A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In 1909 Nell Golightly goes to work as the new housemaid at the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester. There she meets young poet, Rupert Brooke, an encounter which changes her life for ever.
When Lisa of Vulpes first sent me Jill Dawson’s novel, The Great Lover, for review, I became rather excited as it’s a novel about Rupert Brooke. No relation, sadly, but my grandfather, Justin Brooke, was in Rupert’s set of friends while they were both at Cambridge. Naturally I wondered if Justin (a man known mainly for the family traits of auburn hair, a large nose and an ability to sniff out a camera at 50 paces and smile inanely at it until somebody takes the shot) might be in it. And indeed he is. Twice.
However the only meaningful mention of my illustrious forebear occurs in the first few pages when the hapless Rupert attempts to hide from that upstart (implied) “Brooke Bond tea boy” whilst enjoying a meeting on the river with the lovely Noel. That caused much amusement here amongst the grocery classes, but I have to admit the family got off lightly compared to Nigel Jones’ biography of Rupert Brooke (Rupert Brooke – Life, Death and Myth) where poor Grandfather was described as a man with no imagination, little emotion and a curiously flat personality. Which seems a rather harsh judgement for a man who founded the Cambridge University Marlowe Dramatic Society (still going strong today) and twice directed Dr Faustus, as well as performing it once. Ah well.
Anyway enough about my personal interest in this book. On to the novel itself.
Again I was very excited. Partly because I thought the character of Nell, the maid who comes to work in the tea room at Grantchester, is both unique and strong. I loved her very distinctive voice and the way she stands apart both from her family and her society. I do admit to being a little concerned about her interest in bees – it seems to have become something of a cliché to have unique women in some kind of relationship with bees in books these days and I find it rather wearisome now. But I do appreciate you have to tie her in with Brooke’s love of honey somehow and in any case Nell is, initially, strong enough to carry this.
I was also hugely excited by the sparkle and glitz of the prose – it made me feel like I was approaching one of those grand houses where everything is glittering chandeliers and champagne until the finale. Or, to use another analogy, as if someone had given me a gold-wrapped box of marshmallows and I’d just opened it and was making the hugely important choice between whether to have the pink or white sweet first.
Always a good place to be in when starting a novel. What then could go wrong?
Well, a lot, actually.
After Rupert turns up in the text, I’m afraid things gradually disintegrate. So much so that even Nell loses her power to charm and inspire. For there’s something terribly sapping about Rupert. He comes over as very self-centred and enormously irritating, and appears to slowly drain the energies of everyone around him. Including this reader. The moment he appears, everyone in the novel begins to sit around talking about “great matters” that are in fact really rather dull. Indeed, there’s a lot of talking and accompanying angst, usually from the great man himself – it felt in some ways like the script for a French film I’d stumbled upon without really intending to. I think it might have been better if there’d been a more obvious plot, but I suppose sitting around discussing issues was what they did at university before the war. The only thing that really happens is that Nell (pause for deep sighing here …) falls in love with Rupert, there’s a bit of kissing amongst the bees, a brief moment of coupling and then we all move on. Frankly I didn’t much care.
The one section of plot I did think was quite powerful was when Nell’s sister gets married, and – in a very cleverly done fashion, I must admit – Rupert thinks Nell is the one who’s now got a husband and is delicately traumatised for about half a page. Um, that’s about it really.
I also enjoyed a marvellous section towards the end when the kitchen maids are discussing the peculiarities of writers. Really, what’s not to love about this:
‘They all break down in the end,’ Kitty says cheerfully. ‘Writers, I mean. The doctor makes them drink milk and stout and stop writing. Stopping writing is the only cure.’
Sensible Kitty! Though I was bemused by her insistence a few sentences later that drinking the blood of bullocks also helped. Hmm, I’m not sure I’ll be trying that one in the near future …
By the time I arrived at the section where Rupert has a breakdown and scarpers off to the South Pacific, I was seriously skipping. I think I may even have cried with relief when I reached the last page – as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt very much as if I’d entered that large, beautiful and glittering house I spoke of earlier, and found there was … well, nothing of interest in it. Or that those pesky marshmallows rapidly became too sweet and I could really have done with some chips.
And it could have all been so much better – if only a more substantial plot had been factored in. It is a novel after all – it doesn’t have to be totally true to life. Or if Nell had been the only major character and hadn’t bothered to fall in love with Rupert and be totally drained by him, then I think it could have been a far stronger and more interesting read.
So, in answer to the question: is there honey still for tea? my feeling is that it may have gone rather rancid. But if anyone does still fancy a cuppa then, of course, the teabags are on me …
*From The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke