I’ve talked about this recently, but I’ve just finished my re-read and thought it deserved a short review.
It’s 1909 and Nell Golightly is a (fictional) maid in service at the Orchard in Grantchester, where the poet Rupert Brooke is staying. They become friendlyish and briefly intimate as it follows the ups and downs of his life during the prewar years.
So, this is a favourite book of mine. It is extremely self-indulgent, and I love it. If you would like to imagine Brooke, who was a handsome bastard, running his fingers through his floppy blond hair and getting a lot of stiffies, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
It’s beautifully written (structurally and the quality of the prose), and cleverly written, as Jill Dawson captures Brooke’s voice so well. I’m conscious that this is a queer Romance blog and that sort of prettiness won’t appeal to everyone. That’s not to say Romance can’t be pretty because of course it very much can, but it’s usually got a bit more oomph if you know what I mean. In the middle of a kissing scene in a Romance no one is breaking off the action to talk about bees or their dead father or their overbearing mother for the fifteenth time. It’s a different focus. But I like it.
It also doesn’t have a happy ending. I know that will put some people off too, particularly as Brooke was, well, I suppose many people would call him bisexual today, though I’m not sure he’d have used that word then even if he had the vocabulary. But he died of an infected insect bite on the way to fight at Gallipoli, so we’re not plumbing tragiqueer territory here in that regard. There are also the sorts of attitudes you might come to expect from that period in time which I know some readers might be sensitive to.
Ah, but it’s so good. I was dubious the first time I read it because inserting a fictional character into a real persons life and giving them the sort of importance that Nell has in the book, seemed a bit, I don’t know, wrong? But it works. She’s a good insert because she brings a working-class perspective, which is something Brooke and his group of friends didn’t have. There’s a particularly good scene, not involving Nell but good nevertheless, where Brooke goes to address the Working Man on Poor Law Reform and it gets across perfectly how little he understood them or himself.
Who Brooke is and how he behaves is brilliantly done. He’s very much a real, fully fleshed person. He has many and varied faults, and you can see how he was shaped by upbringing, class (he was middle-class, could there be anything more damning?), and the circles he moved in. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone when they’re saying things like “Don’t be a feminist, be a woman,” and if you don’t put the book down at any point thinking, what a tosser, I’d be surprised. But that’s what he was like. He was a bit of a tosser. He does a lot of tossing off in the book, intellectually and physically.
I always describe Brooke as my problematic fave. I know he was a nob, and a nob that could easily be taken down in an argument. I also know he was human and his circumstances were what they were. And, of course, he’s dead. He can’t grow or change (or defend himself, which is probably a good thing). I have to accept what’s there, even if I don’t like it.
And that’s what this book does. Nell judges him but she accepts him too because she’s in no position to change him either.
With all that in mind, I declare this book a five star read! I hope that if anyone decides to read it off the back of this review that they enjoy it as much as I do.