Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Rupert Brooke: The Great Lover

Last week I was in Cambridge, and a friend took me to The Orchard in Grantchester – self-described as “a corner of England where time stands still as the outside world rushes by.” It is not so much, perhaps: a collection of tables and chairs under fruit trees; a small café where a person might order tea and scones, or sandwiches, or cake. But if you believe in enduring spirits, The Orchard is surely one of the headiest, most glamorous places to take tea in the world. For more than 100 years, poets, intellectuals, princes and wits have sat under those trees and shared the particularly English ritual of breaking bread together.

The village of Grantchester lies just outside of Cambridge, and you can reach The Orchard by punting down the river or walking through the fields. A herd of brown cows stands just outside the clustered fruit trees, and you can imagine that the scene hasn’t changed much since poet Rupert Brooke wrote of dodging frightened cows on his way to bathe in the river at night. Brooke described the place as an “Arcadia” – and reinforced the image of a rustic Eden in poems and letters. “I live on honey, eggs and milk, prepared for me by an old lady like an apple (especially in the face) and sit all day in a rose garden to work.” (letter to Noel Olivier, 1909). Although this idyll only lasted for a few years, for Brooke at least, there is the sense of an eternal summer there. And even though we visited on an autumnal day, the air was unseasonably warm – warm enough to shed jackets and sit outside. I would like to report that I communed with literary ghosts, but lunching with five children tends to keep conversation on an earthly plane. (As far as I can remember, we mostly discussed whether Ben could have cake despite not eating his ham sandwich.)

Brooke died at the age of 27, in the second year of World War I. Although he didn’t die on the battlefield, he has been forever associated with all of the young Apollos, all of the golden young men who died before they were able to fulfill their promise. If I should die, think only this of me: /That there’s some corner of a foreign field /That is forever England.” (The Soldier.) With these famous lines, Brooke became a symbol of the age: forever young, beautiful, noble and patriotic. Winston Churchill eulogized him when he died. He was the ultimate English public school boy: good at sport, gifted with words, charming in manners, attractive to women and men both. Rupert Brooke was in some sense the prototype for the Hugh Grant type familiar to us now – the same charisma and careless beauty, even the same floppy hair – but with more purpose, more idealism to him.

(Virginia Stephen and Rupert Brooke on the right-hand side)

Before I visited The Orchard, I knew these few things about Rupert Brooke. He interested me, vaguely, because of his friendship with Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and the Bloomsbury Group. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Great Lover, by Jill Dawson – in which Brooke featured. I was intrigued enough to buy it, but not inclined to rush into reading it. Who knows how long it might have sat in my to-read stack if I haven’t visited The Orchard; but I am an incurable student, and a bit of browsing through the Rupert Brooke Museum whetted my appetite for more. There were newspaper articles suggesting that Brooke was a lot more complicated than the fair-haired boy myth. One article even focused on the daughter that he may have fathered when he visited Tahiti the year before his death. Although Brooke is the very symbol of English youth, he spent most of his last years travelling to get away from it. Although he loved England, the things that defined him (education, class, his famous looks) trapped him, too.

Interestingly enough, Dawson begins her fictional narrative with a letter from this daughter. The daughter has a request: to “hear (her father’s) living voice; to know what he smelled like and sounded like.” Surely every biographer has the same goal: to flesh out the evidence and to make a living, breathing person out of it. Dawson isn’t writing biography, though; she is writing fiction. And because fiction is always more elastic than non-fiction, she gets inside of Brooke in a way that may not be entirely accurate – but is entirely compelling.

Dawson tells her story through two alternating voices: that of Brooke’s, and then a fictional character called Nellie Golightly. Nellie is maid at The Orchard – and also a bee-keeper. She is uniquely placed to observe Brooke, and he lets his guard down in front of her – not only because there is an attraction between them, but also because she is in a lower class. She is there to be invisible; to serve him and his friends. Although Nellie is a fictional device, almost every other character in the story is real – and it is obvious that Dawson has supported her creative musings with careful research. Whenever possible, she uses Brooke’s own writing (letters and poems) and others’ recorded observations of him. It is a bit extraordinary to discover so many famous people in this book’s pages, but Brooke’s life was really like that. One day he is punting down the river with Augustus John; on another day, he is having a mental break-down at Lytton Strachey’s house.

