This week was the centenary of the death of Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), as well as of the failed Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. The illustrious war poet was a bogus posthumous hero, and in life a neurotic, guilt-ridden bisexual, and social climber; but he charmed everyone with his magnetic personality and electric presence. King’s College Cambridge marked the occasion by acquiring the last remaining private stash of the war poet’s papers with £430,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Nothing in them is likely to dispel what Lorna Beckett, chair of the Rupert Brooke Society calls “the hostile backlash brought about by the ‘young Apollo’ myth created straight after his death.”
With a fine intellect and striking, floppy fair-haired physical beauty, Brooke attracted both men and women. During his brief life he was lionised by people from Virginia Woolf (with whom he went skinny-dipping and demonstrated his party trick of diving into the icy water and emerging with an erection) to Prime Minister Asquith (during whose tenure of Number 10 the pretty poet was a frequent visitor). Learning of his death, Winston Churchill wrote to his own brother, “We shall not see his like again.” He was himself smitten by the golden-boy poet. We know because it was Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who penned the anonymous (initialled “WSC”) Times obituary, published during the Gallipoli landings: “Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”
The slight sob detectable in Churchill’s eulogy could well be a touch of guilt; it was he who, in September 1914, offered Brooke a commission as sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division. Though he participated in the evacuation of Antwerp, Brooke never actually saw action. The 27-year-old transformed into a war hero had got sunstroke and dysentery in Egypt en route to Gallipoli. Just off the Greek Island of Lemnos, an insect bit him on the lip resulting in blood poisoning, and he died two days before the landings. (The fiasco resulted in Churchill’s resignation from the Government a few months later, in November 1915.) Even more conscious myth-making was accomplished by Churchill’s Private Secretary, Edward Marsh, whose memoir of Brooke sold 100,000 copies in 1918, despite having had all the naughty bits removed as demanded by Brooke’s mother. Eddie Marsh knew Brooke from the Cambridge Apostles, the most celebrated of “secret” societies. Though there’s no doubt he was in love with Rupert, Marsh was impotent as a result of a childhood illness.
Although generations of schoolchildren have been made to memorise Brooke’s war poetry (“If I should die, think only this of me;/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England”), the fable of his war heroism was part of a propaganda campaign waged by Churchill and Marsh’s circle to combat the politically motivated conscientious objectors to the war of Brooke’s former chums in the Bloomsbury Group. In his “War Sonnets” Brooke had railed against them (“half-men,… their dirty songs and dreary”).
One of these was James Strachey (1887-1967), the youngest of the thirteen Strachey siblings, who had been at Hillbrow prep school with Rupert, before he went to St Paul’s and Rupert to Rugby. James, the editor and translator of much of the Standard Edition of Freud, and who was analysed by Freud himself, had been gay in his youth. A fellow Apostle, James was famously in love with Brooke (their 1905-1914 correspondence has been published, ed. Keith Hale, Yale, 1998), had an affair with Maynard Keynes, had been pursued by the Everest mountaineer George Mallory, but married Alix Sargant-Florence in 1920. Both James and Rupert were infatuated with Noel Olivier. Rupert first encountered her in 1908 at a dinner for the Cambridge Fabian Society. Then a Bedales schoolgirl of fifteen, she was the youngest of the four daughters of the Fabian Sir Sydney Olivier, Governor of Jamaica, Secretary of State for India, and later 1st Baron Olivier, a Labour peer and uncle of Laurence Olivier (who had to ask the family for permission to use the title). James and Noel, thrown together by grief after Rupert’s death, drifted apart as they pursued their careers. Noel qualified as a doctor, and in 1919 married a fellow doctor, Arthur Richards. Meeting again in mid-life, James and Noel began an affair in 1932, writing hundreds of letters to each other, and going to concerts and the theatre in London, until James’s death on April 25, 1967.
In 1972 Alix Strachey asked me to edit the correspondence between Brooke and her late husband, and sometime later permission was – remarkably – also given me by the trustee of the Brooke estate, Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Maynard’s brother). Despite the offer of a generous advance from Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, I declined: I had come to think that it should have been published as a three-way correspondence with Noel. (Noel and Rupert’s correspondence has been published, beautifully edited by Noel’s granddaughter, Pippa Harris; but Noel/James remains unpublished.) And my attention had drifted from Bloomsbury to other subjects.
Keith Hale, who took over the task, writes that “to maintain the patriotic legend during and after the war, Brooke’s biography had to be altered beyond recognition.” He points out that when he edited Brooke’s letters, Geoffrey Keynes bowdlerised them, and omitted the letters to James, saying they would only be published “over my dead body.” Hale also cites instances of Sir Geoffrey (who had known Brooke at Rugby) trying to prevent people saying that Brooke was homosexual or, for that matter, writing anything about him at all.
I doubt whether Keynes would have authorised my editing the letters, had he known of the one Rupert wrote to James on 10 July 1912 from The Old Vicarage, Granchester (later the address of Jeffrey Archer), graphically detailing how in autumn 1909 he had calculatedly set about losing his virginity by seducing a boy called Denham Russell-Smith (“We kissed very little, as far as I can remember, face to face. And I only rarely handled his penis….”). Rupert had had a nervous breakdown in 1912, and the conclusion of the letter shows that learning of Denham’s death, twenty-four hours earlier, had prompted writing it.
Before jettisoning the project I had a drink with the magnificent actress, Cathleen Nesbitt (b.1888), in her Kensington flat, a year or 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. He was at the least, as she knew, bisexual; but his problems at the time were seriously heterosexual. He’d got Ka Cox pregnant (Katherine Laird Cox, 1887-1938; in 1918 she married Will Arnold-Forster). Nesbitt told me Ka had had an “abortion,” by which I’m fairly sure she meant a spontaneous abortion, a miscarriage. Rupert agonised about this. He’d finally had sex with a woman, but a child was not a cheerful prospect. He fancied himself in love with Ka, but then also with Nesbitt. He had paranoid fantasies that Lytton Strachey was scheming to get Ka to leave him for someone else. And in March 2000, the British Library released 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 claimed to have had a daughter by Brooke in 1915.
In his The Neo-Pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle Paul Delany wrote: “When Rupert Brooke was eighteen, James Strachey asked him if he approved of war. ‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘It kills off the unnecessary’.” Brooke could never have guessed that history would make his youthful, flippant repartee so ironic.