Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger’s Child

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The Stranger’s Child Summary

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The Stranger’s Child (2011), a novel by English poet and novelist Alan Hollinghurst, follows amateur poet Cecil Valance, whose life and tragic death in combat during World War I are modeled after the real-life figure Rupert Brooke. Broken up into five sections, the book traces the evolution of Cecil’s career and persona from its early roots in pre-war England, where he writes a poem that elevates him to fame. The novel’s title is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., which reflects on the tendency for foreign surroundings to become familiar over time.

The novel’s first section, “Two Acres,” takes place on the family estate of Cecil’s friend George Sawle. In 1913, Cecil visits the estate while he and George are on break from Cambridge University. George’s family comes to admire Cecil and his poetic voice during the visit, though so far, he has only been published in a minor journal, Granta. George’s sister, Daphne, develops a crush on Cecil; unbeknownst to all of George’s family, George and Cecil are lovers. However, on Cecil’s last night at the estate, he kisses Daphne while intoxicated. The next morning, Daphne finds, within a book she had asked Cecil to autograph, a five-page poem “Two Acres.” Daphne concludes that the poem is a coded profession of love for her, something George laughs at.

The second section, “Revel,” takes place in 1926. George and Cecil’s families convene at Cecil’s family home, Corley Court, to talk about Cecil’s biography. It is revealed that Cecil died in the war and that Daphne then married Dudley, Cecil’s brother. Their marriage is now struggling. The family friend charged with authoring the biography, Sebby, suggests that he knows George and Cecil were lovers but is ignored by both George and his mother, Freda, who discovered love letters between the two. Daphne remains engrossed in the illusory memory of Cecil’s love for her. Daphne’s interior designer, Eva Riley, makes a move on her, but Daphne instead goes after another gay man, Revel Ralph.

The third section, “Steady, Boys, Steady!” takes place in 1967. Daphne, now known as Mrs. Jacobs, is on her third marriage. A young banker Paul Bryant meets her while on a walk with his boss, Mr. Keeping. Paul is infatuated with a customer, the schoolteacher at the Valance’s estate, Peter Rowe, whom he realizes is also gay. Daphne’s oldest daughter, Corinna Keeping, also teaches there and is his close friend. Paul and Peter are invited to Daphne’s seventieth birthday party. There, they meet George and discuss Cecil. George hints at the fact that Cecil was gay and that more will be known after the passage of the Sexual Offences Act. Peter and Paul leave the party to hook up, then make plans to visit Cecil’s tomb together. After they meet again, Paul considers writing a book on Cecil, even though Dudley is now the more well known of the brothers.

The fourth section, “Something of a Poet,” takes place in 1980. Paul has broken up with Peter and is at work on Cecil’s biography, using it as a tool for exploring his own sexuality. At the same time, the writer Nigel Dupont is trying to write the same biography. Paul contacts Daphne, George, and Dudley, hoping that they will give him a leg up in his research. However, both families are now in old age and have little interest in commenting on their lives. George tries, but his interview makes little sense: he suggests that Cecil was bisexual and the biological father of Corinna. Dudley refuses outright to interview. Daphne accepts an interview but is resistant to commenting directly on Cecil’s life.

The novel’s concluding section, “The Old Companions,” begins at Peter Rowe’s funeral. An antiques dealer, Rob Salter, meets Peter’s partner, the biographer Paul Bryant. Daphne’s granddaughter, Jennifer, is also in attendance. Jennifer states her dislike for Paul, alleging that his biography of Cecil contained numerous made-up claims. Among these were the claims that Dudley and Revel Ralph were both gay, that Corinna was Cecil’s biological daughter, and that Revel Ralph was the father of artist Mark Gibbons. Rob receives some letters from Harry Hewitt’s estate. Hewitt was the neighbor of the Sawles, and some of the letters are addressed by Cecil to Hewitt, hinting at their sexual relationship. The plot ends with no clear resolution as to the lives, identities, and affinities of its central characters. Rob goes to the Hewitt estate to find more letters, but instead finds a pile of ash where they have just been burned.