The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

16 January 2012
Part 1: ‘Two Acres
Hollinghurst is a master of the nuanced snobberies and insecurities of the English middle classes, so if we’re up for another critique we’re in the safest possible hands. In fact, the territory feels almost too safe, and vaguely familiar. It’s just before the First World War and the clever son is down from Cambridge for the summer vacation. He’s invited his slightly older, more experienced friend, and the twelve chapters of Part 1 cover the weekend of the visit. There’s the widowed mother, the not so clever older son who works in the City, and the sixteen-year-old daughter who has discovered a love of poetry in time for the visit: the Cambridge friend is a poet. And… there’s the wealthy confirmed bachelor, living with his spinster sister, who might be a possible match for the mother – but it’s the elder son who gets the little gifts he sends. We’re on familiar ground here, too, because this is an Alan Hollinghurst novel and we scan any friendships between men for signs of sexual attraction. For good measure, sometimes we’re inside the head of one of the servants, fifteen-year-old Jonah as he finds out about young men and their stained sheets.

I’ve made it sound formulaic, and perhaps it is. The pre-WW1 setting: see Man Booker contenders Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker’s Life Class and AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book – to say nothing of the ubiquitous Downton Abbey, little more than an assemblage of favourite tropes. The fanciable friend from university: McEwan’s Atonement and Hollinghurst’s own The Line of Beauty. The adolescent miscues and misinterpretations of adult sexuality: see the McEwan and Byatt books above. The subtle gradations of class, and the nice houses that go with these: see most of the books I’ve already mentioned. (There are elements in the visit to Elinor’s house in Part 1 of Life Class that are almost interchangeable with this one: the nice house, the forced country pursuits, the uncertainties of people who can’t be sure that they are the one loved by the person they want…. I seem to remember there’s even a widowed mother.) By coincidence, a mailing from the National Trust arrived on my doormat yesterday. It feels like the same world.

But enough of that. What redeems the novel for me is Hollinghurst’s way of telling it. The elements I’ve mentioned as a list are actually revealed to us in a slow drip-feed. We start in the mind of someone only introduced to us as ‘she’, and we know nothing about her. She turns out to be Daphne, the younger sister, reading in a hammock and impatient for somebody’s arrival…. And so on. We find out all the other details piecemeal so that, for instance, while we know the setting is sometime in the first part of the 20th Century – travel is by train, and news is expected via the telegraph boy – the possibility of war with Germany isn’t mentioned until well over half-way through this section.

In this novel, in contrast to The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst has gone for multiple points of view. The visit of Cecil, the Cambridge friend, is a big event, and everyone from the mother to the serving-boy is out to make a good impression. Cecil is not only a poet determined to make a name for himself – I’ll come back to that – he’s also from a higher echelon of the English class system. He’s aristocracy. And, as with everything else, the strength of the relationship between him and Daphne’s brother George only emerges slowly. A night-time frolic in the hammock seems innocent enough to Daphne, obviously, although there is some adjustment of dress when she arrives. But the way that George frets over the limited amount of time he has with Cecil is a big clue, and we’re not at all surprised when we get the Hollinghurst moment on Sunday afternoon before (and after) a secret swim in the woods. What is it with this author and swimming?

Cecil is well-drawn as the self-assured, self-centred toff who is used to getting his own way. From the ‘carrying’ voice that is the first thing Daphne notices to the way he likes to lead the way along the woodland paths that George has known all his life, we see how he expects to take control as a matter of course. And we’re not at all surprised when, on the evening after he’s got everything he wants from George, he manoeuvres Daphne into the night garden to demonstrates to her what real kissing is. Hubert, the older brother they all quietly take the piss out of, almost catches them. Daphne, after her initial shock and revulsion – she didn’t like ginger brandy the first time, either – wonders what it might be like to be married and living at ‘Corley’, Cecil’s family seat that is the subject of the only poems of his that we’ve heard about.

So, as I said, the social nuances masterfully laid bare for us. The middle-class family is out of its depth with this man – whose point of view, significantly, we are never given – as they face a future that is not as financially secure as it once was. Hubert has had conversations with Harry, the rich bachelor, about tightening their belts. Of course, a marriage between Harry and his mother – a prospect that nobody discusses openly – would solve a lot of problems, but to Cecil it’s quite clear that the older man only has eyes for Hubert. Hmm.

