The Great Lover
The island of Tahiti holds a fascination for troubled souls. Gauguin lived there in the 1890s. So too, in the early months of 1914, did poet Rupert Brooke, the subject of this vivid novel. He died in the east Mediterranean the following year of septicaemia, at the age of twenty-seven. Author Jill Dawson has delved into the darkness of his life, at odds with the romantic, lyrical poet of popular imagination.
The book begins in 1982 with a letter from Arlice Rapoto, Brooke’s daughter in Tahiti. The recipient is ninety-year-old Nell Golightly, formerly maid at the Orchard Tea Gardens, Grantchester, where Brooke stayed before WW1. Arlice wants to know about the famous father she never met: how he smelled and sounded, what it felt like to ‘wrap arms around him’. The main part of the novel takes us back to 1909, the story of Brooke and Nell—an intelligent, practical girl who keeps bees—up to 1914, told in alternating first-person narrative.
The fictional Nell, inspired by a postcard the author bought when visiting the Orchard House, is a brilliant creation. She is attracted to Brooke, struck by his beauty. He is a seamless fusion of his poetry, letters, travel writings, essays, photographs, and the author’s imagination. He is confused about his sexuality, worried about his sanity and his ‘burdensome virginity’, which he eventually loses to a school friend. He has lots of visitors: Lytton Strachey, Virginia Stephen (Woolf), and other literati. The constraints of social position ensure his relationship with Nell develops at a distance: much observation, musing—she becomes in his imagination ‘a sumptuous nymph … unearthly creature— bolstered by snatched conversations and a naked bathe in Byron’s Pool.’
A touching, engrossing story of a love affair and of a damaged man unable to allow others to reach him.