The Great Lover is not only engaging and seductive, it is also clever, witty and artfully designed. Dawson’s decision to fictionalize the most turbulent of Brooke’s twenty-seven years – years which included not only the death of his father, a spell as a schoolmaster, the loss of his homo- and heterosexual virginities and also, briefly, his mind – is bold; so, too is her decision to adopt Brooke’s voice. In fact, the first-person narrative flows smoothly and at times ingeniously into and out of Brooke’s own words and his droll, self-dramatizing epistles. That he is rendered such a real presence in part through an act of ventriloquism is an irony one senses Dawson relishes…Dawson is a fine impressionistic writer – outstanding is a kiss which takes place among Nell’s beehives, an erotic, subversive wedding tableau – and this is a novel of scents and savours, of both love and ‘Lust’s ‘remembered smells.’…If such close attention, such coveting of the startling and suggestive detail, is notice of a great lover, then it is proof of a skilled novelist too.
Times Literary Supplement
If poet Rupert Brooke hadn’t lived, some smart writer would have invented him. Garrulous, libidinous, bisexual, hyper-intelligent, tragic and legendarily handsome, Brooke led a life, frenetic and cut short too early by septicaemia, that’s the stuff of the archetypal fictional protagonist. Certainly, as Nigel Jones’ Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth (Metro, 1999) proved, a dry biographical recounting of its subject’s existence is never going to capture the true Brooke.
Like many cultural icons, especially those who die young (Valentino, Dean, Monroe, Cobain), there’s something illusory and speculative about Brooke. For a start, there’s his public persona as a poet who expressed war’s idealism which seems somewhat at variance with his personal life as a pragmatist and strident Fabian. There are also those what-ifs that surround the mythologizing of Brooke, like the poems and books which might have been written had he not been cut down in his prime. It’s the accumulation of these things, the meat of so many contradictions and thwarted possibilities if you will, that’s best suited to a novelist’s imaginary examination.
So it proves for Jill Dawson in her remarkable new book, The Great Lover. Taking a famous Brooke poem as her title, Dawson begins with the poet’s Tahitian daughter, Arlice as she searches to understand the father she never knew: his cultural significance; his life in a prim boarding house in Grantchester, near Cambridge. From there, the novel fictionalises the last years of Brooke’s life through imagined correspondence between him and his maid, Nell Golightly.
There’s much which is traditional Dawson here. The epistolary form, for instance, is a customary authorial technique (used most capably in her terrific, Orange Prize short-listed novel, Fred & Edie). The framework of fictional letters interspersed with confessional narratives produces a tight, classic novel structure which is also typical Dawson. Moreover, the writing is Dawson at her best: poetic and light in tone but deep in import. Significantly, the diction is also historically accurate and intriguing without ever being so archaic or overloaded it burdens the reader.
It’s the characters, though, particularly the privileged Brooke and his plebeian confidante Nell, who are the story’s triumph. As Dawson’s study of post-Revolution France, Wild Boy showed, she’s skilled in crafting characters geographical and emotionally displaced by their troubled times. In The Great Lover, capricious, parentless Nell, forced into domestic duty to feed her siblings, is a wonderfully imagined mirror for Brooke’s own personal and public dislocation. The closer this couple get, the deeper they explore and the more they epitomise the social and political turmoil of pre-First World War England. It’s in their discussions of female suffrage, Fabianism, fighting and artistic freedom, and their intimate connection to such notoriously dysfunctional souls as Augustus John, H. G Wells, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf that we see not just the real Nell and Rupert, but also the chaos of the English body politic at the time.
Perhaps the finest compliment that can be paid to The Great Lover, however, is that for all the above reasons it offers a fresh depiction of Brooke. Was War Poet Rupert Brooke a Closet Heterosexual? titillated The Independent newspaper upon the release of Dawson’s novel in the UK. This bi-line tapped into a standard image of Brooke that abounds in many quarters, which depicts the poet as a clandestine gay man hermetically sealed in the stiff-upper lipped belle époque of the Edwardian world. Dawson’s The Great Lover, though, discounts this kind of typecasting in favour of a representation of Brooke which is rounded, human and humane. Neither equivocally gay nor straight, fop nor intellectual freak, ruthless conniver nor eternally honest, Dawson’s Brooke is a person instead of a caricature.
