Something Rather Scandalous - Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke died of septicaemia caused by an infected mosquito bite, on his way to fight in Gallipoli in April 1915. It wasn’t a romantic or heroic death, but it proved easy enough to turn into legend: that he died in the Aegean and not a ditch in Northern France helped; so did his burial on the island of Skyros, where Achilles lived and Theseus was killed; so did the speed with which his death followed on the publication of his five war sonnets, his most famous and least typical poems, which had just been praised by the dean of St Paul’s for their ‘pure and elevated patriotism’. Churchill’s threnody to an already mythical soldier-poet appeared in the Times three days after his death: ‘Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classical symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.’ It was Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had formed the Royal Naval Division, secured Brooke a place in it and sent it east, in the hope of helping Russia by taking Constantinople and opening up the Black Sea. In the weeks after Brooke’s death landings were finally made on the Gallipoli peninsula and many of his battalion were gunned down by Turks positioned on the high ground; 11 of its 15 officers were lost by the end of June.

Brooke was buried a few hours after his death in an olive grove on Skyros: it was ‘as though one were involved in the origin of some classical myth’, F.S. Kelly, who would survive until the Somme, noted in his diary. Brooke and his fellow officers, all public schoolboys who’d studied Greek, had been carried away by the Homeric echoes of their journey: ‘Do you think perhaps the fort on the Asiatic corner will need quelling,’ Brooke had written, ‘and we’ll land and come at it from behind and they’ll make a sortie and meet us on the plains of Troy?’ They were primed to see Brooke’s death at this time, in this place, in those terms. They were also aware that their own deaths might well follow swiftly and that, as Denis Browne, who would die in trench fighting in Gallipoli that June, wrote, ‘there’s no one to bury me as I buried him.’ The scene, in any case, was impossibly romantic. ‘Oc’ Asquith, the prime minister’s son (who would survive, though he had a leg amputated), described it to his sister Violet: ‘the moon thinly veiled: a man carrying a plain wooden cross and a lantern leading the way: some other lanterns glimmering: the scent of wild thyme’.

The people who read about Brooke in the papers knew nothing of this, and nothing of his charm and beauty (Leonard Woolf: ‘His looks were stunning – it is the only appropriate adjective’; W.B. Yeats: ‘the handsomest young man in England’; H.W. Nevinson: ‘the whole effect was almost ludicrously beautiful’). The principal driver of myth-creation was the sonnets, whose notion of willing sacrifice in a noble cause had unerringly caught the public mood in this early uncertain period of the war. He was being turned into a ‘poster-poet’, Harold Monro, the editor of Poetry Review, wrote, but ‘“He did his duty? Will you do yours?” is hardly the moral to be drawn.’ Maybe not, but it was handy for the government all the same. Soon enough, the myth of the heroic soldier-poet was joined by that of the ‘young Apollo’: 1914 and Other Poems appeared in June with a frontispiece showing the dazzling bare-shouldered Brooke in profile (‘your favourite actress’, some of his friends labelled it). He was, Henry James wrote, ‘in an extraordinary degree … a creature on whom the gods had smiled their brightest’ (James had fallen hard for what Brooke called ‘his fresh, boyish stunt’).

In 1918 his Collected Poems were finally published, together with a memoir by Eddie Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary and Brooke’s London landlord. Marsh, part of whose income derived from the ‘murder money’ given to the descendants of Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to be assassinated, enjoyed cultivating decorative and talented young men whom he could show off around town (Ivor Novello was Brooke’s successor). Brooke’s redoubtable mother had made Marsh rewrite the memoir several times: she felt he’d been an unwholesome influence (which probably means she knew he was a homosexual) and was presuming on Brooke’s decision to make him his literary executor. The result was an airbrushed version of those aspects of Brooke’s life that Marsh and Mrs Brooke knew about, and there were many about which they knew very little. ‘This life,’ one reviewer wrote, ‘slips by like a panorama of earth’s loveliest experience.’ Virginia Woolf reviewed the book for the TLS, trying to remedy the relentless superficiality of the stitched-together letters and reminiscences by hinting that far from being Marsh’s sunny figure, Brooke was ‘the most restless, complex and analytic of human beings’. In private she called the memoir a ‘disgraceful sloppy sentimental rhapsody’ and Brooke himself ‘jealous, moody, ill-balanced’. There was a suggestion that James Strachey should write ‘something for us to print [at the Hogarth Press]. He’s sending us the letters to look at.’ Strachey had offered a review – it never appeared – to the Cambridge Magazine: ‘I knew him better than many people and it would give me a good deal of pleasure to try and explain what he was really like … If I wrote it would be something rather scandalous.’