Anything else? Minor characters like Clara, the poorly-off German friend of Freda, the mother. The constant references to the father, dead for ten years, especially when Cecil talks about his own. The relative insignificance of those ‘two acres’, a source of pride among friends in the suburbs, but small beer compared to Corley. With a war on the horizon – I’m still not sure exactly how far in the future – these are uncertain times in this little world. The fact that Cecil has written a six-page poem in Daphne’s autograph-book has only stirred things up more. What can it mean? Does it mean anything at all? I suspect not, but how would I know?

19 January
Part 2: Revel
Nine chapters, most of them long and unhurried.As in Part 1, Hollinghurst plays with our heads for a chapter or two. ‘She’ is here again – but now ‘here’ is Corley, and she’s – isn’t she? – Lady Valance now. Yes, she is – not to be confused, in the way we just did, with the dowager Lady Valance, Cecil’s mother. And Part 2 is also going to be a special weekend, with guests here to celebrate Cecil’s poetry. There are children, and the youngest one is already six, so… some time has passed. Is Cecil famous now? Yes, and Cecil’s dead, killed ‘ten years ago’ in the War. Daphne has married Dudley, the handsome younger brother, and… and so on.

I’m not sure why Hollinghurst wrong-foots us for page after page like this. To show us how arbitrary and random it all is? How things might have been very different, but have turned out in this rather unsatisfactory way? Or highly unsatisfactory. Dudley, wounded in the foot in the War, also carries less visible wounds. They emerge through his hectic displays of manic behaviour that can morph unpredictably into bad temper or black depression. He’s a brilliantly drawn character – and one whose point of view Hollinghurst never gives us directly. The marriage is now a broken thing – it emerges late in this section that they never make love – and as the day of the big dinner party shades into evening, we are with Daphne as she feels it all slide inexorably out of her control. She seems powerless to stop it, seeks refuge in too much of their rather good claret. The middle classes – except she’s upper-class now – and their pointless lives. (It isn’t just me saying this. Hollinghurst lets us in on conversations between the servants in which their disdain for their masters is clear.)

Nuances are what I mentioned when I first started to write about this novel, and nuances are Hollinghurst’s trade mark. Very little actually happens in the 130-odd pages of Part 2 but, by painstakingly taking us through the genesis and development of an idea or suspicion, or whatever, he shows us how a life of apparent ease can come to seem unbearable. The section ends on Sunday morning from the point of view of the six-year-old Wilfrid, and he is definitely his parents’ child. The day begins properly for him when suddenly ‘various things happened, perfectly normal but none the less upsetting in their way of keeping on happening.’ Later, ‘as often after an explosion of tears, he felt abstracted and weak, and it took him a while to see the point of things again.’ That’s our boy. He is the one who finds the inert body of Clara, a guest only Freda wanted to invite, and he has no idea how to tell his father.

But that, the second most significant event of Part 2, is a kind of coda to the slow unfolding of Friday and Saturday. The other significant event is something that Daphne has been wondering about, in her fretful way, all weekend: as the dinner party fades away and the guests go to bed or mooch around the house, she finds a private place with Revel and they kiss in a way that she has almost forgotten about. Hollinghurst, in a style suiting the buttoned-up group of people he is describing, draws a veil over whatever happens next.

The lead-up to all this is the supposedly celebratory weekend for Cecil. ‘Sebby’ Stokes, an older friend of Cecil’s who seems to have been quietly infatuated with him, is collecting all the poems and gathering together short memoirs from whoever knew him well. It’s going to be a thin affair: different family members, for different reasons, hide most of what they know or feel. And Hollinghurst slowly pieces together the last thirteen years. The ‘Two Acres’ poem Cecil wrote for Daphne is now his most famous work, standing – in that familiar way – for a mythical golden age before the War. (I’m guessing that Hollinghurst wants this to sound hackneyed, although he hasn’t voiced his doubts about the easy nostalgia terribly loudly.)

