Dead poet's society

By Nicky Pellegrino

Jill Dawson intertwines fact and fiction in  The Great Lover . Photo / Supplied
Jill Dawson intertwines fact and fiction in The Great Lover . Photo / Supplied

For Jill Dawson's husband, it must have felt at times like there were three people in their marriage.

Dawson spent years researching the early-20th century English poet Rupert Brooke to write The Great Lover (Sceptre, $27.99), her fictionalised version of his short life, immersing herself in everything Brooke. She read his letters and poetry until she knew them by heart, making her way though nine or 10 biographies and surrounding herself with pictures of the famously handsome writer.

"It was as we were driving along one day and a photo of Rupert Brooke fell out of the glove compartment that my husband said, 'That's it, when is this obsession going to end?'," laughs Dawson over the phone from her home in the Cambridgeshire fens.

This week the British author arrives in Auckland for appearances at the Readers & Writers Festival, where she will talk about the challenges of intertwining fact with fiction and of her work mentoring other writers.

The Great Lover is Dawson's sixth novel and focuses on the period from 1909 when Brooke lodged at the idyllic Orchard House in Grantchester, his days filled with tea, scones and literary companions.

The book explores the mind of a young man tortured by questions about his sexuality, his sanity and his talent, and Dawson also provides him with a love interest, Nell, a practical and beautiful beekeeper and maid-of-all-work.

"I went to the Orchard before I ever started thinking of the novel," Dawson explains. "You still sit out beneath the trees drinking tea and it feels very much the same as it would have 100 years ago.

"I wanted to set a novel there and Brooke was the obvious character since he'd lived there.

"Although I didn't know much about him when I began, I had the impression that he was privileged, arrogant and annoying in lots of ways."

Dawson decided to use a novelist's tools to bring Brooke back to life. "I wanted to make him live, breath and walk."

While she concedes there is a difference between the character she has created and the real man, she argues that no single view of anyone is entirely accurate.

"Each of the biographies I read was different depending on the skill and subjectivity of the writer," she says. "I don't believe in the idea of a definitive self. We're all different with the various people we know - friends, colleagues, etc."

In none of the material Dawson studied was there evidence Brooke crossed the social barriers and had an affair with a maid, but neither was there proof he hadn't.

He certainly had a genuine interest in the education of the working classes and an eye for a spirited, intelligent woman, so a romance like the one Dawson has conjured up for him might easily have taken place.

"I wanted to write about the idea of falling for someone who is absolutely infuriating but attractive just the same; witty and nice-looking but emotionally immature and narcissistic," she says.

"Brooke's own work reveals a lot of that, but his letters also show a sense of humour and a self-awareness."

In the three years she devoted to The Great Lover, Dawson followed in Brooke's footsteps, travelling to Tahiti to see the lagoons he swam in and the places he visited a few years before his tragic death from septicemia on his way to battle at Gallipoli. "Sometimes going to places a character has been to can be more revealing than endlessly studying documentation," she says.

An award-winning poet herself, Dawson is tactful on the subject of whether Brooke ever truly produced great work. "Virginia Woolf criticised his convoluted syntax and overuse of adjectives," she says. "But I think that was a sign of his youth.

"Not everyone does their best work young - I certainly don't think I did. Brooke was obviously very talented and well-educated, but he hadn't matured.

"He was striving and struggling and I don't think he'd found his best voice. There's a sense of a great unwritten work surrounding him ..."

Dawson herself has been writing for a long time. She's made a living from her work since having her first piece of writing accepted by Honey magazine when she was just 18. "I've survived doing bits and bobs and some teaching of creative writing.

" I've managed to make a living and sustain myself and I'm proud of that. I've kept afloat without taking a job so I could give time to writing."

She's currently working on a novel about London's criminal underworld from the 1940s to the 1960s and, although she's drawing on real people and events, Dawson is being very cautious about naming anyone in case they have family members still living.

"It's a fake memoir told from the point of view of a woman.

"And it's great fun because it couldn't be more different from The Great Lover - the world, the research, the energy. There's lots more action and it's not quite so reflective."

To her husband's relief, he no longer comes across photographs of Rupert Brooke floating about in their car. "I was so immersed in Brooke at one stage that chunks of his phrases and poetry would float around in my mind - I could hear him in my head," Dawson says.

"But now I can barely remember them, which is a shame.

"They've moved out to make room for something else."

- Herald on Sunday

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