Life, Death and Myth – Rupert Brooke By Nigel Jones,

Reviewed by Anne Henderson.

  • Publisher: Head of Zeus London 2014
  • ISBN13: 9781781857168
  • RRP – $54.99 hb

He was a celebrity in an age before global stardom, the emblem of Britain’s lost youth at the end of the Edwardian age as world conflagration brought to a halt that glorious European summer of 1914.

Rupert Brooke, at 27, would work into poetry the feelings of millions in his early World War I poems as he enlisted and encouraged others towards their country’s service, the Rugby school prize winner with looks Yeats described as the most handsome in England, Cambridge scholar, friend and associate of a litany of elite names from members of the Bloomsbury collective to future best sellers and a poet laureate to be, on to the Asquiths, their entourage, and Winston Churchill. He had by 1915 become an acclaimed literary voice around London and beyond. His death from septicaemia in April 1915, at sea on the way to the Gallipoli campaign, forged his iconic status, along with his best known lines, from The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:   

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be   

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,   

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,   

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

The most popular and recognised of Brooke’s poems, such as The Soldier and The Old Vicarage Grantchester evoke sentiments of English pride and belonging, of an Englishness that is noble, pure and lasting. These were the confident sentiments of the hub of an Empire, of quintessential civility and an earthy sophistication.

Brooke’s much longer list of published works, however, evoked darker thoughts, satire and remorse. But these were sublimated by his glory in death and prescience of thought in The Soldier, along with the much censored biographies his mother directed in his memory. His friends did not recognise the portrait of Brooke to be found in the public images that followed his early death, images evoked in eulogies, such as that from Winston Churchill himself.

In Keith Hale’s 1998 publication Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, a first fully frank and open picture of Brooke came to light. Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey The Years of Achievement 1910-1932 briefly features Brooke at his paranoid worst but from the Lytton Strachey perspective. A comprehensive biography had still to be accomplished.

In 1999, Nigel Jones published the first edition of Life, Death and Myth: Rupert Brooke completing a mammoth task of combing through the masses of letters, notes, memoirs and documents left by Brooke himself and the personalities and individuals who associated with Brooke or knew him intimately. The layers of these relationships were intricate and only fully known to Brooke. As Brooke’s good friend Jacques Raverat would say, he kept his friends in “separate watertight compartments”. So much so, that fifteen years after his first edition, Jones found he had discovered new material to reveal in this revised volume.

Untangling Brooke’s truncated and brief adult years takes around 550 pages, intimately recording a life where much of the account folds together like a lengthy download from a much troubled patient on a psychiatrist’s couch. While this might be a heavy read for some, Jones’ faithful rendering and stitching together of Brooke’s thoughts, outpourings and output alongside the reactions and interactions of his many friends and associates has an effect which is both absorbing and eye-opening.

Jones occasionally comments wryly on his subject – “A Hamlet bent on self-destruction does not normally, Brooke should have known, worry much about footwear and specks on his garments”. But, generally, as Jones sees it, Brooke’s lack of self awareness coupled with his “tantrums, inconstancy and sheer purblind, self-obsessed stupidity” are enough to expose a character who wrought his poetic genius not so much from dappled moments by the river but mostly from pain, emotional highs and lows, the sheer madness suffered in a personal breakdown and the contradictions in his views and understanding of his sexuality, women and relationships of many kinds.

Born in the Victorian era in 1887, Brooke grew in a household dominated by the rigours of Rugby School and his forceful and controlling mother Ruth (the “Ranee”), spouse to the “dimmer presence” of William Parker Brooke, Rupert’s father, who worked as a housemaster at Rugby School. Rupert Brooke’s later attitudes to women, marriage, feminism (suffrage and the vote), race (Jews) and male superiority all reflect a successful enculturation of middle class and upper class values of the Victorian Age, albeit with a Queen atop it all.

Brooke may not have been, in reality, that noble doomed youth of the battlefield but he was certainly emblematic of the complicated personalities that grew out of an era that was passing from Victorian stringency in institutions and the home to one of more modern sensibilities of personal freedom both sexual and material among the upper classes in particular.