Dudley is endlessly sarcastic about Cecil, as about everything else. Daphne is prepared to let Sebby see the letters from Cecil before and during the War, admits that without actually getting engaged she had agreed she would be his ‘war widow’. She is very grateful that her own letters to him have been lost, and… and what? She keeps absolutely everything secret about whatever it was that went on between them. George is now working at a redbrick university – ‘I’ve left Cambridge behind’ – and is stuck in a pointless-seeming marriage to another academic. He also once had letters from Cecil, and definitely wouldn’t be showing them if he still had them. He doesn’t know something that we do, because later, we see Freda with a big brown envelope he doesn’t know exists. She found the letters during the War, confronted George about them – and neither of them has ever mentioned them again. But they cast a long shadow, like so many other things in this novel, and Freda has long ago decided that Cecil was responsible for the mess her children’s lives have become.

Anyone else? Not Hubert, killed in 1917 and the source of perpetual silent resentment for Daphne. The cult of Cecil at Corley – Louisa, the dowager, has had a funerary marble of him carved in the family chapel – means that nobody ever thinks of Hubert. Occasionally Daphne will mention him for balance, but it’s half-hearted and it’s a losing battle anyway. For her part Freda, far from having a life-size monument in a family chapel in the grounds, resents it that she has never even been taken to visit Hubert’s grave in France. The old class insecurities don’t go away.

The chapel, like the whole house, is in a high Victorian style that is highly unfashionable in 1926. (And yes, the miners’ strike is mentioned, because Sebby is a government adviser working on it. And an artist guest, one who likes to wear his humble roots on his sleeve, alleges that he is in on the miners’ side. But it’s all a long way away.) There’s an architect there, Mrs Riley, and she is in the process of ‘boxing in’ what she and Dudley consider the house’s worst atrocities. George, there for a rare visit, likes the place just as it always was. For Daphne – well, for Daphne it’s another losing battle. How on earth is she going to move Dudley once he has a bee in his bonnet?

And I’m back to houses, always important in Hollinghurst novels. Gerald, the ambitious Tory MP in The Line of Beauty, is pleased with the place he can afford with money he’s married into – and the privilege of having a key to the private garden only residents can use – but is even more pleased when he can use his brother-in-law’s stately home to make a good impression on party high-ups. Cecil’s early poetry was all about Corley, and he has made a name with a hymn to pre-war suburbia (it’s referred to as that, or something very similar) based on an Arts and Crafts house. It’s no accident that there’s an architect lurking about, ready to do terrible damage to what had seemed unchanging. (Mrs Riley – ‘call me Eva’ – represents something else too. Before her assignation with Revel, Daphne is in the garden with her. Reader, Mrs Riley makes a pass at her and she stumbles away, shocked.)

The title is Revel, a pun on the dinner party – in its forced gaiety, anything but a revel – and the name of this mysterious other guest. He’s an artist, but I seem to have missed who exactly he is and why he was invited – except he’s designed the cover of a book George has recently written. He’s only 24 – five years younger than Daphne – and… and, well, we’ve seen. Does he represent something new in these people’s empty lives? On the Sunday morning, they shut themselves away so he can do a portrait drawing of her – and, as Hollinghurst teasingly allows Wilfrid to find his way to the linen-closet, the scene of last night’s passionate embraces, we wonder whether he might find them. He doesn’t, but what does that prove?

And will another thirteen years pass before Part 3? That would take us neatly to 1939…. Whether that happens or not, I bet it’ll take us a lot of pages to find out if I’m right.

19 February
Part 3: ‘Steady, Boys, Steady!’
A month since I last wrote, so I might get some details wrong. As if it matters: I’d been expecting this section to open just before the Second World War, but Hollinghurst plonks us down in the mid-60s. There’s the usual disorientating chapter or two while we try to work out who people are – for a while we don’t recognise anybody at all – and then we’re into it: the young people in Part 1, grown up in Part 2, are old now. But we see them from an oblique angle, through the eyes of two 20-something men, definitely not from the higher echelons, who happen to be working not far away. They’re both gay, and we get a variation on the Cecil/George thing in Part 1. Or is it a variation on the Leo/Nick thing in The Line of Beauty? Whatever, it’s Hollinghurst doing what he likes to do: taking us through the thrill and embarrassment of the First Time.