This blending of fiction and non-fiction is very fashionable at the moment, but it works well in this story – partly because Dawson is herself a poet, I think. Her fine sense of language allows her to inhabit these two different characters. She gets into Brooke’s tortured head – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was tortured –and she creates a really rich and textured voice. Brooke’s insecurities, obsessions, fears and joys are persuasively described.

W.B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England,” and the description dogged him ever after. He was confused and guilty about his sexuality, worried that his talent was inadequate, and haunted by the familial strain of mental instability. Although Brooke is always described as a golden boy living in a lost golden age, one of the things that most fascinated me about this novel were the dark undercurrents – not just in Brooke’s own life, but in the society around him. The Edwardian age that Dawson describes is already being shaken up by gender and class wars – long before the upheavals of World War I. Brooke is a member of the Fabian Society, and plays at being a socialist, but Nellie is an effective foil because she fills in the gap between the real and the ideal.

The Great Lover, by the way, is not just Brooke’s mocking estimation of himself; it is also the title of one of best-known poems. In it, Brooke names all of the beautiful things in the world: from “white places and cups, clean-gleaming” to “the strong crust of friendly bread” and the “cool kindliness of sheets.” An eagerness for life, and all of the lovely things in it, counteracts the

perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

Each time I’ve read those lines, I’ve gotten more out of them. In some ways, I feel the same about this book. It is dense and beautiful enough to read again.

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@Barrie Summy


herhimnbryn said...

The first poet I read as a 13 year old school girl. At that time I suspect much went over my head, but the beauty of his words stayed with me. I have a copy of his collected work that was pub. 6 months after his death in 1915. It is one of those volumes that has hand cut pages and not only a joy to read but hold too.

Thankyou for reminding me B. I shall go and get the book now and spent a few minutes re-reading before the daily grind calls.

Sarah Laurence said...

The Orchard looks like just my kind of place, and I love how you provide the setting for the book. That second photo could be a painting – gorgeous! Brooke is such a romantic character, larger than life. The novel sounds like a good mix of fact and fiction. Excellent review!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Have always been intrigued by him (and all of that Bloomsbury group) and this book looks just like my cuppa tea.

steven said...

hello bee, ever since reading henry williamson, i have also been drawn to rupert brooke's writing. i love the sense of this world that he paints, particularly his sense of england. i knew such a tiny bit of that england when i was a boy and of course it has flowered and flourished in my heart ever since. the england i know and love is carefully hidden, secure in tiny places and corners. thank goodness!!! this is a lovely exquisite post bee!! thankyou so much. steven

willow said...

A perfectly idyllic place to read. And I never thought of it before, but Brooke did have a Hugh Grant thing going on, didn't he? Interesting post, Bee.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Lovely review. I am a fan of Brooke and shall certainly have a go at this book.

I also thought the little riverside cafe with the green chairs look rather similar to the one at which Mary Poppins and Bert were served tea by the penquin waiters.

iNdi@ said...

Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?

TheChicGeek said...

Stellar post, Bee. Your day looks like heaven in the orchard! Magnificent review. This is definitely a must read book. I love how you put this all together...and Brooke...what a handsome devil...LOL
Hugs :)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Another book for the to read list. Thanks, Bee! Have you heard Al Stewart's song "Somewhere in England 1915"? He references Brooke in it:

kristina said...

Oh this is all so interesting. I'd heard about The Orchard but never visited. Have also been contemplating reading the book off and on for the past several months. Now moving it straight to the top of my to-read list when I get back to London! K x

Cláudia said...

Your review is, alone, a piece of literature! It's really a pleasure to see how you intertwine your comments with your life, your trips, your family, your own knowledge about facts and literature, and most of all, your inner thoughts!

Marcheline said...

