Walter Scott Prize shortlist: The Stranger’s Child

Richard Lee, Eric Byrd, Sally Zigmond


Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child: The anti-historic novel

Alan Hollinghurst’s earlier books have been novels of contemporary manners, particularly as manners pertain to the British class system, education/the arts, and homosexuality. He won the Somerset Maugham Award for the Swimming Pool Library (1989), The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Folding Star (1994), and the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty (2004). The Stranger’s Child was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and its omission from the shortlist caused some controversy.

This kind of historical novel, taking place over several generations, where characters are linked almost arbitrarily by shared traits or interests, or by family ties, and where the ‘point’ of the story, almost, is the misunderstandings, the failure of memory, is a hugely popular form today. A dash of nostalgia, a whiff of faded glamour, a knowingness, possibly irony and a kind of pervading sadness: they read, in a way, like songs of Innocence and Experience. For my generation the non-pareil novel of this kind is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, so magically televised in 1981: ‘the operation of grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters’ (Hollinghurst is interesting on Brideshead in the second of the videos below – 41 mins in). Recent literary outings in this field are Ian McEwan’s Atonement, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart or – in television – Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past. In more popular vein similar themes are treated by authors like Rosamunde Pilcher (The Shell Seekers), Mary Wesley (The Camomile Lawn) or Victoria Hislop (The Island).

These books are all, in a sense, anti-historic because they suggest that memory and records (photographic or written) are poor guides to the realities and intentions of the past. Real history is secret history, unknowable history. We live through confusion, and our later attempts to understand and make order out of memory necessarily deceive and distort that which we are trying to preserve. The title, The Stranger’s Child, is from Tennyson; the next verse ends: ‘And year by year our memory fades, from all the circle of the hills’.

This time we have a staff writer, novelist Sally Zigmond, and guest writer Eric Byrd  to look at The Stranger’s Child as ‘literary historical fiction’.

This is the fourth in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction?, and the second here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: On Canaan’s Side, and the third here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Pure.

Eric Byrd looks at The Stranger’s Child in the light of Henry James famous scruples about ‘historic’ novels

Henry James disdained what he called the “historic” novel. Writing to thank Sarah Orne Jewett for a copy of her Revolutionary War romance, The Tory Lover, James held forth on the “fatal cheapness” to which the form, however delicately executed, was in his eyes “condemned.” James scoffed at the notion that one could decant “the old consciousness” – “the soul, the sense, the horizon, the action of individuals” from mere “pictures, & documents, relics & prints.” James closed the letter with a plea to Jewett, whose album of contemporary Maine, Country of the Pointed Firs, he had admired: “come back to the palpable present intimate that throbs responsive…” Against the backdrop of the last three centuries of European prose fiction James’ fastidiousness will appear rare, perhaps even singular. Most writers who have set fictions in times before their own have not felt “the old consciousness” to be ungraspable, when they have sought to grasp it at all. Scott, Pushkin, and Hawthorne were not hindered by such scruples before James, nor were Woolf, Faulkner, and Yourcenar after him. Balzac, Flaubert, and Tolstoy varied their masterpieces of “realism” with historical, even antiquarian excursions. But even if we say that James’ scruples (and, by way of echo, those of James Wood) apply only to the pure novelist of manners, the novelist of moral consciousness as revealed by observable manners – the romancers of the early nineteenth century and the prose poets and frank fantasists of the twentieth being exempt – those scruples are exactly where we should start when we consider The Stranger’s Child, a “historic” novel written by a novelist of contemporary manners – a novelist who has claimed Henry James as one of his “grand and shadowy” “masters.”

Hollinghurst has written a historical novel about the difficulty or futility of writing about the past. The later writers who get World War One poet Cecil Valance wrong are biographers not novelists – but I think the parallel can be made. Hollinghurst has written a historical novel around James’ criticisms. For instance, the five sections of the narrative all take place in the prelude to, or aftermath of, Great Events: just before World War One; some years after World War One, and just before the great strikes of 1926; two decades after World War Two, and just before Britain’s decriminalization of homosexuality, which will so affect the life of biographer Paul Bryant and the reception of his book on Cecil; and so on. In The Stranger’s Child, capital-H History, which James thought presumptuous to represent fictionally – in The Tory Lover Jewett has characters go to sea with Captain John Paul Jones and participate in his famous clashes with the Royal Navy, plot mechanics whose crudity, James later wrote William Dean Howells, is “enough to make the angels weep” – happens off stage. The Chorus of Henry V asks, “Can this cockpit hold/ the vasty fields of France? O may we cram’/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?” Hollinghurst answers with a pointed “no.” It is pertinent that he has translated Racine.