Beyond this, The Great Lover is proof that presently its’ author is one of the finest practitioners of the literary historical novel (along with Alice McDermott, Arturo Perez-Reverte and Amin Maalouf); and that this is her best novel yet.
Siobhan Harvey, New Zealand Dominion Post
As poster boy for floppy-fringed doomed youth, the war poet Rupert Brooke demands the backdrop of a Grantchester vicarage to sustain the hazy English myth that envelops him. His South Seas period simply fails to fit the picture. The idea of the westerner in Tahiti has been colonised by Gauguin in the popular imagination, while Brooke remains forever England.
Yet Brooke did spend time in the South Seas, wrote his inspired poems “Tiare Tahiti” and “The Great Lover” there, and is thought to have fathered a daughter by a Tahitian woman. This theory has, surprisingly, remained a footnote in history, little explored, and when the novelist Jill Dawson travelled to Tahiti to find more, she encountered silence. As a starting point for a novel, however, the rumour is irresistible, and Dawson’s The Great Lover begins with a fictional letter from Brooke’s putative daughter. This is answered by an invention of Dawson’s: the improbably named Nell Golightly, formerly a maid in Grantchester, and now an old woman left with her memories of the poet. Dawson’s narrative then travels back to 1909 and is divided between the voice of the 16-year-old Nell and the young Brooke.
Brooke’s first-person account incorporates real letters, and its basic structure is factual, while some of Nell’s observations have their source in the words of Brooke’s real-life contemporaries. Dawson’s novel Fred and Edie, based on a real murder trial, also blended fact and fiction, and has been her most lauded work so far in a career that spans poetry and six novels.
Brooke is both gift and risk as a fictional subject. The poet described by WB Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England” experienced a vivid though troubled romantic life, and moved in a social circle that included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, Augustus John and Lytton Strachey. The Great Lover focuses at first on the Grantchester period, before Brooke experienced a nervous breakdown and set off on his travels. While a student at Cambridge and lodging nearby, Brooke meets Nell, a beekeeper’s daughter who has recently come to work as a maid in the house. Dawson takes a motif from Brooke’s most famous poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, and runs away with it. Bees swarm, hives erupt, honey drips through the entire narrative. And is there honey still for tea? Reader, more than you could ever wish for.
But what is beautifully created is a very strong sense of time and place: a prewar Cambridgeshire idyll of half-cocked paganism, Fabianism and posturing youth exploring sex, naked swimming and class politics while those below stairs clear up the mess. Although he lost his virginity to a former Rugby schoolmate, between 1908 and 1912 Brooke was romantically involved with three women – Bedales schoolgirl Noel Olivier, Fabian secretary Ka Cox and actress Cathleen Nesbitt – and much of the novel concerns his emotions towards these and other companions, both male and female. Dawson inhabits his squeamish ambivalence superbly, his longings sabotaged by distaste when granted the objects of his desire. What convinces less is his supposed passion for the fictional maid. The determined creature of her own narratives is replaced – perhaps intentionally, given Brooke’s contradictory impulses – by a lock-tossing Mills & Boon cipher in the poet’s sections, their yawning class divide skimmed over and not historically convincing despite his diatribes on the subject of the Working Man. Nell’s infuriated passion for Brooke is far more affecting.
In 1914, Brooke sails for Tahiti and meets the woman he calls Taatamata, who becomes his lover. After the bees of Grantchester, Tahiti could be an orgy of local Technicolor and bare-breasted exotica, but here Dawson wears her research more lightly, and the novel begins to soar. The Tahiti section is dreamier and more poetic, yet conversely possesses more momentum than the previous layering of observations that build a sense of place at the expense of pace.
This is a finely researched character study shaped by a partially fictional framework rather than a real plot. Yet by the final quarter, Dawson knows what she is doing with a tricky subject, and the novel comes into its own with explosive force. It is a daring experiment, and one whose mood, setting and eccentricities linger in the mind.
Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian
Dead, ambiguously sexed boy-poets tend to attract latter-day female literary admirers. Seven years ago, Fiona MacCarthy plumbed George Gordon Byron’s omnivorous desires in Byron: Life and Legend and now, with The Great Lover, Jill Dawson has turned her attention to the varsity rhymester Rupert Brooke, whom W B Yeats once described as “the most handsome man in England”.
MacCarthy wrote a biography; Dawson takes the novel as her form, and with it a licence for greater latitude with the facts. She weaves a tale of Brooke’s relationship with Nell Golightly, an imagined “maid of all work” in Grantchester, the idyllic Cambridgeshire village immortalised in his verse. A moody writer ravishing the scullery wench suggests bodice-ripper territory, but the book is a much finer thing than that.
The narrative, studded with real examples of Brooke’s writing and prefaced with Winston Churchill’s 1915 obituary of Brooke in the Times, alternates these with passages in the first person between Nell and RupertThe maid is played well, a beekeeper’s daughter raised where “the fen soil shines like black oil”, but Dawson’s real achievement is the voicing of the poet himself. The familiar and expected dreamer is here, barefoot in his riverside arcadia; but most engaging is Rupert the young blood, corresponding with James Strachey in obstetric detail about the mechanics of Edwardian contraception, or wriggling out of a conquest’s embrace with the line: “It was like extricating oneself from an octopus.”….
The Great Lover is peopled, too, with Brooke’s Bloomsbury acquaintances. James’s brother Lytton Strachey stalks the margins of the novel, and Virginia Woolf appears as well, under her maiden name Stephen, writing from a Grantchester deckchair and negotiating the wild sine curve of her brilliant, bipolar mind.
Of all of Dawson’s resurrections, however, it is the portrayal of the painter Augustus John that is most memorable. Drawing on the maids’ point of view to great effect, Dawson has John arrive in Grantchester preceded by a tsunami of scandal and rumour. “The man has two wives and a hundred children, all boys,” shrieks one of Nell’s girl colleagues. It becomes apparent, reading of John’s chaotic domestic arrangements, why his son, the future First Sea Lord Sir Caspar John, would eventually seek solace in the order, starch and seamanship of the navy.
Of course, “The Great Lover”, which lends the book its title, is not Brooke’s most celebrated poem, and as a writer he will for ever be known for the wide-eyed sonnet of foreign fields and forever England. But in her novel Dawson has still pulled off the risky gamble of reimagining history. In the closing pages, she also neatly interfaces her story with the coming war that will claim and immortalise her subject.
The New Statesman
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 viole t 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.
Scotland on Sunday
At the time of his death in 1915, Rupert Brooke was held up as a glamorous romantic poet, a spokesman for heroism and martyred youth. Yet every new revelation brings out his psychosexual difficulties, his egotism and self-loathing, his longing for purity and sense of shame. “There is something so choking, so suffocating, about being adored,” he complains in Jill Dawson’s novel. “The oxygen of indifference is what I need.” This nicely catches his self-mockery and the preening insouciance which made it difficult to know what he really felt.
To translate this well-known figure into a novel, with all his contradictions, requires capacious knowledge and a gifted imagination. Fiction and fact are here blended with sureness and subtlety. The Great Lover opens with a letter from Brooke’s (recently discovered) illegitimate daughter, Arlice Rapoto. Aged 67, she wants to learn more about her father, with whom her mother Taatamata had sexual relations in Tahiti at a time when Brooke needed to “get away”. The letter is sent to the Orchard Tea Rooms, Grantchester, where Brooke once lodged. It is passed by the owner to Nell Golightly who, now in her nineties, lived in the Orchard as a housemaid when young. She promises to send Arlice Christopher Hassall’s biography of Brooke, but warns that “After all, a biography is written by a person and a person does not always understand another as well as they might think.”
Nell is entirely fictional. When the narrative slips back to 1909, this bee-keeper’s daughter has just joined the Orchard and Brooke is shortly to arrive. Later he moves to the Old Vicarage and, despite comings and goings, spends some three years in Grantchester. Nell is threaded into his story in a way that enhances the reader’s understanding of Brooke’s dilemmas, not least his anxiety over his virginity.
Dawson cleverly weaves into her tale expert knowledge of bees, of hives and honey, handling metaphors with panache, and language with emotional precision. Phrases, conversations and even entire letters have been lifted from published sources and embedded, for the most part seamlessly, into this fictional narrative.
Many of the Bloomsbury and Edwardian figures who took part in Brooke’s life are given walk-on roles. A persistent rightness of content and tenor marries biographical accuracy with fictional invention. Brooke did indeed “copulate” first with a man at the Orchard. They are overheard by Nell, who picks up the soiled sheets. This upsets her, but does not end their romance, which develops in the interstices of Brooke’s carryings-on. The tale alternates his voice with hers.
Brooke’s desire to break with stale conventions lies behind his provocative remarks, his salacious humour, his nude bathing, his Fabianism and his desire for a more democratic approach to the arts. These small touches resonate within a well-structured plot. Dawson brilliantly evokes Brooke’s volatility, his inner dissolution and ultimate breakdown at Lulworth in 1913. Behind his tortuous relationships with women lay a desire to be not just the loved but the lover.
The title is drawn from a late poem: the great lover, after what seems like idle boasting, mounts a paean to ordinary things, among them “white plates and cups, clean-gleaming”, wet roofs and “the cool kindliness of sheets”. What he sought at Grantchester and in relationships he ultimately found in the prosaic, a vein that is more endearing than his patriotic attitude to a war which other poets debunked.’
RIGHT AWAY, ONE HAS THE FEELING that this fine novel will in time be claimed by a movie deal. It is easy to picture film-goers reeling from the cinema, teary, uplifted, shaken, forlorn – some uttering “marvellous”, others proclaiming that the was “not as good as the book”.
Some may even rush off to buy Rupert Brooke’s poems. The wise, though (presuming they’ve never read it), will purchase a copy of The Great Lover, while others – devotees already – may hurry home to reread it at once. Time will tell.
I have read it twice. The first time at speed, for its onrushing vigour and narrative pull; the second, more slowly, allowing proper time to test the sentences, savour the detail of English society in the handful of years preceding the First World War, and most pleasing of all, to enjoy the author’s obvious relish of the novel’s central, teasingly rendered romance between Rupert Brooke and Nellie Golightly (“sounds like something out of a music hall”, Brooke records in his commonplace journal on first meeting Nellie), a smouldering passion lasting a lifetime – which, in Brooke’s case, was scarcely five years (he died in April 1915), but which for Nellie continued for more than seven decades, providing the starting point for the book, and taking us into a bitter-sweet, largely imagined world.
We begin in 1982. Nellie is 90 when a letter arrives at Grantchester from Tahiti; its sender, now aged 67, claims she’s the daughter of the celebrated poet Rupert Brooke.
Arlice Rapoto writes: “My mother Taatamata always told me that my father was a very famous man, very pretty … my mother said he never know about me. She loved him very much. She said he found his true heart in Tahiti and for the first time he was happy. I would like to read his letters but mostly hear his living voice, to know what he smelled like and sounded like. How it felt to wrap arms around him. I never married and have no children and now I am old I want to know: who was my father, what was he like … ?”
Nellie, delighted to have the letter, is better equipped than Arlice might dream to fulfil its demands. She writes a long and detailed reply, and sends, along with it, a biography of Brooke, his letters, a photograph, and a gift which Brooke had given her as a keepsake. She incorporates his poetry and some prose.
And she indirectly poses the question (clearly hinting that the matter is moot) as to who exactly deserved to be known as the love of Brooke’s life – Nellie, Arlice’s mother or maybe another?
The novel that follows tells the tale of two strikingly different sensibilities, and contrasting worlds – the tragic, rustic, hard-graft early life of Nellie, set against the gadfly self-indulgence practised by artists, with Brooke at the heart of it all, indulging his homos exual predilection, his exhibitionism, and his simultaneous pursuits of several young women. Brooke is lodging at Orchard Tea Rooms where Nellie lives as a maid-of-all-work. Her parents are dead, and Nell, the eldest of six siblings, labours to keep her family afloat. She flits back and forth to the family cottage to deal with emergencies (childbirth, illnesses, and the bees, when the swarm is loose), while Brooke flits back and forth to Europe and complains about his struggles to finish essays, conquer his poems, and captain a punt.
The two are instantly and mutually attracted. Jill Dawson lights the touch paper slowly and lets it glow with increasing intensity while it smoulders, keeping the reader’s hunger at bay, but allowing us access through Nellie’s dairy of events and Rupert’s journal, into the private world of their longings.
The speed and rhythms of rural life, and the greater sense of the wider world of pre-war turbulence, of suffragettes laying siege to the status quo, and artists’ coteries flouting convention – all this is rendered so unfussily, and in writing polished for clarity, not dazzling effect, that the reading becomes an almost physical pleasure.
Brooke of course lived, while Nellie is fiction, but sometimes the opposite seems the case, such is the power of Dawson’s invention. She has added to Rupert Brooke’s legacy without judging it, leaving the reader to make that call.
Rupert Brooke was a much better writer than he is often given credit for, but the fascination he continues to exert, almost 94 years after his death, has less to do with his poetry than his profile. The “handsomest man in England”, as Yeats dubbed him, was all too aware of his spectacular looks, of how they drew people to him but led others to underestimate his more important and lasting qualities. There has been a great deal of speculation over the years about his love life, partly fuelled by the determination of several of his friends to maintain his untarnished image as a romantic young poet who loved his country and (as his gravestone somewhat fancifully puts it) “died for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks”. Brooke was much more complex, and interesting, than this sentimental portrait suggests. In particular, the publication in 1998 of his sexually frank correspondence with the hopelessly smitten James Strachey brought welcome new solidity to our understanding.
It was on a visit to The Orchard, the house in Grantchester where Brooke lived on and off between 1909 and 1910, that Jill Dawson bought a postcard of the maids who worked there at the time. This inspired her not only to write this beguiling novel about the poet, but also to make a maid the book’s other central character. Nellie Golightly is an orphan from the Fens who in 1909 takes a job at The Orchard in order to support her younger siblings after their father dies. Nellie has inherited her20father’s talents as a fearless beekeeper, so she also takes charge of the hives at The Old Vicarage, the neighbouring house to which Brooke moved in August 1910 when his barefooted, neo-pagan antics became too much for his landlady at The Orchard. Intelligent, “well schooled”, and very much her own woman, 17-year-old Nellie intrigues and attracts Brooke, who is in the throes of a frustrating on-off affair with the even younger Noel Olivier. When Brooke finally loses his irksome virginity to a young man called Denham Russell-Smith (an encounter he described in shameless detail in a letter to Strachey), it is Nellie who is obliged to clean the sheets. She concludes, erroneously, that Brooke is not interested in women and she is confused by his flirtatious behaviour towards her.
The narrative is equally divided between Brooke and Nellie, giving the reader two very different perspectives on the goings-on. Brooke’s narrative has been skilfully created from his own writings and Dawson’s imagination, and the result is compelling and convincing. Dawson gives us a Brooke who is by turns engaging and infuriating – and, one suspects, much like the real thing. It is a remarkable feat of imaginative empathy, brilliantly counterpointed with Nellie’s half-enchanted, half-aghast but rather more down-to-earth appraisal of “the Great Lover” and his bohemian circle.
The novel’s title is taken from Brooke’s poem of the same name, and is used with similar irony. Brooke’s love life was messy, as his letters to Strachey make clear, and Dawson describes the poet’s amorous disasters with a nice blend of comedy and sympathy. Without descending to Blue Lagoon clichés, she persuasively suggests that it was with his easy-going Tahitian lover, Taatamata, that he eventually found physical fulfilment and happiness. This brief 1914 idyll completed his slow recovery from the breakdown he had suffered when his emotional entanglements reached crisis point in 1912.
The hopelessly vacillating Brooke had affairs of one sort or another with a succession of women, but his poem The Great Lover (written in Tahiti) is not a latter-day Don Giovanni catalogue aria. The loves he lists are instead aspects of everyday life, from ordinary plain crockery and clean sheets to “the comfortable smell of friendly fingers,/Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers/About dead leaves and last year’s ferns”.
Dawson has followed Brooke’s lead, and her moving, intelligent, beautifully written and hugely enjoyable novel is alive with vivid descriptions of the world her characters inhabit: from beekeeping and domestic drudgery to bathing naked in the muddy Cam, skating on the frozen Fens, and diving for pearls in the dark Pacific.