Hello Bee,

Just wanted to let you know I found your blog after a stroll down Lane's Write, and a cup of tea with Cait O'Connell.

I spent my entire shift at work last night reading your blog (when I had no flights to handle, of course - I'm a radio operator) and I just wanted to thank you for being a much-needed respite to my soul. I've been craving the company of like-minded, book-loving creatures, and you definitely fit the bill.

Only thing is, now I've got about seven hundred titles to add to my "must read list" thanks to you! What I really need to do is start building book shelves to hold the myriad stacks that are currently decorating my wee cottage.

Feel free to come by my blog for a virtual cup of tea sometime!


Marcheline said...

P.S. I forgot to say that one of my stops on the way to your blog was a soiree at Willow Manor, as well....


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

What a great post! The Orchard is a place I would like to visit when I make my trip to England in the near future. I will be doing some research on Ruper Brooke--your writing on him has sparked a fire in me and I am wanting to learn more.

The Great Lover will go on my to read list (Golightly is my madien name) LOL

Tracy :)

Chairman Bill said...

A latter day Byron. About time we had another, as they seem to only come along once every 100 years.

ArtSparker said...

Wonderfully evocative post - This certainly sounds like something I would like to read, and also makes me long for England.

Bee said...

herhimnbryn - Rupert Brooke is not that well-known in America (hence, my primer), but I assume that all English school boys and girls study the young WWI poets. I would LOVE to see the collection you describe.

Actually, the long list of commonplace things he loves is very much like what you do at Accept All Offerings.

Sarah - you would like The Orchard a lot; and so would your dog. We weren't brave enough to swim in the river, but my friend's dog did!

Brooke really was one of those romantic figures who wanted to take a big bite out of life.

Pattinase - It was such an exciting time, intellectually; they wanted to remake the world, aesthetically and socially.

Steven - I was amazed by how well-preserved it all is, but there is something very timeless about Cambridge. All of the old buildings and the river and bicycles . . . and bohemian intellectuals, of course!

Willow - It would be a GREAT place for a bloggers' gathering, come to think of it.

Pamela Terry - Same time period of course; the Edwardians did love their tea.

Indi - YES! I thought about including those lines . . .

Kelly - Yes, I think Brooke would be appealing in any age. I wonder if he would have kept that lovely hair?

JAPRA - No, I don't know that song. I'll look it up, though; thanks for the link!

Kristina - You could take a train down to Cambridge for the day. It's only an hour from King's Cross! The museum is attached to the cafe, and free -- by the way.

Claudia - That is a very kind compliment; thank you.

Marcheline - I'm so very glad that you have found us all. Your story of linkage reminds me of last week -- when I Googled Persphone Book Group and found a wonderful blog based in Oxford AND discovered three of my blog friends already there! Strange and wonderful how we find "our people" in the blogosphere.

Tracy - Well, Nellie is a wonderful character . . . and there is something so beautiful about the surname "Golightly." I can see why you've wanted to keep it.

Chairman Bill - You're so right; we need another beautiful young poet. And did you know that Rupert Brooke swam in Byron's Pool at Cambridge? Perhaps our poet/swimmer is somewhere at Cambridge even now.

ArtSparker - Umm; I love the word "evocative." We were so lucky to visit on a day that still felt summery.

Reya Mellicker said...

This is a beautiful post, Bee!

I, too, am an "incurable student." Love that phrase.

I'm also a Hugh Grant fan - at the holidays only, should say. And you're right, Brooke does radiate the same vibration. Very cool. Thank you!

Dumdad said...

Great blogpost. I did touch on Brooke in a Pause for Poetry (WW1 poets) but nowhere near in this depth and insight.

Was Brooke a great poet or a lucky one with those immortal lines of "If I should I die..." in The Soldier? I'm not well versed enough to know.

I like your comparing him to the Hugh Grant character. And Hugh Grant himself is probably darker than the image we are led to believe.

And, I say shamefacedly, I've never been to Cambridge.

B said...

The Orchard sounds wonderful! I so wish I could be there right now! Literature and high tea? Yes, please!

