The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Harper Collins e-books, 2010)
is the first of the ebooks I'll review in 2012. Dawson's novel grew out of a life long fascination with biography. That, and the fact that, as she admits, "I think I've always been a sucker for a sexy brilliant, impossible man." The poet Rupert Brooke, who died early in WWI, is just that. He's also insecure in his identity as a man, a writer, and a lover. Living at the end of the Victorian era, and just before the expensive carnage of WWI changed the entire social and economic structure of the world, Brooke inhabited an unusual transitional period. Members of the upper classes could indulge themselves in the leisure and cultural pursuits that were only a dream to the millions who physically labored to maintain them. Those millions are represented in the book in the character of Nell Golightly, a poor bee keeper's daughter who is a maid in the house where Rupert has rooms. She brings him his food, cleans his dirty linen, and despite her best intentions, becomes infatuated with him. In many ways Nell's story is the strongest one of the book; one certainly has more sympathy for her character than Brooke's. While he fusses over an editor changing the title of a poem from "Lust" to "Libido," Nell berates herself for not being able to prevent her fifteen year old sister from becoming pregnant, and enduring a dangerous labor and delivery. There couldn't be a stronger comparison made between the working class and the idle upper class of the Edwardian period. Dawson is to be congratulated for showing the differences in a tale of love rather than class struggle.
I wholly approve of the approach Jill Dawson has to writing biographical fiction. "I think of it as applying fiction to facts like a poultice, to draw something out..." she writes, "My novels based on true stories probably evolved because of the decade of psychoanalysis, I underwent in my twenties, and my beginnings as a poet. I wanted psychological truths, not representational social realism." She does well with this approach, chronicling Rupert's 'she loves me...she loves me not' ditherings and Nell's straightforward assessment of her reality. What others call "...drudgery is freedom to me," Nell concludes about her work. ""My little room--the first bedroom I've not shared with five others; the kindly way Mrs. Stevenson lets us eat the broken scones for breakfast, warm and crumbling with butter; the new-pin order of the kitchen...How could I give this up and go back to a life like Lily"s, never to see a soul all day besides Mrs. Gotobed and wailing little ones?" My novel The Truth Of It: Amelia Earhart's Private Journal, to be published in the next couple of months, employs the same philosophical approach to fictionalized biography--getting to the truth underneath the facts.
Stylisticly, Dawson's writing also reflects the search for psychological truths. Nell is direct where Rupert is dreamy. Both are detailed in what matters to them, the natural world and the description of the loved ones body. Of Rupert, Nell writes, "It is only when he has left that I notice how vividly I remember his smell, the smell of him and how I have missed it. It's a clean green river smell, the smell of warm flannel and Wrights Coal Tar Soap, and the smell of my childhood, my brothers playing in the river, or stripping bark to make a pipe: something fresh mixing with something older, something male and a little sour, too." Rupert describes Nell's "water-drenched body slim and green in the watery light like the shoot of a young tree, giving off her salty intimate river smell..." Even though I don't know what Wrights Coal Tar Soap smells like, and can't quite imagine a salty intimate river smell, The Great Lover makes me wish to smell these things. Isn't that the sign of good writing?