The Great Lover is the first of Jill Dawson’s novels which I have read. All of her stories interest me, but I plumped for The Great Lover is a starting point for two reasons; it is set close to where I grew up, and features poet Rupert Brooke, whose writing I admire, as a character. It also takes place in a time period which I love to read about.
The Great Lover begins in the summer of 1909 in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, a place much famed as a hangout spot for a lot of famous Cambridge-educated writers and artists. Seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly, a fictional creation of Dawson’s, has just been employed to waitress at the Orchard Tea Gardens. Soon after she begins her new job, Rupert Brooke arrives as a lodger, hoping that being away from his University halls at King’s College will enable him to complete a lot of projects without distractions.
Brooke is something of a talking point immediately. He is ‘famed for his good looks and flouting of convention’, and ‘captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact.’ Despite her ‘good sense’, Nell too begins to fall for Brooke, and he for her. Told from two perspectives, the novel ‘gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a tale of mutual fascination and inner turmoil, set at a time of great social unrest.’ Dawson weaves together extracts from Brooke’s own letters with the imagined voice which she has created for him; she builds her narrative around his own. The other voice we hear within the novel is Nell’s.
One gets a feel for Nell immediately. She has been recently orphaned, losing her mother in girlhood, and her father quite recently. She takes the job away from her Fenland home in order to support her younger siblings. She describes herself as a ‘good, sensible girl’, with ‘many faults: I am feverishly curious, some would say nosy; I have no compunction about reading other people’s letters; I’m proud and full of vanity; I’ve a quick tempter although I forgive just as easily; I am not fond of horses and I am wont to be impatient with bees; and, worse of all, I am a girl who is incapable of being romanced because I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body. Moons and Junes mean nothing to be, unless it is to signify good conditions for bees.’
When Nell first meets Brooke, ‘he appears at the door, tall and sunny, loose-limbed and lanky, with his high forehead and mane of hair… he grins a glorious grin at me and the sun blazes through the floor, warming my face to scarlet. He wears grey flannels and a soft collar with no tie, and his face is rather innocent and babyish and, at the same time, inspired with a fierce life.’ The narrative using Brooke’s voice, which uses flowery, poetic prose, provides much of the humour in the novel. In the first of his entries, when he has moved into the Orchard Tea Rooms, he writes: ‘My bedroom looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since Thomas Hardy was first weaned and the beam above my head sheds little flakes of rotting wood like a shower of chocolate on the sheets in the morning.’
A high level of description, and the engaging, rich prose in which it is written, threads through the entire novel, and helps to create a vivid sense of place. The Great Lover has clearly been so well researched, and the atmosphere of the time really comes alive. The social and cultural climate of the time is always there; socialism, suffragism, and the like beat on in the background, sometimes being discussed by the protagonists too. Added to this is the way in which Dawson has introduced real-life figures, who interact mainly with Rupert. We meet, amongst others, Bohemians like Augustus John and ‘peacock’-like Ottoline Morrell, and Virginia Woolf even makes a cameo.
In her acknowledgements-cum-afterword, Dawson notes: ‘Of course I made Rupert [as well as Nell] up… and he is ‘my’ Rupert Brooke, a figure from my imagination, fused from his poetry, his letters, his travel writing and essays, photographs, guesswork, the things I know about his life blended with my own dreams of him, and impressions.’ Brooke’s character adds a tongue in cheek, playful element to the novel. I must say, however, that his voice did not always feel authentic to me, and I largely preferred Nell’s section of the narrative.
The element of Brooke’s inner turmoil has not been explored in as much detail here as I was expecting. His nervous breakdown, which offered so much room for investigation, has been almost glossed over. Whilst many of the reviews point to the depth which Dawson has given her characters in The Great Lover, I do not feel as though Brooke has quite been developed as well as he could have been. The narrative voices, which switch between one another throughout, are not always as distinctive as they could have been; on a couple of occasions, it did feel a little confusing to differentiate between the speakers. I was expecting a heady, sensual novel, and do not quite feel as though this element was realised. There are some very well executed parts to The Great Lover, but Brooke unfortunately felt little more than a caricature at times.