The Boy in the Rain

Written by Stephanie Cowell
Review by Jinny Webber

Set in England between 1901 and 1910, The Boy in the Rain portrays the illicit passion between two men. Robbie Stillman is seventeen when the story opens, desperately lonely and unloved. In a Nottingham village, he meets 29-year-old Anton Harrington, sophisticated, wealthy, yet drawn to socialist beliefs, in part because of the poverty surrounding them. Each in his own way is consumed by the fervor of their relationship through the years. Queen Victoria has died, but the hoped-for freedom of the Edwardian age doesn’t extend to men like them. The Gross Indecency Act of 1885 is in full force, criminalizing homosexual acts with the same punishment Oscar Wilde endured: three months solitary confinement and two years hard labor. We’re reminded of the world described by E. M. Forster, though Cowell quotes Howard’s End, not his posthumously published Maurice.

Despite the dangers, Robbie and Anton are compulsively drawn to each other, and away from prying eyes they pursue their conflicted love. Anton is tormented by regrets, gradually revealed to the sensitive Robbie. Aware that everyone experiences loneliness and longing, Robbie’s gift as an emerging portrait artist is his skill at conveying sitters’ inner selves. His sketches of the poor evoke the reality of their lives emotionally and tie into Anton’s compassionate politics. The cruelties of the era toward laborers and the impoverished and toward those engaged in forbidden love are background for the intense, fluctuating passions between the two men. They, and many of their friends, suffer from painful isolation and their often-doomed attempts to escape it. What will it take for Robbie and Anton to sustain their love? That question, and Stephanie Cowell’s richly textured depiction of a complex era, keep our interest to the end.