Alan Hollinghurst’s widely acclaimed new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a century-spanning story set in England and built around the myth of a single poem: “Two Acres” is written in 1913 by Cecil Valance, an aristocratic young man who, in the book’s opening, visits a Cambridge school chum, George Sawle, for the weekend; before he returns to university, Cecil composes the poem in the autograph album of George’s younger sister, Daphne. Daphne is dazzled by Cecil: he is older and handsome, and a talked-about young poet, the scion of a rich family with a major country estate (she longs to visit him at “Corley Court”), while her existence is modest, dull by comparison. The title “Two Acres” refers to the Sawle’s own small property outside London, where Cecil, during his three-day stay with the family, both makes love to George and flirts with Daphne, giving the innocent girl her first kiss out in the garden. In the passage below, we get fragments of the poem, which, as Hollinghurst’s novel develops and Cecil is killed in World War One, becomes a touchstone for a generation, cited by Winston Churchill and subsequently recited by every schoolchild in England. Far less publicly, it also becomes the complex launching pad for the lives that George and Daphne and the generations that come after them go on to lead. Before the novel ends, we get to witness Daphne, in her eighties, still guarding her corner of that long-ago love triangle when an eager Valance biographer comes to call; we have to marvel at the way a poem begins as just a little piece of one life and then, regardless of its quality or original intent, comes to carry multiple meanings, conflicts, sorrows—a unique form of kinetic energy—into many lives down through the ages.
A minute later George came back down, with Jonah at his heels, and Daphne’s mauve album open in his hands. “My word, sis . . . ,” he said abstractedly, turning the page and continuing to read; “he’s certainly done you proud!”
“What is it?” said Daphne, pushing back her chair but determined to keep her dignity, almost to seem indifferent. Not just his name, then: she could see it was much, much more—now that the book was here, open, in the room, she felt quite frightened at the thought of what might come out of it.
“The gentleman left it in the room,” said Jonah, looking from one to the other of them.
“Yes, thank you,” said Daphne. George was blinking slowly and softly biting his lower lip in concentration. He might have been pondering how to break some rather awkward news to her, as he came and sat down across from her, placing the book on the table, then turning the pages back to start again. “Well, when you’ve finished,” Daphne said tartly, but also with reluctant respect. What Cecil had written was poetry, which took longer to read, and his handwriting wasn’t of the clearest.
“Goodness,” said George, and looked up at her with a firm little smile. “I think you should feel thoroughly flattered.”
“Oh, really?” said Daphne. “Should I?” It seemed George was determined to master the poem and its secrets before he let her see a word of it.
“No, this is quite something,” he said, shaking his head as he ran back over it. “You’re going to have to let me copy this out for myself.” Daphne drained her teacup completely, folded her napkin, glanced across at the two servants, who were smiling stupidly at the successful retrieval of the book, and also formed a somewhat inhibiting audience to this agitating crisis in her life, and then said, as lightly as she could, “Don’t be such a tease, George, let me see.” Of course it was a tease, the latest of thousands, but it was more than that, and she knew resentfully that George couldn’t help it.
“Sorry, old girl,” he said, and sat back at last, and slid the album towards her.
“Thank you!” said Daphne.
“If you could see your face,” said George.
She pushed her plate aside—”Will you take all this, please,” to the maid; who did so, with gaping slowness, peering at the columns of Cecil’s black script as though they confirmed a rather dubious opinion she’d formed of him. “Thank you,” said Daphne again sharply; and frowned and coloured, unable to take in a word of the poem. She had to find out at once what George meant, that she should be flattered. Was this it, the sudden helpless breaking of the news? Perhaps not, or George would have said something more. The harder she looked at it, the less she knew. Well, it was called, simply, “Two Acres,” and it ran on over five pages, both sides of the paper—she flicked back and forth.
“Formally, it’s rather simple,” said George, “for Cecil.”
“Well, quite,” said Daphne.
“Just regular tetrameter couplets.”
“That will be all,” said Daphne, and waited while Veronica and Jonah went off. Really they were most irritating. She flicked further back for a moment, to the Revd. Barstow, with his scholarly flourish, “B. A. Dunelm”; and then forward to Cecil, who had broken all the rules of an autograph book with his enormous entry, and made everyone else look so feeble and dutiful. It was unmannerly, and she wasn’t sure if she resented it or admired it. His writing grew smaller and faster as it sloped down the page. On the first page the bottom line turned up sideways at the end to fit in—”Chaunticleer,” she read, which was a definite poetry word, though she wasn’t precisely sure of its meaning.
“I suppose he’ll be publishing it somewhere,” said George, “the Westminster Review or somewhere.”
“Do you think?” said Daphne, as levelly as she could, but with a quick strong feeling that the poem was hers after all. Cecil hadn’t just written it here, in her book, by chance. She was still trying to see if it said things about her personally, or if it was simply about the house—and the garden:
The Jenny nettle by the wall,
That some the Devil’s Play-thing call—
that was a conversation she’d had with him—now quite simply turned into poetry. Her father had called stinging nettles Devil’s Play-things, it was what they called them in Devon. She felt thrilled, and a little bewildered, at being in on the very making of a poem, and at something else magical, like seeing oneself in a photograph. What else would be revealed?
The book left out beneath the trees,
Read over backwards by the breeze.
The spinney where the lisping larches
Kiss overhead in silver arches
And in their shadows lovers too
Might kiss and tell their secrets through.
Again the minutely staggered and then breathtaking merging of word, image and fact. She was really going to have to read this somewhere apart, in private. “I think it would be most appropriate to read this in the garden,” she said, getting up and feeling very slightly sick; but just then her mother appeared in the doorway, with her heavy morning face, and her bright morning manner. In fact her manner was flustered; there was something behind her smile. Word must already have got through. Beyond her Veronica loitered, the informer.
“Well, child . . . !” her mother said, and gave Daphne a strange, eager look. “What excitements.”
“Everyone can see it when I’ve finished reading it,” said Daphne. “People seem to be forgetting that it’s my book.”
Excerpt from THE STRANGER’S CHILD © 2011 by Alan Hollinghurst. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.