By Thomas Mallon
Thursday, August 19, 2010; C03
THE GREAT LOVER
By Jill Dawson
Harper Perennial. 310 pp. Paperback, $13.99
Yeats called Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) "the handsomest young man in England," and Henry James was only one of many -- old and young, male and female, writer and non-writer -- to go into a flutter over the poet's looks and surface charm. Brooke became briefly immortal -- the term seems somehow right -- in 1915, when, as part of Britain's Royal Naval Division, he died of blood poisoning just before the catastrophic Gallipoli invasion. His war sonnets ("If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England") rallied the nation and were deemed by Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, to be "true" and "thrilling." Brooke himself, Churchill assured readers of his obituary, had been "joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed . . . ruled by high undoubting purpose."
He was also one colossally screwed-up young man, who left behind a baffled assortment
of indulgent and exasperated friends.
Ah, but that face. Jill Dawson, an English novelist who has in "The Great Lover" fictionalized Brooke between the ages of 22 and 27, tells of looking at his picture several years ago: "He had a beautiful jawline, yes, and a broad brow, yes, and a floppy Hugh Grant quality to his fringe. But it was the gaze that hooked me. Direct. Staring down a hundred years and challenging me. Okay then. Write about me, if you dare." (If novelists are going to append such silly statements to their books, they can't expect them not to be quoted.) Dawson does pay a great deal of attention to Brooke's neuroses and hesitations and lurchings, but she's rather fallen for her subject. In "The Great Lover" she invents one more romance for him, a stunted but sweet affair with a servant girl, Nell Golightly, whose surname should probably be retired from the list available to literary heroines.
In the summer of 1909, Brooke has taken lodgings at the Orchard House in the village of Grantchester, outside Cambridge, where he's just finished cutting a figure at King's College. He is hoping to be "splendid," as a person and poet, but soon fears having to take his just-deceased father's place as a schoolmaster, which would put him back under the thumb of his terrifyingly formidable mother. Worried about a family tendency to depression, he is on his way toward a nervous breakdown, one brought on chiefly by too much of what D.H. Lawrence called "sex in the head." For all that he needs to shed his virginity and have some genuine adventures, the Brooke of Dawson's novel, like the one in real life, regards sex as "fundamentally filthy." His experiments with a variety of young women are disappointing -- or downright degrading -- to both parties. The novel's most fully described sexual episode involves Brooke and Denham Russell-Smith, the younger brother of a friend. Russell-Smith has a smashing good time, while Brooke frets about what the sheets will look like to poor Nell Golightly, who's heard the squeak of the bedsprings after having "to finish the washing-up and put away all the plates."
Nell has gone to work for Brooke's landlady after the death of her father, a beekeeper from Prickwillow, a village in the Fens. The novel conveys her solid nature largely through her own assessments of it: "Well, I'm not one of his Cambridge girls who only knows her books and bicycles; he needn't think he can take liberties with me! . . . [Nell Golightly] can face facts and she won't be anybody's fool." Actually, Nell is not so in control of her feelings for Mr. Brooke as she likes to think; the reader will see this a couple of hundred pages before she does.
Nell and Rupert swim naked together (Virginia Woolf is believed to have done the same with him), and he laughs at her untutored appreciation of his poetry. She gets upset when he treats her thoughtlessly in front of a young woman more his educational and class equal. Needless to say, Brooke finds Nell cute when she's angry, and he becomes jealous of the attentions she's paid by a fine working-class lad named, with Kiplingesque inevitability, Tommy.
Most of the novel is told in quick, lock-step alternations of Nell's voice and Brooke's. Neither is wholly convincing, and Nell's is sometimes a real stretch: "Perhaps that is the secret of the 'impression' he creates of extraordinary loveliness, the sort of loveliness you'd more often see in a girl than a young man." The levels of diction and spelling here seem rather high to be coming up from the kitchen.
"The Great Lover" is conscientious and good-hearted, but for all its class-crossing improbability, still rather timid. Dawson finishes with Brooke before he goes off to war and gets killed, even though his literary life was at that point really just beginning. The hero-author that Churchill pressed into posthumous service would soon enough be scorned for failing to produce the kind of searing, horrified work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon -- what we now think of as the truest poetry of the Great War. Brooke's grave has been, in its way, as unquiet as his troubled mind. His long afterlife might be a more interesting subject for fiction than his brief existence.
Michael Dirda is on vacation. Mallon is the author, most recently, of "Yours Ever: People and Their Letters." He directs the creative-writing program at George Washington University.