Something is missing from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. He’s left out the explicit sex scenes that were a signature feature of his four previous novels, and the absence amounts to something of a riddle. Why does Hollinghurst avoid the fleshy details? Why the sudden prudery?
Hollinghurst’s 1988 debut, The Swimming-Pool Library, is embarrassing to read on the subway. If the nosy person next to you glances over, there’s a good chance he’ll see the words “cock and balls.” A substantial portion of the novel is given over to describing, in pornographic minutiae, the young Will Beckwith’s exploits in pre-AIDS London. He picks up men on the tube, at the gym, in public restrooms—everywhere. And then he tells us everything. It would be difficult to explain why The Swimming-Pool Library is literature, not just well-written smut, if it weren’t for a subplot in which Will befriends the elderly Lord Nantwich. The aristocrat clues us into gay life before the relatively liberated 1980s, turning the novel into a subtle secret history of 20th-century gay manners and mores.
Hollinghurst’s follow-up novels, The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), and the Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004), continue the project of documenting gay society, mostly through self-involved, randy Oxbridge types. And these works are comparably (if not quite so extremely) heavy with erections. In The Line of Beauty, we learn that the protagonist’s lover “wasn’t big but he was very pretty, and his hard-ons, at least until the coke piled on too deep, were boyishly steep and rigid.”
By comparison, The Stranger’s Child seems appropriate for a Victorian teen. A work of historical fiction—not exactly a departure for Hollinghurst, who dabbled in the genre through the Lord Nantwich character—it begins in the summer of 1913, when George Sawle invites his Cambridge pal Cecil Valence home for a weekend visit. Ostensibly close friends, they’re also lovers. But Hollinghurst gives us lacunae instead of physical lovemaking, relying conspicuously on innuendo (“a bit of Oxford style”) and Latin (membrum virile). Cecil, whose sexuality is flexible, also takes an interest in George’s young sister Daphne, kissing her one night in the garden. On the day of Cecil’s departure, the Sawle family discovers that he’s written a long poem in Daphne’s autograph book called “Two Acres” (the name of their property). Daphne thinks Cecil wrote it for her. George thinks it was intended for him.
After Cecil dies in the war, “Two Acres” becomes famous—every British citizen seems able to recite a line or two—prompting curiosity about the events that led to its composition. The first “reconstruction” occurs in the mid 1920s, on the eve of the General Strike, to be precise. (Hollinghurst likes momentous backdrops, a signal of his social-documentarian ambitions.) An admirer of Cecil’s, Sebby Stokes, starts gathering thread for a collected edition of his poems. He takes a gentlemanly approach, with no interest in exposing the Cecil whom George remembers: “the nudist, the satyr, the fornicator.” Of course no one actually expects him to pry. We’re on the Nantwich side of the Nantwich-Beckwith liberation divide, and it’s understood that Cecil’s proclivities are not suitable for print.