The Great Lover: A Novel by Jill Dawson
Harper Perennial (June 1, 2010)
Paperback, 336 pages
Source: I was provided a copy by the publisher in support of my participation in the TLC Book Tour
Nell Golightly is living out her widowhood in Cambridgeshire when she receives a strange request: a Tahitian woman, claiming to be the daughter of the poet Rupert Brooke, writes to ask what he was like: how did he sound, what did he smell like, how did it feel to wrap your arms around him? So Nell turns her mind to 1909 when, as a seventeen-year-old housemaid, she first encountered the young poet. He was already causing a stir - not only with his poems and famed good looks, but also by his taboo-breaking behaviour and radical politics. Intrigued, she watched as Rupert skilfully managed his male and female admirers, all of whom seemed to be in love with him. Soon Nell realised that despite her good sense, she was falling for him too. But could he love a housemaid? Was he, in fact, capable of love at all? In a dazzling act of imagination, Jill Dawson gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a dual narrative that unfolds in both his own words and those of her spirited fictional character, Nell. A memorable tale of love in many guises, of heartbreak and loss, the novel brings Brooke vividly to life as it shows him to have been a far more interesting, complex and troubled figure than the romanticised version allows.
The Great Lover was a beautifully written, historically intriguing novel. The basis for the story was a woman who was seeking information on her father, poet Rupert Brooke. Nell Golightly, a housemaid who knew Brooke, helped to tell the story, so that the woman could learn more about her father.
The story, told in the alternating voices of Nell and Rupert, showed strong emotion and I connected easily with both characters. The families and societal standing of Nell and Rupert were in stark contrast to one another, but their lives intersected at the Orchard tea garden, during Rupert's stay. The two were immediately drawn to one another and even though Rupert had an active love life, he continued to seek out Nell as a companion and confidant. Nell's character was especially moving to me - I could feel the pain and concern that she had for her family, and the struggle that she felt to do what was right and to keep her job at the Orchard. This drive however could not overcome the connection that she had with Rupert, and I am conflicted between feelings that Nell was trying to rescue Rupert from himself and her desire to change her own life.
I appreciated the historical setting very much and references to the political struggles of the time. Rupert Brooke was associated with many individuals with controversial opinions, which caused many conservative individuals to challenge his views and question his activities. The real-life letters and writing excerpts included within the novel helped to solidify the imagined storyline that Dawson created.
My only hesitation with the novel was in its early pages. The alternating narration between Nell and Rupert, when the story was unfolding confused me at some points - if I put the novel down, I had to go back a few pages in order to remember who was telling the story, and re-establish a rhythm. After the first fifty pages, this was no longer an issue, as the narration and voices became more clear.
The Great Lover was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially early twentieth century novels. Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for allowing me to participate on the tour.