Peter Parker, Sunday Times
Brooke was a troubled man, confused about his sexuality and worried about his own sanity – and it is this darkness that Jill Dawson brings vividly to life. She has created a psychologically convincing picture of a man, who, even in his many flirtatious moments, is teetering on the edge, and a brilliant account of the poet’s nervous breakdown.
The Great Lover has many wonderful scenes: Nell and Brooke kissing among the bees Nell keeps; Brooke’s naked swims at the river with Nell, Noel and Phyllis, who he attacks on the river bank; Taatamata’s ministrations as he lies in a fever after stepping on a stonefish in Tahiti. But it is remarkable principally for its Rupert Brooke, glorious in all his agony and shame, particularly as he sees his sanity slipping away from him.
The Great Lover isn’t the first of Dawson’s novels to combine real and imagined events. Fred and Edie was based on the story of Edith Thompson, who with her lover Fred Bywaters, was charged with the murder of her husband, and Wild Boy documented the Wild Boy of Aveyron, the first known autistic child. But this novel shows a rare mastery of materials. Dawson has worked the imaginary character of Nell so seamlessly into the narrative of Brooke’s life that Nell seems to belong there. It is difficult to see where the many direct quotations from letters and memoirs end and Dawson’s imagination begins. This is a compelling portrait of a failed love affair and of a damaged man who is so cut off from the world that, to paraphrase the book’s epigraph from DW Winnicott, he cannot allow himself to be found by those around him.’
Lorna Bradbury, Daily Telegraph
This brilliant, complicated man is the centre of Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover, and while she draws extensively on historical records of Brooke and his contemporaries, it is her decisions as a novelist that make this account of his life fascinating as well as faithful.
Brooke and his circle are described by the voice of a fictional character, a young servant called Nell Golightly. She is a beekeeper’s daughter, who comes to work at the Vicarage Tea Gardens in Grant-chester, where Brooke will take lodgings. Her parents are dead and she must earn to support her younger siblings. Nell is clear-minded, hardworking and tough, and has learnt to keep her inner life to herself.
Dawson shows how ruthlessly the Edwardian class system consumed such girls’ lives to support the leisure and education of the few. Nell is younger than Rupert Brooke, but must act with a circumspection and responsibility that is foreign to him. In a telling scene, Nell describes how she cleans the room that Brooke is to occupy, even soaking the candlesticks in soda to remove the grease. On arrival, Brooke gaily observes that “my bedroom looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since Thomas Hardy was first weaned”. But from the first moment, Brooke notices Nell’s beauty and wants her attention.
So far, so dishearteningly typical of the master-servant relationship, but gradually, deeper affinities are revealed. Nell and Brooke ponder the appearance of things, in search of hidden realities. Both are sensuous, passionate, sharp-witted and prone to introspection. Their relationship is by far the most powerful thing in the book; the walk-on roles that Dawson gives to Virginia Woolf or Ottoline Morrell are historically accurate, but no more. The Edwardian world is about to be shattered and relationships changed utterly by four years of carnage. Nell will survive, but not as muse, subject or servant. She holds the pen now, and the story that emerges is strong, satisfying and memorable.
Helen Dunmore – The Times
It’s 1909 and the 22-year-old Rupert Brooke is in digs at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, supposedly working towards a fellowship at nearby Cambridge but actually preoccupied with self-doubt about his abilities as a poet and desperate to lose his virginity. Strikingly good looking, Brooke is besieged by admiring visitors, both male and female, but his sexual progress is hampered by the social strictures of the time and his own inhibitions. Into this maelstrom of angst steps 17-year-old housemaid Nell Golightly, a bright and lively Fenland village girl, who falls under Brooke’s spell and is simultaneously shocked and intrigued by the poet’s Bohemian behaviour, not least his tendency to walk around naked. Their purely fictional relationship, related alternately by both, is a catalyst for growth in Brooke and its narrative charts his progress from spoilt child narcissist to mature poet able to find love in the textures of everyday objects.
This is an exceptional book even from the prize-winning Dawson – clever,moving, sexy and with a mesmerising feel for that magical, optimistic, but doomed time just before the Great War in which Brooke was to perish from – of all things – an infected mosquito bite.
