Using many of the poet’s own words excerpted from diaries and letters, Dawson has created an imaginative portrait of the artist as well as the society in which he lived. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Brooke, and Nell Golightly, a housemaid at the Orchard House and Cafe, where Brooke rents rooms during the period between 1909 and 1914. Brooke, who is tormented by troubling confusion about his own sexuality, finds himself drawn to Nell’s practicality and strength. For her part, Nell tries hard to resist the beautiful young poet, knowing in her heart of hearts that a relationship between a “doff” like Brooke and a mere housemaid is doomed from the start.
Of course the reader knows the truth of this as well, but the relationship that develops between the two doesn’t seem as stereotypical as you might expect, largely because Nell is such a strong, admirable and intelligent young woman. Brooke, by contrast, is rather annoying at times, with his wretched insecurities and whining. I quite wished Nell would take him even more firmly in hand, if only to set him straight. Because while Brooke seems to have difficulty finding and accepting his “one true self underneath it all,” Nell knows who she is all along. “Nell Golightly might be just a maid from Prickwillow, but she can face facts and she won’t be anybody’s fool,” she thinks.
But, the physical chemistry between the pair is not to be denied, and Dawson does a beautiful job of building the suspense during the four years of their acquaintance, so the reader wonders whether they will ever eventually succumb to the passion that simmers whenever they’re together. (I’m not telling…)
The Bloomsbury group has always interested me, and it was fun to see Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) make an occasional appearance taking tea with Brooke, along with Lytton Strachey and painter Augustus Johns. The dichotomy between the two groups is striking, with Nell’s reminiscences about growing up in the country a stark contrast to Brook’s more privileged upbringing. While Brooke and his friends engage in long philosophical discussions about marriage and the nature of love, or swim naked at midnight and sleep until noon, Nell is left to “weigh it all while sweeping and dusting, and in the kitchen making scones.”
Dawson writes that the idea for this novel came to her after seeing a photograph of Brooke at Orchard Cafe, where one can still “see the branches stir~across the moon at Grantchester!” and “smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten unforgettable, unforgotten~River smell, and hear the breeze~Sobbing in the little trees.”* Like Nell, she found herself inexplicably drawn to the man who W. B. Yeats called “the handsomest man in England.”
“Did I find him handsome?” writes this 21st century author of the poet born in 1887 . “He had a beautiful jaw line, yes, and a broad brow, yes, and a floppy Hugh Grant quality to his fringe. But it was the gaze that hooked me. Direct. Staring down a hundred years and challenging me. Okay then. Write about me if you dare.”
So glad she accepted the challenge.
*From The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, a poem by Rupert Brooke
Reviewed for TLC Book Tours – Other stops along the way are:
Wednesday, June 2nd: Books Like Breathing
Thursday, June 3rd: Eclectic/Eccentric
Monday, June 7th: Peetswea
Tuesday, June 8th: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves
Thursday, June 10th: Nonsuch Book
Monday, June 14th: 1330v
Tuesday, June 15th: Literate Housewife
Tuesday, June 22nd: My Two Blessings
Wednesday, June 23rd: Thoughts From an Evil Overlord
Thursday, June 24th: The Tome Traveler