Often it feels too tricksy, the social comedy – which is what it is, really – too broad. Corinna, Daphne’s capable little daughter in Part 2, has grown up to be an overbearing middle-aged woman, married to a bank manager and frustrated that she never had a career as a concert pianist. Wilfrid, her sensitive younger brother, doesn’t appear at all – until he does, late for Daphne’s party, so diffident and awkward that Paul thinks he’s a shy neighbour. The party is at Corinna’s relatively modest place, because Corley is now – wait for it – a school, so we can not only have the obligatory chapters of life as a master in an independent school – that’s Peter, the more experienced of the gays – but the old place seen and described as obliquely as the family. Its glories are all in the past, its more embarrassing details hidden away. (Do you see what Hollinghurst is doing there? Clever chap.) Daphne did divorce Dudley, married Revel, then married someone else…. It’s easy to lose track.

So one of the strongest threads is still to do with those nuances of class distinction that have been there from the start. There’s not a huge amount that Hollinghurst can do with the Valances beyond charting the typical decline of such a family during the 20th Century. So he looks at other strata. Paul, the new character we’re with at the beginning – and whose point of view alternates with Peter’s throughout Part 3 – is a bank employee, finding his way through the complicated obstacles of life in a new town. His boss, like Dudley, has been damaged by war, and it’s when Paul accompanies him home one day that he meets Corinna and, eventually, Daphne. (Hollinghust, inevitably, keeps us guessing about who these unknown women are.) Peter, meanwhile, finds himself in the microcosm of a small private school. He seems to get on with the boys better than the staff, most of whom he finds absurd. Corinna, now a part-time piano teacher he occasionally duets with, is terrifying.

How interesting is all this? Why should we care about any of it? Good question.

What brings Peter and Paul together is the party for Daphne: Paul is a guest who can be made useful directing cars; Peter is going to duet with Corinna. There’s a kind of comic inversion of the recital at the Feddens’ in The Line of Beauty: in that novel the music is described through Nick’s finely-tuned, self-consciously expert ears; in this one Paul is mystified by most of what he hears, neither recognises it nor perceives much of any value. So, as we go through the later chapters, Peter has to balance Paul’s gaucheness and lack of education – he didn’t go to university, but does his best to do the right reading – with his boyish attractiveness. And, oh yes, his cute, slightly tapering cock. (Sigh.)

Because it’s these men’s points of view that we follow, it’s their concerns that are foregrounded. Hollinghurst is deliberately pushing the Valances and those connected with them to the sidelines: Paul recognises George and his wife as the authors of the standard history textbook used in his school, while the house is an over-elaborate folly from a different age. (I’ll come back to the house.) Cecil’s reputation has survived, just. The slightly philistine Paul – Hollinghurst has made sure we recognise the limitations of his taste – loves the ‘Valance’ poems he had to learn at school, whereas to Peter he is definitely a ‘minor’ poet. But fashions change – another theme – and Cecil might be due for a re-evaluation: Peter himself is toying with the idea of writing a proper biography to supersede Sebby Stokes’ amateurish memoir.

Running exactly parallel to this is the change in architectural fashions. When an overflowing bath brings down some of the boxing-in of the 1920s, Peter is able to admire the same ceiling, with its ‘jelly-mould’ domes, that George used to like so much in 1913. George had loved it then, but when he mentions the house in the 1960s it’s become a ‘ghastly pile’. Hollinghurst loves these little jokes about taste – but, really, they aren’t just little jokes. He is fascinated by culture, endlessly picks away at the battleground on which interested people – Betjeman gets at least two mentions in this section – have to slug it out with those, often those who own the rights to it, who don’t give a damn. In The Line of Beauty it’s music, art, novels. In The Stranger’s Child it’s poetry and domestic architecture. Corley Court, like ‘Hundreds’, the house in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, has become far more than a picturesque backdrop to events. It’s almost a character.

Anything else? There’s definitely an article to be written about how the descriptions of houses in recent British fiction are part of a tradition going back centuries… but that’s not for here. How about a guess about when the next section will be set? We’ve met Corinna’s son and niece, Julian and, er, Whatsername, so maybe the focus will be on the fourth generation. I can’t see Hollinghurst covering the Aids epidemic again, so I’m not sure where the gay strand will lead. (I can’t see Peter and Paul staying together either: the sex can’t be enough, surely.) Or… what if Hollinghurst takes a leaf out of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch and goes back in time? The next section is Something of a Poet: Cecil’s re-evaluated reputation in the 70s and beyond? Or a return to his development from aristocratic pastoralist to gritty war poet, 1913-1916?

Time to find out.