The Daily Mail
Jill Dawson has created a convincing world of huge pathos; a subtle, evocative anti-fairy-tale of doomed youth by one of Britain’s most subtle and accomplished writers.
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly
Dripping with deliciously sensual allsuions to beekeeping, this is an elegantly entwined story of self-discovery and wild, poetic love. When 90-year old Nellie Golightly receives a letter from a Tahitian woman asking if she can supply her with memories of her father, Rupert Brooke, Nellie is transported back to her bucolic teenage years in the Orchard Tea Garden, Grantchester, where she met, and fell hotly in love, with the desperately flirtatious young poet. Fact and quite wonderful fabrication blend together in this bewitching novel.
Nell is a wonderfully vivid creation: resilient, intelligent and heart-breakingly innocent, she represents the other, working-class England that often gets overlooked in accounts of ‘giddy young people sleep-walking towards war’ as Dawson puts it.
Nell’s memoir of life at the Orchard is interwoven with Brooke’s self-absorbed contemporarneous account, based on (and often quoting verbatim) the lively letters he wrote to friends about his adventures. Dawson deftly works endless ironies into the gaps between these two narratives, and manages not only an impressive evocation of Brooke’s milieu but a compelling reassessment of a poet often dismissed by modern readers asa poster boy for limp-wristed, tea-sipping Toyrism.
THERE’S ALWAYS a danger with novels based on real-life characters that, while negotiating the tightrope between fact and fiction, the story falls flat.
Sighs of relief all round, then, that in The Great Lover , Jill Dawson doesn’t put a foot wrong.
She has written novels about real characters before (in the Whitbread shortlisted Fred and Edie), and this time takes as her subject the poet Rupert Brooke – that most gilded of youths, who died in 1915 on his way to Gallipoli, and whom Yeats famously called “the handsomest young man in England”.
Seamlessly weaving together snippets of Brooke’s letters and poems with her own lively prose, Dawson delivers a story that is both entertaining and evocative of a very specific moment in history, while creating an inner life of real depth for her young hero.
The novel opens as 90-year-old Nell Golightly receives a letter from a woman in Tahiti, claiming to be Brooke’s daughter and asking about him (Brooke is thought to have fathered a child in the South Seas during a sojourn there in 1913).
Nell writes back saying she had indeed known him when she served as a maid at the Orchar d Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where he lodged.
This fictional exchange of letters opens a way for Dawson to go back to 1909, to a hot summer when the poet and his Cambridge acolytes swam naked in Byron’s pool, fell in and out of love, and debated the fate of the working man over endless tea, scones and honey (oh, so much honey).
The narrative alternates between 17-year-old Nell’s clear-eyed and often caustic observations of Brooke and his friends and the poet’s own reveries, and it is in these two voices that Dawson’s novel transcends the historical facts and truly comes to life.
In Brooke, her effortless blending of the known details of his life – his fraught love affairs, travels and development as a poet – with a vivid emotional portrait creates a character of real complexity.
Yes, he is narcissistic – “there is something so choking, so suffocating about being adored,” he complains – and self-regarding, veering between pomposity and frivolity, but equally he is disarming in his insecurities, confused as he is by his sexuality and haunted by an unhappy family life.
More to the point, by endowing him with self-deprecating humour and warmth, Dawson manages to conjure up the legendary charm that seemed to bewitch every woman, and many of the men, Brooke met. In contrast, the wholly fictional character of Nell allows her to explore that other side of pre-war England: a wo rld where women’s choices were stark and few, and where poverty and toil were the norm for most.
Yet Nell is more than a cipher. Her emotional conflict, as she inevitably falls under Brooke’s spell, is moving, and her descriptions of the sights and smells of the lush, buzzing English countryside are among the most beautiful in the book.
Dawson is careful to keep the love story that develops between her characters from descending into bodice-ripping in the scullery: indeed, while sex (or the tantalising prospect of it) hovers constantly in the background, most actual instances if it are treated with a subtle eroticism. Nowhere more so than in the final section, where Brooke travels to the South Seas, to ultimately become the “great lover” of the title.
Tahiti provides a dreamier, darker setting, where Brooke the poet can come into his own and where the author herself explores more creative territory – leaving the sun-dappled romanticism of Grantchester, and its more innocent times, behind.
