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Mad about the boy

<strong>The Great Lover</strong>

Jill Dawson

<em>Sceptre, 320pp, £12.99</em>

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 Rupert. The 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."

Dawson also allows Brooke's ambidextrous sexuality to be more than a veneer of bi-curious glamour; she works in a tangled bedroom encounter with his Cambridge friend Denham Russell-Smith that recalls Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. However, at times it seems that the author is too pleased with her reanimation of Brooke's voice, and allows it to spill across the paragraphs and affect Nell. On these occasions, the suddenly verbose maid purples her prose and becomes almost indistinguishable from her literary crush.

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.

As Brooke frolics in the South Seas in early 1914, Dawson has him imagine the line "as swimmers into cleanness leaping", a phase that will later describe soldiers in his poem "Peace". Indeed, the only real incongruity with The Great Lover is its dust jacket, which coats a story thick with naked midnight swims with a picture of a plunging figure whose modesty is preserved by a pair of pinstriped trunks.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009