THE GREAT LOVER Jill Dawson Sceptre, £12.99
DAWSON'S novel takes as its setting The Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, the real-life former lodgings of the poet Rupert Brooke that sit next door to another of his temporary homes, The Old Vicarage. The author plunges back to 1909 for the bulk of the novel, recreating the sedentary pace of Cambridge student life with its small talk on the lawn, bowls of strawberries and languorous discussion of life, politics, art and books on the punts that oozed their way up and down the River Cam.
Into the middle of all this arrives the young Rupert Brooke, renting two rooms at Orchard House and spending much of his time being visited by fervent young men as he sits in the idyllic gardens breakfasting off honey, milk and eggs. Caught up in the golden bubble he creates around himself in Grantchester is 17-year-old Nell Golightly, the "good, sensible girl" whose talents "chiefly involve bees" and who is employed as maid of all work at Orchard House.
It is difficult for the reader to like the Brooke who emerges from Dawson's pen, and therein lies an enjoyable clash between his outward appearance and his inner thoughts, as well as a good contrast between his edgy restlessness and the timeless, sleepy backdrop of Cambridgeshire. Fey, brash, insecure and fickle, Brooke works his way through a succession of admirers hoping to find the right person to lose his virginity to. As the novel progresses, one realises that the title of Dawson's novel is gently ironic. Brooke is not the great lover he would like to be, but a shameful, furtive sort of boy-man, indulging in his first homosexual encounter almost out of desperation and leaving his dirty sheets for poor infatuated Nell to sort out.
Brooke flits, unfulfilled, between throwing himself into worthy causes (such as Poor Law reform), penning his sentimental poetry and searching for more people to sleep with. He dives into the pond to swim naked with an assortment of visitors, including Virginia Woolf (this event really did occur). A host of Bloomsbury friends float in and out or hover on the periphery of the action. To contrast with the flighty Brooke, Dawson invents Nell, a brilliant creation – honest, stubborn and grounded.
Nell, unlike most housemaids, thrives upon the small amount of freedom and independence her work grants her after a childhood spent in a crowded family home full of needy, motherless children. She suspects herself to be "as sealed and capped as propolis" after spending years working with her father's bees, and yet she opens up to Brooke. Nell captures the poet's confused heart with her violet eyes and then spends the rest of the novel trying to extricate herself from his hypnotic and ultimately unreliable charms.
The poet excites her with his love of books, but Nell remains resolutely respectable and correct, despite her fellow housemaid Kitty falling prey to the Pankhursts and their militant suffragist movement. But when Nell finally cracks and allows Brooke to sleep with her, he travels to Tahiti soon afterwards. All her childhood insecurities come flooding back and she reverts to being "an ignorant bee-keeper's daughter, a maid-of-all-work, with five siblings to take care of, a girl who had never read Webster, nor carried a sketch in a bag and ridden a bicycle".
As Dawson is at pains to point out, her Brooke is entirely fictional although closely researched via archives containing the poet's correspondence. None the less, it is tempting to accept the author's version of the poet as real.
This is a seductive book, evocative and well paced, the tale split between Brooke and Nell, the two narrative voices strong, distinctive and consistent. The fragrance of honey, apples and flowers suffuse the novel and the author draws the yellow summer of Edwardian student days at Grantchester with a wistful pen. Written about a poet by a poet, The Great Lover in some ways seems to reveal more of what we'd like to think of as the 'real' Brooke than various biographers have done to date.
Jill Dawson will appear at the Gliterary Lunch, with Jasvinder Sanghera, at ran Mr, Glasgow, on Thursday. www.gliterarylunches.com