Earlier this year Jesse Norman claimed that so many Etonians end up in government not because they’re born into money and power, but because ‘other schools don’t have the same commitment to public service’. Boys at Eton are encouraged to run parts of the school, so ‘don’t defer’; they also study rhetoric, poetry and public speaking, which are ‘incredibly important to young people succeeding in life’. Norman failed, however, to mention the kind of all-important physical training that Edmund Marlowe puts at the centre of his new novel of Eton life, Alexander’s Choice.
Marlowe’s book describes the erotic awakening of a precocious 13-year-old aristocrat called Alexander Aylmer. The year is 1983, and in his second month as a member of (the fictional) Peyntors House – ‘a very old-fashioned house, the most old-fashioned in the school’ – Aylmer has just enjoyed his first orgasm:
He was still exhilarated by the discovery. It was amazing that there could be such a fantastic sensation he had had no idea existed. He had simply become conscious for the first time that the generally pleasant feeling of playing with his organ intensified enormously when he kept it up long enough. Naturally, he had then kept going until he felt a spasm of delight and joy purer than any he had imagined could exist. Perhaps he could’ve done it months before and had been missing out through ignorance. He did not know.
An older boy called Julian, whose father is a removals man who saved for years to send his son to Eton, flirts with Alexander, and Alexander flirts back. There are a couple of agonisingly unconsummated trysts. Alexander goes to Julian’s room brandishing a copy of Cider with Rosie and tells him to read a passage: ‘Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers.’ But Julian wimps out of acting on the younger boy’s brazen come-on: ‘He had approached Alexander physically in every way possible short of the overtly romantic and still he had not managed to dare to cross that threshold.’
Julian’s father receives a letter from the boys’ housemaster informing him of his son’s ‘unhealthy interest in much younger boys’ and the relationship is put on hold. But meanwhile, the tension between Alexander and his English teacher, Damian Cavendish, ‘the nicest beak he had come across’, is mounting. Damian organises some after-hours tutorials, and rereads a book called Greek Love: The Role of Pederasty in the Classical Age to help justify his feelings to himself; Alexander reads The Persian Boy and imagines himself ‘in Damian’s bed, willing slave to his own King, while Damian, wild with lust, kissed him all over’. Finally, on his birthday, Damian comes home to find his sitting-room rug rolled up with a note on it: ‘This birthday gift is for you to enjoy in any way you can think of.’ He unwraps the gift, which turns out to be – surprise! – Alexander with no clothes on. Damian admires the boy’s ‘smooth twin orbs’ and his ‘delicate bulge’, which, though ‘manifestly smaller than Damian’s own’ is nevertheless ‘evidently virile’. Then they have sex.
At 416 pages, Alexander’s Choice is perhaps a little long. Marlowe also enjoys using Eton’s esoteric argot, words like ‘div’ (lesson) and ‘beak’ (teacher), each defined on its first appearance in a series of unwieldy passages: ‘According to the school rules, if a beak was more than fifteen minutes late, the boys in his div could “take a run” to School Office, where they reported the matter before taking the rest of the div period as free time.’ Yawn. But the sex scenes are thrillingly frank. And there’s fun to be had, as the Old Etonian writer Guy Walters told the Daily Mail, in ‘trying to identify who the people in the book might be in real life’. Eton had a bumper crop of future statesmen and celebs in 1983 – David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Earl Spencer and Dominic West among them. Is Alexander’s Choice a roman à clef? Is Julian, with his ‘wavy dark brown hair and thick spectacles’ a fantasy portrait of the future Detective McNulty? Alexander has ‘dazzling white teeth’ and ‘golden-blond hair': is he based on Bojo? Earl Spencer? And who, for that matter, is the pseudonymous Edmund Marlowe?