For all his elitist distance from the classes below him, Brooke was typical of his class and generation. Among his Bloomsbury and Cambridge Apostles society brethren there was nothing but indifference if not contempt for the lower, ill educated orders. Even Fabians thought of themselves as above the masses they professed to want to liberate.

Brooke’s notion of “beauty” to be found in the commoner world around him, which he observed for inspiration, was not of empathy or any sense of human egalitarianism. Writing of his thoughts on trains he opined:

I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours, and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat. I know their states of mind are bad. But I’m so much occupied with being there at all that I don’t have time to think of that.

Along with this satisfied sense of superiority, bred in Brooke’s class of gentlemen in schools like Eton and Rugby, came segregation from girls and women for most of their formative years. Brooke referred to his life of relationships around Rugby, when forced to fill in for his unwell father at one period, as being “thrown back to the old orthodox ways of pederasty”. Homosexuality and bi-sexuality was common for many and, in a social milieu of personal freedom and middle class leisurely lives, the tangle of polygamous couplings makes for voyeuristic reading.

Michael Holroyd’s two volume Lytton Strachey revealed this Edwardian Bloomsbury world marvellously but in Nigel Jones’ Rupert Brooke the intensity of the psychological struggle is more bluntly exposed, especially in the numerous letters Brooke wrote to friends and the women he set his sights on. So much so, that one reviewer commented that Ka Cox and Noel Olivier must have dreaded the arrival of the postman.

Brooke carried more than average baggage from his childhood. Jones writes of Brooke’s fear of his mother that it “ran so deep” it seemed to have followed him to his death. Her disapproval had to be constantly evaded, and she had little time for homosexuals. Brooke, thus, led a more than usual secret life, especially as the Ranee knew a number of his friends, Geoffrey Keynes for one. Her ignorance of her son’s full life was palpable. Even so, she held back his allowance at one stage in his adult years because she disapproved of his habits among some of his more raffish associates.

How this directly affected Brooke’s ability to form intimate relationships is for the psychologist to determine. But Jones makes it clear from Brooke’s letters, and those from others, that Brooke needed to be loved more than he ever knew how to love another. Among the Bloomsbury set, where Brooke never felt entirely comfortable, their toxic gossip about “outsiders” and even some of their own left the emotionally fragile Brooke something of a loner.

Yet Brooke could only blame himself for the distress and breakdown in his attempts at his first serious heterosexual relationships, at first with Noel Olivier and then Katherine (Ka) Cox and later Noel’s older sister Bryn. Prone to bouts of depression from his days at Cambridge, Brooke might be seen to adopt “poses” as a way to hide his insecurity. In mock heroic tones, he often referred to his poses alongside his tendency to overdramatise moments in his descriptions to friends. At his worst, he exhibited what Jones calls a “spoilt, self-pitying brat”.

Into this mix, Brook adds his desire and yearning to be a “lover of women” as if to shed his early homosexuality. He believed himself to be just a “quarter” homosexual. So much so, that marriage at times becomes a craving in him, and the object of his love might be either of two (or three) particular women. The pursuit is all about his feelings – and as he sways from woman to woman he mixes outpourings of his “love” one minute with nasty and punishing commands or cautions the next. His use of “child” always when addressing a female also suggests his tendency to believe a male must protect a female in a world where the female is a lesser mortal.

This is a biography that has it all. Jones’ assessment of his subject is bold and candid and Brooke’s self inflicted miseries are exposed for all to see. The genius, however, is that Jones can do this by his careful accumulation of Brooke’s own words. What a marvellous treasure for any biographer to have – so much first hand material at an author’s disposal. Brooke was a constant letter writer, pouring out his emotions to a variety of acquaintances.

Only in his year-long travels across North America and the Pacific in 1913-14 did Brooke find a peace, at some point. His poetry from that time has been described as some of his best. He also appeared to benefit from the amoral society of Tahitian women, finding a Tahitian mistress who seems to have born him a daughter. Brooke returned from his time away more relaxed about his polygamous nature, more secure in his liaisons and their fragility and happy to describe his nature as that of a (sexual) “wanderer”.

What may have followed can only be guessed – within months Brooke was dead and the myths began.

Anne Henderson is deputy director of The Sydney Institute. Her most recent book, Menzies at War, was short listed for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History.