In a sense, Hollinghurst goes further than James. James warned Jewett that “pictures, & documents, relics & prints” could take the novelist only so far; Hollinghurst seems to say that they take later writers nowhere at all – useless for establishing a simple chronology, let alone reconstructing a consciousness. In The Stranger’s Child some of Cecil’s key letters are destroyed before they can even become part of the consultable record. His intimates decorously lie, and when one does speak out to a biographer, the very senility that loosens his lips garbles his meaning. A dinner guest colonel, recounting, ten years later, the feat for which Cecil won the Military Cross, induces in his listeners “the disappointing sense that he no longer clearly distinguished it from a dozen such episodes.” The historical record as a repetition of tropes; in a long, long war, fought on several fronts by mobilized millions, to be singled out, “mentioned in dispatches,” is to become a formulaic figure; that conventional actor, The Hero. The sculptor of the marble effigy of Cecil – “[i]t seemed to place Cecil in some floating cortege of knights and nobles reaching back through the centuries to the Crusades. George saw them for a moment like gleaming boats in a thousand chapels and churches the length of the land” – commissioned for Valance’s private chapel “must have worked from photographs, chosen by [Cecil’s mother], which only told their own truth.” The marble Cecil has fingers “small and neat, somewhat stylized and square” – not, his former lover thinks, the hands of the real Cecil, “mountaineer, oarsman and seducer.” And the “celebrated membrum virile, unguessed forever beneath the marble tunic, but once so insistently alert…”

Hollinghurst has written a historical novel – but an oblique, subtly complicated one; a novel built of ironies, drawing strength from ambivalence. After rereading The Stranger’s Child, the Jamesian scruples that had seemed prohibitive begin to seem an encouragement, a spur, a turning point, an invitation to a different style — a sense that tallied with a remark of Yourcenar’s I recently read, in her afterward to Memoirs of Hadrian. Yourcenar says that in an era “when introspection tends to dominate literary forms, the historical novel…must take the plunge into time recaptured, and must fully establish itself within some inner world.” James’ scruples strike us as singular because he was writing at a transitional time, when the historical novel was still a thing of stirring harangues and narrated battles, when it had yet to assume the introspection, the interiority, that would allow future writers to issue works like Orlando and Memoirs of Hadrian without embarrassment. The historical novel may not, as James warned, be able to capture “the old consciousness”; but as long as it captures some consciousness, if only that of a writer openly making personal collages from fragments of the record, then it remains a viable form. The “literary historical novel” has less oratory and fewer events, and the protagonist is Time itself.

Read Eric’s other reviews here on Goodreads.


Sally Zigmond finds the Stranger’s Child a study in Pastness

Leaving to one side James Woods’s other comments about historical fiction, I decided to pursue his assertion that he’d rather concentrate on greatness in fiction rather than its pastness.

Pastness: It’s a slippery word and it is that very slipperiness that fascinates me about Alan Hollinghurst’s ambitious and witty novel that spans twentieth century England. Some reviewers seem to miss the point including James Woods himself who believes Hollinghurst “struggles to escape an old-fashioned period feel.”

Leo Robson in The New Statesman thinks it is little more than: “a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst.” And Christopher Tayler, in an extensive review in The London Review of Books concludes by saying “Hollinghurst makes the book into an elegant gesture: a critic-pleasing novel depicting critics and biographers as being essentially parasitic and, even when right, point-missingly or irrelevantly so.”

Keith Miller in The Daily Telegraph gets closer. To him, the novel is: “sleek, seductive and sly.” Richard Canning, writing in The Independent, compares it with Middlemarch for its “precision, pathos and perfect phrasing” and concludes that “one leaves the novel with a sense of the truly extraordinary.”

It is a received wisdom that history is written by the victors but what Hollinghurst shows us is that it’s nowhere near as clear as that. What we know of the past depends on not so much what is remembered and who does the remembering but what is forgotten, sidelined or destroyed, not necessarily deliberately but more often by chance how what happens as we grow older alters our perceptions. Who we are, what we read and how we interpret what we observe alter our view of the past.

In spite of what appears on the surface as an arbitrary array of characters and events, The Stranger’s Child is precisely placed slightly at a tangent of major moments of twentieth century British history. The first of its four sections hovers on the abyss of the First World War; the second takes us to 1926 as the General Strike divides the nation, to the passing of the Sexual Offences act 1967, decriminalizing homosexuality.  We then enter the 1980s when  the Aids epidemic raged, bringing us up to date with a memorial service, the decay of a house ripe for redevelopment, a bonfire: ashes to ashes, dust to dust..

It’s the opening section that has caused reviewers to splutter with accusations of parody and antiquarianism with its echoes of E M Forster, and Brooke’s is there honey still for tea? But isn’t that the point of what this novel is telling us? Is this really 1913 or how literature and nostalgic memory has fashioned it?

