Bastan insurance clerkfails.There is so much in this fine novel to enjoy, a lot of humor and great social commentary. In the background is Britains changing attitudes to homosexuality, which goes from the love that dare not speak its name in the opening section to a memorial service in which Bryants self-aggrandisement is upstaged by a moving testimonial offered by the dead mans gay lover. In the end Hollinghurst doesnt think much of his fellow-Brits, comparing their society to a box of Peek Freans biscuits, an analogy almost guaranteed to be lost on American audiences. The little cookies are dull and predictable, and packed oh so carefully in their tin box and presented as a wonderful tea-time treat. Only an imagination-starved culture could possibly get excited over Peek Freans, he seems to suggest. On the other hand, it says a great deal indeed that this Peek Freans culture produced Hollinghurst. His previous novel, The Line of Beauty, won Britains most prestigious Man Booker Prize. For my money this is an even better work.