Strachey was for several years one of Brooke’s closest friends. Their letters, which are full of gossip about the homosexual affairs of their fellow Cambridge Apostles and rake over in Bloomsbury truth-telling style Strachey’s own hopeless passion for Brooke, didn’t give the version of Brooke that Marsh and his successors wanted to portray (when Brooke’s mother died in 1930 her will replaced Marsh with four men she liked better). The most active of the new trustees, Geoffrey Keynes, brother of Maynard (‘the iron copulating-machine’ whose exploits are much discussed by Brooke and Strachey), was distressed at the idea that people might think Brooke was gay because Marsh, as Keynes put it, had ‘lived in a sexual no-man’s-land whose equivocal aura pervaded the memoir’. The correspondence with Strachey would be published, he said, ‘over my dead body’, and when he edited the 700-page volume of Brooke’s letters that finally appeared in 1968 he didn’t include any of it and cut passages elsewhere that seemed damaging to Brooke’s reputation. (Keith Hale, who edited the Strachey-Brooke correspondence, which was finally published in 1998, says that Keynes’s editor at Faber wrote again and again in the margins of the copy: ‘Why delete?’, ‘Why bowdlerise this?’) The collection had been slated for publication a decade earlier, but Dudley Ward, one of the other trustees, complained that even Keynes’s version was insufficiently sanitised. Christopher Hassall was asked to write the authorised biography in part because, as Nigel Jones notes in his own biography of Brooke, Hassall’s lengthy Life of Eddie Marsh had managed ‘to avoid the topic of his subject’s homosexuality’ and he could therefore be relied on to be discreet. (It’s unfair to say that Hassall doesn’t tell the truth about Brooke, but he muffles it, burying it under piles of detail.)

Expurgation wasn’t good for Brooke or for his reputation, but its opposite has been differently damaging. Marsh’s memoir told its story largely through the letters Brooke sent; the new version of Brooke also has its origin in letters which have emerged from private collections, like those to Strachey or Noel Olivier, or from under time-seals, like those to Phyllis Gardner, but these ones seem to show a man who was ‘jealous, moody, ill-balanced’, as Woolf had said, and who renounced the unconventionality of his youth to revert to philistine type: ‘the Rugby ethos’, as Paul Delany calls it, ‘that not only was character more important than brains but that brains, in themselves, were objects of suspicion’. Both versions are too fixed, and it’s easy to feel that Brooke’s faults are now being overstated. He’s a ‘cynical and heartless philanderer, with a streak of childish cruelty’ according to Jones; Delany pathologises his relationships with women (‘marriage itself, with anyone … was beyond reach for him’) but not his nervous breakdown. Delany complains that Hassall and Keynes suppressed the letters’ most vitriolic attacks and hints that he believes the ‘nasty parts show the “real” Rupert, the golden boy with the rotten core’.

Delany first wrote about Brooke in 1987 in The Neo-Pagans, a collective biography of Brooke and some of his friends, who earned their nickname, first used by Woolf, from their fondness for bathing and camping and their worship of youth and friendship.​* He writes in the introduction to his new book that ‘over such a span’ of years ‘times will change, and authors will change with them.’ But not much: the tone remains the same and so does the vast majority of the content, juggled around a bit, but essentially unaltered. In 1906 Brooke went to Cambridge from Rugby where, despite what one might have imagined as the awkwardness of his father being a housemaster, he had been ‘happier … than I can find words to say’. One of the first people he met at Cambridge was Justin Brooke, son of the grocer who founded Brooke Bond tea, who roped Rupert into appearing as the Herald in Aeschylus’ Eumenides. All he had to do was look pretty and pretend to blow a trumpet. It was the first time Marsh saw his ‘radiant, youthful figure in gold and vivid red and blue … after 11 years the impression has not faded.’ The sight made Strachey declare himself: ‘I must just write to tell you (a truism) that you were very beautiful tonight. How sorry I shall be tomorrow morning that I sent you this! How angry you will be when you read it! Vogue la galère.’ Brooke was ‘irritated’, but Strachey continued to spend ‘his time dreaming of Rupert over a solitary fire’, as his older brother Lytton wrote, and trying to convince Lytton and Maynard Keynes to elect him to the Apostles. Neither of them could see what their younger brothers saw in Brooke – at least, they appreciated the good looks while being unsettled by the devotion he aroused – but in the end they capitulated. Brooke was perfectly aware of the reason for his election, but he didn’t mind; he was used to male admiration and to batting it away (or not). He enjoyed the secrecy and the exclusivity of the Apostles and, like the eponymous hero of Jacob’s Room, who is partly based on him, he was still more at ease with ‘male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics’.

