It would be odd if book reviews in socialist newspapers spent much time reviewing novels about obscure dead aristocrats. It would look like the usual Independent on Sunday, Sunday Times or Observer books pages which are chock full of pastoral, aristocratic, nostalgic publications of dubious literary worth.
The ubiquity of this kind of stuff has led to writers like James Kelman largely boycotting literary events and festivals and the kind of bourgeois literary diet which is the staple of the assumed reading public in the UK — those who speak “with the accent of the cultural elite in this country, the middle to upper-middle-class RP voice, the voice of authority, the voice of power”.
This reflex has led to new fictional directions, exploring subaltern voices of which the most successful have been Kelman himself on the Scottish working class, John Berger on peasant and migrant voices, and John McGahern on Irish rural labour. Yet these writers have come from the margins, the fringes of the British isles. Metropolitan working-class voices have been paradoxically heard less.
It might be argued that in the metropolitan crime fiction of people like David Peace and others the urban working class experience has found its voice — certainly in the US the greatest current exponent of the voice of working-class communities are crime writers like Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard.
Yet we would fall into a trap if we admired only “prole” fiction and didn’t pay any attention to the best of the kind of literature which gives a hearing to the ruling class voices of the immediate past. This is not about just “understanding the enemy”, but to recognise that no part of human experience is alien to us and in understanding the historical elimination of declining class formations, we more fully understand the kind of world that we want to bring into being.
Am I pointing to Alan Hollinghurst as some kind of second rate Nancy Mitford or Waugh style novelist? No. Hollinghurst is one of the great stylists of the English novel. An openly gay writer, he addresses the frictions and fissures in homosexual experience as it is filtered through the British class system even if most of the time it is as a middle-class observer of the vagaries of ruling class sexual mores.
His 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty discussed sexuality and its moral repercussions in the context of a thinly disguised Tory grandee family and from the observation point of a young student. It was a masterpiece of precision and honesty — matched only in these isles by Colm Toibin’s similar analysis of homosexuality and the Irish class system — which is stylistically comparable.
The Stranger’s Child is very different to The Line of Beauty in context if not in tone. It recounts the story of a grand aristocrat, Cecil Teucer Valance, who visits the suburban family home of his lover George. Over a weekend he writes a long poem about the house called Two Acres. He subsequently dies in the First World War and the poem and the weekend pass into literary legend.
The rest of the novel follows the consequences of that weekend in the respective fates of the families of Cecil and George. At points throughout the narrative the lost and hidden truths of that weekend reveal themselves.
It seems to me that there are three issues of great significance dealt with here.
First, the attempt to eliminate the historical experience of homosexuality in official records of the 20th century. The attempt of Queer Theory to readdress that history is largely doomed because of the self-censorship of the historical protagonists. Linked to this is an attempt by Hollinghurst to understand the nostalgia that the First World War seems to have for novelists.
Second, the book witnesses the historical destruction of architectural and literary Victoriana and its accompanying morality and the class structure that created it. The final victory of the suburban schoolboys in the novel and their penetration into the secrets of the lordly classes signify a clear shift in the class system of Britain in the 20th century — bank clerks becoming poets as one character describes it.
Finally, Hollinghurst attempts to address a clear question — in what sense does the culture of the British ruling class brutalise, cage, and ultimately morally and physically destroy its own children? Just because the working class is the class with radical chains that will destroy capital doesn’t mean that the revolution will not bring liberation to all humanity. The emotional slavery of the characters in the novel testify to the worth of a liberatory politics of sexuality and class which is relevant to all of us.
Speaking truth to power is the task of emancipatory politics. Speaking truth about oneself when you are part of the class that has political and cultural power is something else again. Hollinghurst has made those voices live in the very act of their dying.