Catherine Heaney, Gloss Magazine
What do people know of the poet Rupert Brooke?
That W.B Yeats described him as ‘the handsomest young man in England’? That he was part of a circle that included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, the painter Augustus John, James and Lytton Strachey? That he died young, on his way to Gallipoli and was thereafter taken up as a national icon, the golden boy poet of the First World War? Or possibly only that he wrote the lines: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England…’
That he fell deliriously in love with the South Seas and with a young Tahitian woman, Taatamata, is not well known. (Brooke is an inconsistent speller and her name is sometimes Tata-maata, sometimes just Taata). That he possibly had a child with her, a girl called Arlice Rapoto, who lived until she was ninety and died only a few years ago, is a fact that when I tried pursuing it in Tahiti, was greeted with surprise and silence. It was the DJ Mike Read had first raised this possibility in his book about Brooke, Forever England, and had unearthed a photo of Arlice, which although grainy, does bear some resemblance to Brooke.
In 1913 the young poet was twenty six, restless, and horny. He’d had a recent nervous breakdown, brought about partly through overwork, but mainly by the rupture in his finely wrought love-life. He had been balancing two, probably more, relationships for several years and now one of them – the motherly, safe one, the one he thought he could rely on, Katharine Cox, has abruptly ended. So he did what countless young men from similar backgrounds – Rugby school, Cambridge University – did: he set off on a gap year. He spent a year travelling by boat to North America and the South Seas. It produced the best writing of his life.
Plenty is known of Brooke’s predecessor in the French Polynesian islands, the painter Paul Gauguin, whose lonely death from syphilis happened ten years before Brooke arrived. Colonial attitudes towards the sexuality of Tahitian women – renowned for their sexy, bare-breasted dancing – did not escape Rupert Brooke. In a travel article he mocks the mix of Puritan disapproval and slavering lust. For him, the battle between his mind and body was easily won. He writes: ‘The intellect soon lapses into quiescence. The body becomes more active, the senses and perceptions more lordly and acute.’
Little is known of Taatamata – (‘What does her name mean in Tahitian?’ I ask a guide; ‘Nothing’ he replies; ‘it must have been made up’). In some accounts she worked at the hotel Brooke stayed in and was virtually a prostitute. In others she was high born; the daughter of a village chief or even a mythic Princess, protector of the sacred turtles of Tahiti. Surviving photographs show a shy, elegant young woman staring wistfully into the distance beneath a straw hat. She wears the long unflattering dresses the missionaries introduced, and stands at a discreet distance from Brooke, smiling. He wrote in a letter that she was ‘a girl with wonderful eyes, the walk of a Goddess, & the heart of an angel, who is luckily, devoted to me. She gives her time to ministering to me, I mine to probing her queer mind. I think I shall write a book about her – only I fear I am too fond of her.’
In poems written in Tahiti Brooke’s passion pulse off the page, but the affair was fleeting: he had to leave the islands after three months. Travelling there myself, following the route that he took from the sweltering capital, Papeete to the cooler, rainier Mataiea, I find that little is known of the famous English poet the Tahitians affectionately nicknamed Pupure (meaning ‘fair’).
It is possible to spend hours, as Brooke did, floating in warm lagoons the colour of ‘all the buds of spring’ (his words), staring at the radiant, butterfly-coloured fish. The coconut palms, the dawns of pearl and gold and red, the habit of Tahitians of wearing a white tiare flower behind their ear, all mentioned by Brooke in his poem Tiare Tahiti are available to anyone chasing his story here, but I find nothing more – no record of his daughter, no traces of his life. This is deeply frustrating, and yet enticing.
Novelists thrive on the gaps in a story, the murky places that only imagination can illuminate. I’m guided by Brooke’s own words. His love for Tahiti quickly infects me: ‘And after dark, the black palms against a tropic night, the smell of the wind, the tangible moonlight like a white, dry, translucent mist, the lights in the huts, the murmur and laughter of passing figures, the passionate, queer thrill of the rhythm of some hidden dance…That alone is life; all else is death.’
Not a bad claim for a place, a way of life, or a girl. That alone is life. That is where I will start.