Beauty and the Maid
Jill Dawson is a terrific novelist who has received relatively little attention in the US, though she is well-known in her native Britain. In previous novels such as Wild Boy (2003) and Watch Me Disappear (2006), Dawson has shown a flair for taking weighty subject matter (abuse to children, the nature-nurture conundrum, the French Revolution for God’s sake) and weaving it into powerful human stories of longing, desperation and desire. Fred and Edie (2001), perhaps her best-known book, is based on the real-life 1920s murder of a husband by his wife’s lover; told in a series of letters written from prison, the story betrays the aching sadness and doubt of someone who has loved very strongly but perhaps not too intelligently. Few writers today can match Dawson’s ability to catch that ineloquent yearning.
The Great Lover is another novel based on a true-life figure. In this case, the title character is the English poet Rupert Brooke, another writer better known on the far side of the Atlantic, an almost unnaturally beautiful man (or so we are told) born into a life of wealth and privilege. It is a measure of how much things have changed in the past century or so that this blue-blood wrote his best-known poems during his time stewing in the trenches of the First World War. The idea that the elite would deign to send their offspring into battle these days is, frankly, unimaginable.
Before he went off to do that, however, Rupert Brooke graduated from university and mooned about the English countryside, staying at a country house in Grantchester, writing poems or—more often—worrying about not writing poems. He chased after a variety of young women and young men and generally found the young men to be more responsive. And in this book at least, he also fell into a long, flirtatious will-they-or-won’t-they almost-affair with the young maid of the household, a seventeen-year-old named Nell Golightly.
This book is not Dawson’s finest, but it is worth reading, and what makes it worth reading is Nell. Dawson has a knack for writing about spirited women in whose company the reader might wish the spend many a long afternoon, and Nell is the latest addition to that happy company. She speaks with unvarnished clearness leavened with wry humor. “For sure, that’s the real problem between men and women,” she reflects ruefully. “That we don’t see one another in the proper way—that women do reflect men back at twice their natural size.”
Nell’s clearsightedness has its limits. Acutely aware of class distinctions, her awkwardness around her wealthier “betters” is palpable. Given her rarely-articulated feelings toward Rupert, this is quite a hurdle indeed.
The plotline spans several years. Nell and Rupert take turns narrating alternating sections, which allows Dawson to get out of England after a while when Rupert takes a sojourn to Tahiti to explore the local, ah, culture. Meanwhile, stolid and resourceful Nell carries on with her own life, more interesting perhaps in contrast to Rupert’s than it would be in an uninterrupted narrative.
The trouble with this book is that as interesting and engaging as Nell is, Rupert is just the opposite. He manages to be in turn selfish, self-absorbed, self-loving, and self-loathing. Oh, and narcissistic too. He is not without wit, and his anguished ruminations on his sexuality—is he straight? Is he gay? Why, oh why, is he a virgin, in any case?—will carry resonance for many readers. Despite this, he is ultimately a wealthy young man preoccupied with himself, which makes him rather tedious. Nell, whose life traverses a range of experience different from most of us—she’s a beekeeper; she’s an orphan responsible for a gaggle of younger siblings; she must rely on her teenager’s wits and hard work to see her through life—is the far more compelling character. Her heart is bigger, too.
The irony of that is recognized in Dawson’s title, which also happens to be the title of one of Brooke’s poems. Rupert is a man in love with the idea of being in love; even when he seems to find it, developments ensue that complicate matters. Again, the back-and-forth structure of the book invite us to constantly compare Rupert and Nell, and Rupert rarely comes off the better for it.
Ultimately, what pulls the reader on is the resolution of that will-they-or-won’t-they which has been simmering throughout the length of the narrative. Dawson is too fine a novelist to leave the reader unsatisfied, and she resolves the various plot threads skillfully. Perhaps surprisingly, she does so with considerable emotional impact as well. Rupert Brooke may not have been a “great lover” in the conventional sense, but his story, and Nell’s, are compelling enough to leave the reader moved. These characters are fortunate to have a writer as skilled as Jill Dawson to tell their tale.