What I remember about Rupert Brooke

Alan  Hollinghurst is on the 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist for The Stranger's Child, having - deservedly - won some years ago for The Line of BeautyThe Stranger's Child involves a Rupert Brooke-like poet, essentially gay, who might have fathered a child in this complex plot, which takes in several generations. I'm now trying to read the entire longlist, in preparation for my annual Man Booker feature in the Wall Street Journal Europe, and do not have anything yet to say about the merits of this novel, except that I have seldom enjoyed any work so much as reading it.


         But I want to note a few things about Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) - while I can still remember the broad outlines, as I've already forgotten many of the details. In about 1969, the late Alix Strachey (Mrs James Strachey, 1892-1973), engaged me to edit the letters between her late husband, James, Lytton's youngest brother, a psychoanalyst who was the editor of the Standard Edition of the Works of Freud, and Rupert Brooke. I subsequently got permission from the Brooke Trust, Rupert's copyright holder, or at least from the man who ran it, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the younger brother of Maynard Keynes, who was a distinguished surgeon and bibliophile. When Sir Geoffrey gave me his blessing, I suspected that he did not know of the existence of one long letter, which was in the Berg Collection  of the New York Public Library. This contained a graphic account of Rupert losing his virginity, to another boy - not James (1887-1967), though James Strachey was, at that time, both gay and desperately in love with Rupert. On this occasion, at least, Rupert was taking James into his confidence, but not into his bed.

         I'm afraid I no longer remember what Mrs Strachey (who was homophile - a word we can surely use if we allow the expression "homophobe") told me about whether James and Rupert had had a sexual relationship. I incline to thinking they did, but can no longer remember enough about the circumstances to produce any evidence.

         Despite the offer of a £25,000 advance from Jonathan Cape - in the 70s, when this was real money - I gave up the project of editing the Rupert/James correspondence (I happily handed the job over to Keith Hale, Yale University Press, 1998), mostly because I was bored with Bloomsbury, too lazy to do the further research needed, and demoralized by the pirating of the crucial letter in the late 80s in a book about Brooke and his friends.

         I did do a little of the preliminary research. For example, I had a drink with the splendid actress, Cathleen Nesbitt (b.1888), in her Kensington flat, a year of two before her death in 1982. She told me that the Rupert she knew from 1912, was sexually confused and that, though they considered themselves engaged to be married, never had sexual relations. She knew he was, at the least, bisexual; but his concern at the time was very definitely heterosexual. He'd got Ka Cox pregnant (Katherine Laird Cox, 1887-1938; in 1918 she married Will Arnold-Forster). Ms Nesbitt told me Ka had had an "abortion," but I'm fairly sure she meant a spontaneous abortion, a miscarriage. Rupert was tied in knots about this. He'd finally succeeded in having sex with a woman, but a child was not a cheerful prospect. He fancied himself in love with Ka, but then also with Nesbitt; and in March, 2000, the British Library release a cache of letters that showed he was simultaneously having an 18-month affair with an art student, Phyllis Gardner, whom he finally dumped in 1913. In 1914 he made another woman pregnant in Tahiti - she was named Taatamata, and is reported to have had a child by Rupert.

         And then there was Noël Olivier (1893-1969). When Rupert (and James Strachey) met her in 1903, she was still a schoolgirl at Bedales. I believe Rupert was "engaged" to her as well when he died in April, 1915, of septicemia from a mosquito or fly bite. (Rupert never saw an action at all. His battle-hungry post-mortem reputation was puffed by his very gay patron Eddie Marsh, in cahoots with his own boss, Winston Churchill - who wrote the Times obituary that made Rupert famous.)

         The Hon. Noël Olivier was one of the four daughters of the first Lord Olivier (Noël's daughter told me that Laurence Olivier had to ask his cousins' permission to take the title), and became a medical doctor. At one point, Rupert thought himself in love with to or three of the Olivier girls. James and Noël comforted each other when Rupert died, and were a bit in love, though James then considered himself exclusively homosexual - encouraged in this by big brother Lytton, who thought that the more natural state - and certainly it was the more prevalent sexuality in that stage of the Bloomsbury Group.

         But then in 1920, James and Noël each married someone else. Noël married another doctor, William Arthur Richards; and James married the American-born Alix Sargant-Florence, and the pair went to Vienna for a couple of years, to be analysed by Freud himself (and became his translators). I was told, though, that James and Noël resumed their affair sometime after they married, and that it continued until James died in 1967.

         There of course needs to be a biography of James, who was also an outstanding musicologist, and contributed the original programme noted to Glyndebourne. Michael Holroyd and I were appointed (by Alix Strachey) the literary executors for James' non-psychoanalytic copyrights (along with Lytton's and her own), but I don't think either of us is going to get around to do doing this; and I am certain that at least some of those psychoanalysts who study James Strachey are ill-qualified to write his life. A pity.

         I'm not confident that any of this sheds new light on the diverting enigmas contained in Alan Hollinghurst's book, but it might provide some moderately entertaining footnotes to those writing dissertations on various subjects - and I thought I ought to write down the little I know and remember.

 

August 11, 2011 3:20 PM | | Comments (0)

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