So…it is 1913. The curtain rises on a twilit English garden and pretty, sixteen-year-old, Daphne Sawle idling in a hammock, reading poetry. She is awaiting the arrival of her brother, George, who is bringing a friend down from Oxford to spend the weekend at Two Acres, the Sawle family home. And so we are introduced to Cecil Valance. Heir to a baronetcy, he is, as one might expect, clever, witty and arrogantly relaxed in his own superiority.  He is also a poet and we know (in that dramatic ironic sense beloved of all writers who write of the past) he is doomed to end his life in the killing fields of Flanders. As is Hubert, Daphne’s elder brother, dull and solid, un-mourned and later forgotten.

Cecil’s visit is brief and would have been of no consequence had he not, before leaving, written a poem in Daphne’s juvenile autograph book.  Therefore, Two Acres must be dedicated to Daphne, mustn’t it? Or is it, as we modern readers know, about George? Or is it not as simple as that?

Hollinghurst leaves it there and moves forward and away from Cecil Valance. It is 1926 and Daphne, now married to Dudley, Cecil’s surviving brother and mistress of Corley Court. Cecil is still a spectral presence in his mother’s grief and an ornate sarcophagus in the chapel.  Only the carved hands are too small. Thus the distortion of reality begins. Whilst Dudley is engrossed in modernizing the house (and hiding those once-vaunted jelly-mould ceilings), Daphne is set on course for an affair with Ralph Revel, a young artist. Another visitor that weekend is Sebastian Stokes who will become Cecil’s first biographer. The poem Two Acres has acquired fame as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War following Winston Churchill’s public espousal.

The third section is set in the 1960s. Corley Court is now longer a grand country seat but a boys’ boarding school.  Paul Bryant, ex-grammar-school boy, is a young bank clerk in the nearby town. His manager, it transpires is married to Corinna, Daphne’s daughter. Paul meets Daphne, now Mrs Jacobs, the widow of three husbands and somewhat faded. But the focus has shifted to Paul’s homosexual awakening and affair with Peter Rowe, a master at Corley Court. Their affair begins as they contemplate Cecil’s tomb in the chapel (already bearing the scars of schoolboy graffiti.)  Peter and Paul discuss Cecil Valance briefly but by now he is considered as little more than third-rate and it is clear that Paul’s interest in him is coloured by his own heightened sexuality and not a little upper-class envy.

When we reach the 1980s, Paul is a minor player on the fringes of literary life. A chance encounter with Daphne rekindles his urge to write a biography of Cecil Valance. He plans to ‘out’ Cecil as a homosexual. He hopes to prise vital information from Daphne, who now lives in a dingy, untidy bungalow in the middle of nowhere and from George, now an academic, long married to unlikeable blue-stocking and based in the Midlands. Paul is thwarted at every turn, the past constantly slipping from his reach whilst Daphne wonders whether what she remembers is actually a fiction, one that has taken the place of reality. Not that she is eager to enlighten Paul who ends up mired in dim memories, rambling non-sequiturs and deliberate obfuscation, not to mention the fact that Daphne harbours resentment that Paul may or may not have written an unfavorable review of her memoirs.  Eager to discover ‘dirt’ for what would otherwise be a dull biography, he scrapes together gossip querying the paternity of Daphne’s children. And so he fumbles through one of the funniest sections of the book while Cecil Valance becomes more and more tangential.

The final section brings us bang up to date—or at least it is as of now. It bears a quotation by Mick Imlah, the poet who died cruelly young in 2009—No one remembers you at all. At a memorial service to Peter Rowe, latterly a TV presenter, we meet Rob, a dealer in second-hand books and who looks around the guests most of whom he only knows vaguely such as Paul Bryant, who has written a few biographies, including the one “that caused all the fuss about the Bishop of Durham.” He was a student when Paul’s biography of Valance appeared but was more interested in its revelations than the people involved. The book “caused a bit of a stink” not about Valance but because it cast Daphne “in rather an unenviable light.” In this section we see Paul in a new light: an unpleasant man, something of a fantasist who has lied about his own past.

Later that day, Rob is given a journal, hand-written by a man called Harry Hewitt that has been saved from a house-clearance. In it are transcribed letters between him and Hubert Sawle, revealing homosexual love offered and spurned. Rob views it as curiosity but his curiosity mildly aroused, he turns up at Hewitt’s house from where it was recovered, to find a stash of photographs and papers, considered of no value, being tossed onto a bonfire. And so the novel draws to a close with smoke and destruction and two unremarkable characters we readers barely remember from the very first section of the novel. We are left with the taste of smoke in our throats contemplating the arbitrary nature of what is lost and what remains.

The Stranger’s Child is a rich and rewarding novel, shot through with humour and wit. I can only agree with Richard Canning in The Independent when he writes: “It is a rare thing to read a novel buoyed up by the certainty that it will stand among the year’s best, but rarer still to become confident of its value in decades to come.”

I agree with him but whether he is right only time and history will tell.

Read more from Sally Zigmond at The Elephant in the Writing Room.

Alan Holinghurst talks about The Stranger’s Child

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