23 February
Part 4: Something of a Poet
Something… but how much? If it’s the evidence dredged up in some months of trying by the hapless would-be biographer in these chapters, not much at all. That seems to be the point of Part 4, endlessly repeated with only slight variations: ‘I see the smug fortress of culture. The doors are shut.’ This is a quotation from E M Forster in the epigraph and by the time we reach the end the doors are still shut. Ok. Except… it takes Hollinghurst over 100 pages to get there, by way of ten chapters of vaguely Waugh-like comic incompetence. I only wish it was as comic, and that Hollinghurst, like Waugh, could make his points with a few adroit strokes instead of all these words.

Over twelve years have passed, and the aspiring biographer is… well, who? Hollinghurst only keeps us waiting for a single page, as ‘he’ hurries from a library in London – it’ll be the British Museum – and almost bumps into an old woman he recognises. She’s Daphne, now in her 80s, and he’s… Paul. But wasn’t he the hopeless one in Part 3? Yep, and he’s still hopeless. During Part 4 he has the chance to speak properly to four people who knew Cecil to a greater or lesser extent, and he fluffs every single one. The first is Jonah, the boy who looked after the toff at ‘Two Acres’ on his two visits all those decades ago. Now an old man, he’s deaf, unhelpful – and when Paul rummages around and finds the manuscript of an unpublished poem… he leaves it where it is. Duh.

He’s like this with all of them. During a last-chance phone call Dudley, the brother, pretends to be relieved that he’s not that Paul, the one who’s digging around for dirt on Cecil. It’s a favourite trick that has wrong-footed better men than Paul in the past, and he gives up. George is as frank as any biographer would wish, but has a worrying way of suggesting that absolutely anybody Paul mentions ‘would fuck anyone’. Worse, the microphone batteries in Paul’s tape recorder give out, unnoticed: none of the interesting stuff has been recorded, and he knows George’s wife would deny anything risqué. Daphne seems to be reciting from her own memoir, and Paul comes nowhere near getting her to verify the one juicy rumour he’s heard, that Cecil was Corinna’s real father.

Waugh would have dealt with all this in a chapter or two, but Hollinghust wants to make sure we’ve got it: I lost count of how many times Paul imagines the ways he will manipulate each of his interviewees into revealing secrets they’ve kept hidden for decades, imagines the triumph of finding that all-important piece of evidence. It never happens, obviously.

To be fair, there’s a lot more going on than one character being given a hard time. Like Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, this Paul is an innocent trying to find his way in a world he knows nothing of. Hollinghurst is never as mordant as Waugh – his upper classes, whilst having feet of clay, are never outright crooks, and his ingénue isn’t framed for the crime of human trafficking – but the world his ingénue stumbles through is as full of vanities and absurdities. The target of Hollinghurst’s (fairly gentle) mockery is the literary industry, a world that Hollinghurst knows about. Academia? Check. The TLS? Check: he used to edit it, and Paul’s almost childlike wonder at being offered a proof copy two days early feels like the invention of an author who can’t resist being patronising.

But among the knockabout stuff there’s something more serious going on. Like Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending, Hollinghurst has the hopeless search for the holy grail of historical truth. As in Barnes’ novel, we get the selectivity unreliability of memory, the self-serving presentation of half-remembered events, the nature of memory itself. Chapter 9, alone in Part 4, is from Daphne’s point of view as she contemplates quite honestly – in contrast to the disingenuous ways she evades Paul’s questions in the previous chapter – how 60 years ago is simply too far back to remember. ‘He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories. It was diamond-rare to remember something fresh.’ And Hollinghurst doesn’t leave it there. There’s a page of meditations on just how imperfect our memory can be – and it culminates, in this section satirising the cult of literary celebrity, in the futility of reading itself.

‘She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read… she could remember nothing about them at all, so it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight…’

…and so on. This is deep. It’s what this website of mine is for: I reached the same conclusion as Daphne – as Hollinghurst, no doubt – some years ago.