He also joined the Fabians, encouraged by Hugh Dalton, the postwar Labour chancellor. He took it seriously, did a lot of reading, especially about the Webbs’ Minority Report on Poor Law reform, and in the summer of 1910, at the end of his year as president of the Cambridge society, he and Dudley Ward toured the West Country in a caravan, speaking on the subject on village greens. Beatrice Webb, however, was one of the few not to fall for Brooke’s charms. ‘There was a remarkable scene,’ Strachey wrote of one Fabian Summer School, ‘in which Rupert and I tried to explain [the philosopher G.E.] Moore’s ideas to Mrs Webb while she tried to convince us of the efficacy of prayer.’ ‘They don’t want to learn, they don’t think they have anything to learn,’ Webb wrote. ‘The egoism of the young university man is colossal.’ Both the Fabians and the Marlowe Dramatic Society, which the two Brookes founded, admitted members from the women’s colleges; most of those who would be counted as Neo-Pagans came from one of these groups. Several, like Justin Brooke, had been pupils at Bedales, which, progressive and co-educational, keen on camping and acting, represented an attempt to break away from the public school ethos encapsulated by Rugby. The group had its own rules, which Brooke recapitulated to Katherine Cox, whom he met when she was treasurer of the Fabians, and with whom he would have an affair that broke these rules. She hadn’t been sure whether she should let Geoffrey Keynes buy a portrait of her by Duncan Grant: ‘We don’t copulate without marriage,’ he wrote, ‘but we do meet in cafés, talk on buses, go on unchaperoned walks, stay with each other, give each other books, without marriage. Can’t we even have each other’s pictures?’ But the practice of comradely chastity was hard to sustain. Couples formed, and worries about sex, marriage and marriageability increasingly constrained the behaviour of the Neo-Pagan women, as they did that of the still unmarried Virginia Stephen. She felt excluded by the sexual exploits of the homosexual men around her – pretty much all of them Apostles – even while she felt exhilarated by the lack of inhibition in their discussion of them. Despite their illegality, what she called ‘the love affairs of buggers’ seemed less problematic than heterosexual relations. For one thing, their sexual choices weren’t final, while Stephen and the Neo-Pagan women – and most of the men – felt theirs were. Premarital sex had consequences – pregnancy, loss of reputation – that most of these sensible, well-educated women weren’t prepared to risk.

The first woman Brooke fell in love with was one who was going to remain out of reach for some time. In May 1908 he went to a Fabian supper party to which some grand guests had been invited, including the governor of Jamaica, Sir Sydney Olivier, who brought three of his four beautiful daughters (Laurence Olivier was their younger cousin). He already knew two of the sisters but now he met the youngest, 15-year-old Noel – he helped her pick up the fragments of the small green coffee cup she’d dropped. He would spend the next two years hatching schemes that would allow them to meet, most of them thwarted, by the fact that she was still at Bedales, by her protective older sisters, or by Noel herself, who held him at arm’s length, accepting, as Brooke’s friend Jacques Raverat put it, ‘his devotion with a calm, indifferent, detached air, as if it were something quite natural’. In the summer of 1910 Olivier agreed to become engaged to Brooke, but she wanted to keep it secret, and it didn’t make her more available. Her untouchable quality infuriated him and appealed to him; Olivier herself parsed it as ‘beastly indifference’. ‘You seem to want us to be in love so much; why do you?’ she asked him.

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