Anonymous said...

A wonderful thoughtful post. My favorite line from 'The Great Lover' "the benison of hot water'
Have you read the Christopher Hassell biography of Brooke published in the 60's?
I recall it as being very good indeed.
My reading of it suggests that Brook was in love with Ka Cox (older) and Noel Olivier (younger), of course 50 years ago they tended to skip over the possible home-erotic angles.
Needless to say, when I was 14 I was madly in love with Brooke....and was certain, that, had we ever met, he would have fallen madly in love with ME!

Angie Muresan said...

Must get the book myself, he sounds so intriguing. And, oh wow, he certainly was handsome!

Barrie said...

I really didn't know too much about Brooke before reading your review. I googled him when I learned you reviewing this book. But I learned A LOT more from your review. And...on a totally superficial note...he does look like Hugh Grant!

Fantastic Forrest said...

Will comment on this later, when I have a chance to read and savor.

Meanwhile, check out my blog tomorrow, when I recognize you with a well earned award.


Nancy said...

This was a thoroughly entertaining blog post. I was not aware of this charming, tortured young poet before now. I can just see him in the the orchard, it being very much the same as it was in the dawning days of the last century. Wonderful post, Bee.

Anna said...

Bee you got me really going on this one, even thought I am not very big on literature or classics, but it may change, I can see as I am getting older. Anna :)

Pam said...

Fascinating!Thank you for such an informative post. Previous to this I did not know about Brooke, or The Orchard. I intend to do my homework, and hopefully visit these places in the future. I regretted not getting to Oxford when I visited England years ago.Hopefully, with even more knowledge gained, one day I will.Thanks again.

Dick said...

A wonderful read, Bee. It's re-kindled my interest in Brooke, who was the first WW1 poet in whom I took an interest way back when. As soon as I discovered Owen and Sassoon, poor old RB took a back seat. But that whole Bloomsbury/Bedales/bohemian/Brooke interface fascinates me so I shall seek out the Dawson novel. Thanks for this.

Re. Henry Williamson, Steven - what a contrast. Brooke, the gentle romantic Fabian who dies before the war's end and HW whose acute experience of its horrors had him turning to fascism. Such a flawed writer, Williamson, when moving amongst humans, but still a fascinating documentarist. 'A Chronicle Of Ancient Sunlight' is overdue for re-publication.

JaneyV said...

Bee, the thing I love most about your blog is the depth of your writing. Not for you a few cold facts; you snuggle so much interesting information with poetry, warm insights and genuine love for the subject. I have to admit to knowing nothing of Mr Brooke but the words “white places and cups, clean-gleaming” to “the strong crust of friendly bread” and the “cool kindliness of sheets. show him to be a kindred spirit and I will read further.

The Orchard sounds wonderful. Maybe when Spring comes round and the bluebells are out we should meet up there for afternoon tea, a bit of a chin-wag and possibly some inspiration via osmosis.

Anne said...

What a charming post! I have never read any of his works, but I think I shall have to start. A day in that orchard sounds like pure bliss.

Christina said...

I am so glad, I am sipping my tea, while I read this.
What an incredible review.
I really do need to read more on Mr. Brooke.
Oh, I send you hugs, for this post.

Lucy said...

You write the best reviews ever.

chloe said...

I spent my teenaged years in Cambridge, whiling away many happy hours on The Meadows and can confirm that the ghosts are all friendly. Next time you're in that neck of the woods, go a little further into the Fens and visit Ely. Stunning cathedral and lovely tea to be had at The Old Fire Engine House. Also thanks for the recipe for vicarage cake - you don't know what you started!


Enjoyed your essay/review on Rupert Brooke. My interest peaked at the photo of Virginia! When last in Cambridge in 2001, a trip to the Orchard and Byron's Pool was a must. Apparently, Virginia swam there, too. Will look for Jill Dawson's book.

Isabel said...

Ah what a place to read!

Brooke always intrigued me. Thank you for this post and all the information you share.

angela said...

could you tellme the wallpaper/textile design/er behind your title page?!