What else in this section? More houses, as you’d expect, including Paul’s fruitless excursion to ‘Two Acres’ – he only gets a ‘one-eyed view’ – now empty and fenced off from a new development in what had been the garden. George takes great delight in being the historian who bought, new, the mock-Tudor suburban house he still lives in. Daphne lives in a former servant’s cottage at the edge of some toff’s estate; Paul makes out ‘the bulk of a large square house among the trees’ on a pointless stroll with Wilfrid. Such places are off-limits to this family at this end of the 20th Century – except, unknown to Paul, Daphne does get invited round there for tea. (One other Evelyn Waugh link. Paul, in Oxford for the conference at which Sir Dudley is speaking, buys a book of Waugh’s letters. More references to the boxing-in of sections of Corley Court reminded me of Decline and Fall again: in that novel in 1926 a genuine 16th Century house is entirely demolished, replaced by a Modernist abstraction. Hollinghurst is never as cruel, in this or anything else.

Will that do? I forgot to mention Corinna’s early death from some illness and the subsequent suicide of her already half-destroyed husband. And I’ve hardly mentioned Cecil, or the recent edition of his letters and the rival biographer also on the hunt for materials. Paul is always hovering around the question of Cecil’s sexuality, but only George will confirm that he would ‘fuck anyone’, which is no use at all. Otherwise Paul only ever catches glimpses, literally in the case of the photographs brought out by Jonah and Daphne, less so in the various off-hand opinions he hears of Cecil’s poetic legacy. One former military man finds genuine truth in his war poems; for others he’s a second-rate Rupert Brooke. Something of a poet? Not much of one, apparently.

24 February
Part 5: The Old Companions
Two chapters, set in 2008, from the point of view of a new character. This – as though we care – is Rob, a book dealer, at the memorial celebration of – as though we care – Peter. (Sorry to sound so sarcastic, but there are dangers in this constant authorial games-playing.) The co-protagonist of Part 3 had got an occasional mention in Part 4, but in his absence has risen to the kind of superficial prominence beloved of fiction writers recently – cf. Finkler in Howard Jacobson’s novel (2010) and Dexter in David Nicholls’ One Day (2009) – television presenter. Did Ian McEwan start this habit in Enduring Love with Joe Rose, the face of popular science on tv in 1997?

There are other successes – and doesn’t Hollinghurst just love success? Everybody has to be a star, a top academic or a published author. Just as Peter isn’t a teacher for long (cf. Emma in One Day) Paul is no longer an unemployed former bank employee. He’s the successful author of sensational-sounding biographies, having achieved a kind of notoriety with his life of Cecil. His technique seems to be to publish his unverifiable suspicions as fact, and there’s talk – unverified in this account, obviously – of its publication finishing Daphne off. You can believe this if you want to: the Paul we know is an idiot. Somebody else Rob meets at the memorial service – Jenny, the one I called Whatsername in Part 3 – is, er, a top academic. (Her cousin Julian arrives after it’s all over – always a telling sign in this novel, as we saw with Wilfred in Part 3 – and his trajectory from dropout in Part 4 to complete mess in Part 5 marks him out as the token no-hoper in this high-achieving world.)

Most of it is gentle fun, and Hollinghurst can make a few gentle points about life, death and transience. But is there any more to say? ‘The Old Companions’ is a quotation from the poem singled out in Part 4, the one the ex-soldier liked so much. It’s about how, as the War carried on, a corps of men might apparently remain intact even though all its members have died and been replaced: ‘It’s the old company all right/ But without the old companions….’ Following the title page of this section we get a different take on death: ‘No one remembers you at all’, a quotation by Mick Imlah from his poem ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’. We realise this is another layer: the novel is dedicated to Imlah, recently dead at the age of 52. This is highly personal stuff for Hollinghurst, however hidden the pain might be. He had been a long-time friend and colleague of Imlah’s, and the line, apparently dismissive, was written by a man contemplating his own imminent death.

This is more interesting than the actual chapters, and goes some way towards accounting for the dying fall of the ending. We know ‘Two Acres’ has now been demolished, and the house of the gay old bachelor in Part 1 is about to follow it. (The fates of these people’s houses continue to follow the same trajectories as those of their former occupants – from beginning to end. We’ve just found out that Corley Court, subject of Cecil’s early hymns to a particular kind of Englishness, was not the product of old money, but of new: Cecil’s grandfather was awarded his baronetcy for his services to the agricultural seed trade. I feel a postscript coming on, to do with authors and their snobberies.) Rob finds out that Cecil, who knew immediately that the older man had a thing for Hubert rather than his mother, had sent letters to him during the War. But by the time he gets to the half-gutted house he is told all the old ‘rubbish’ from the strong-room has been burnt.

So. What will remain of us is… what, exactly?

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