Modern Virginity

Paul Delany

  • Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier 1909-1915 edited by Pippa Harris
    Bloomsbury, 302 pp, £17.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1048 2

On 29 July 1912, Rupert Brooke was spending a disconsolate evening at the Crown Hotel, Everleigh, where he had been staying for five days at a house party hosted by J.M. Keynes. The cause of Rupert’s distress was the departure that day of Noel Olivier, to go climbing in Switzerland. Her elder sister Brynhild had left with her, off to climb in Wales with Hugh Popham, to whom she had just become engaged.

Moping in his room, Rupert wrote to Noel one of what she called, ten years later, his ‘beautiful beautiful letters – real love letters’:

Remember all that has been! It’s more than four years since that evening in Ben keeling’s rooms, – the days on the river – when we were so swiftly in love. Remember those days on the river; and the little camp at Penshurst ... – one evening by the great elm clump at Grantchester; – bathing in early morning by Oxford; – the heights above Clifford Bridge camp; – a thousand times when we’ve gone hand in hand – as no other two people could; – – twice this year 1 felt your tears, Noel’s tears, on my hand. There are such things, such things that bind us ... I cannot live without you. I cannot indeed.

After writing his ardent appeal Rupert still could not sleep, so he wrote another letter, to Bryn Olivier, This one proposed, in a style more off-hand than ardent, that they should go on holiday together; there were a few weeks left for this to be done, before she married Hugh. Directions on how to register at hotels as man and wife would follow.

In reading Song of Love, then, one needs to know that these are songs of a rather peculiar kind, and that other sorts of letters may have been dropped into the pillar-box with them. Rupert was secretly engaged to Noel from August 1910 to December 1911, and often begged her to marry him; but had it come to the push, he would neither have expected nor wanted the marriage to take place. He loved Noel as an embodiment of youthful purity (she was 15 when they met), and he kept his relations with her sealed off from a parallel series of physical affairs with other women.

In the sonnet ‘Success’ Rupert called his longing for Noel a ‘blasphemous prayer’. The blasphemous element was lust: his physical desire for her and, a far worse potential sin, her possible desire for him. Sexually, Rupert was not happy being a member of any club that would have him for a member. To go on loving Noel, he had to have faith in her frigidity. They were therefore well-matched, for Noel did indeed have a kind of emotional impregnability that passed for frigidity in Rupert’s eyes. Actual sexual responsiveness was never at issue, because Noel never slept with Rupert.

This volume presents two people who write constantly about love, but cannot consummate it anywhere except on paper. However, each one had different reasons for holding back. ‘You don’t understand the psychology of gushers,’ Rupert told Noel. ‘You sit with amazing things going on behind that amazing mask, and speak deliberate words. I babble on, – change every hour.’ Noel’s role was to cap the gusher: by being relentlessly obtuse, by lecturing Rupert on his ‘foolish and innocent’ attitude to Nature, by simply making herself unavailable. She knew what the emotions of love were, but wanted nothing to do with them: ‘they destroy all one’s judgment – turn one into an ape.’

For an upper-middle-class young lady, born in the reign of Victoria, these were unusual sentiments. Song of Love provides a much clearer picture of Noel’s character than could be seen in the documents previously available. She told Rupert that when she was a child Edward Garnett had looked her over and said: ‘ “Heart-hard. Hard as nails!” I grinned with pride, and never forgot.’ Trying to push Rupert away from her, in 1912, Noel confessed: ‘The better things need passion: and passion is not latent in me, it never grew there – at best I mourn it.’

There was more to Noel, though, than just ‘atrophied feelings’. On her first camp with Rupert, at Penshurst in July 1909, she admitted that she was ‘driven silly with love’. But this was a reason to deny love admission to her heart, not to cherish it. When Rupert told her ‘how infinitely more [he felt] pains – pleasures than ordinary people,’ she crisply replied: ‘You say you feel more strongly than anyone else – you declare it, that’s all I have to go by (you may be prejudiced), and even if it’s true, it makes you a poorer thing than most people if your controlling strength isn’t proportionately great; the best one can say for you on that score, is that you’re unbalanced!’

Unyielding self-control gave Noel an integrity of character that attracted to her a long series of wobbly and histrionic young men, of whom Rupert was only the most extreme case. They all had to cope, as best they could, with her steady refusal to reciprocate the desires she aroused. Rupert told her that he could not wait years for marriage, because he had

too much burning inside. You scorn males for it, – dislike it. But it’s there ... Don’t curl your maiden lip. It’s you that are unpleasant: not me.

What he really needed, though, was a refuge from the burning, by thinking instead of Noel

             asleep,
In some cool room ...
One white hand on the white
Unrumpled sheet.

One could see all this as typical of a brief Late Victorian interlude in sexual history, when professed emancipation co-existed with still-effective female chastity – the flirtatious ‘modern virginity’ that Rupert constantly railed against. But ‘no virginity, no love’; or, at least, no love of the kind represented in these letters or in Rupert’s poetry. If he had lived, he would probably have been driven by external pressures to combine his sacred and profane desires inside a respectable marriage. This surely would have been an explosive mixture, perhaps fatal to the public career that Eddie Marsh and the rest had laid out for him.

The career he had instead was a posthumous one, as the national symbol for the death of a generation in the war. Within days of his death, he and his poetry were appropriated for public use. The young pacifist David Garnett spoke bitterly of how Eddie Marsh exploited Rupert’s image in the 1918 Memoir:

We like our boys to wear their hair rather long – to dabble in Socialism, to dabble in ‘decadence’ ... to fancy they really care about ethics – but all the time we know they are SOUND: SOUND TO THE CORE.

When the time comes they’ll go off heroically and forget their wild oats and die in a Greek island and then we can wallow in sentiment ... but the wild oats of Mr Marsh are really the important things in life. Rupert even though he did go to the bad some time before his death at one time cared about the important things and was able to understand them.

Sentimentality, obfuscation, and mishandling of his literary remains kept the Rupert Brooke legend going for the next fifty years. Sir Geoffrey Keynes – ‘poor old Geoffrey,’ as Rupert called him to Noel – picked up where Marsh left off. Keynes printed the Poems in reverse chronological order, and misdated an extraordinary number of the Letters; Christopher Hassall produced an authorised biography that was strictly economical with the truth. Only in 1967 did Michael Hastings start excavating the Brooke monument, in The Handsomest Young Man in England.

Pippa Harris’s edition opens up a new area in our knowledge of Brooke and her introduction and notes provide useful background to the letters, without undue deference to the ‘Young Apollo’ mystique of previous editions and biographies. However, Harris prints only about three-quarters of the correspondence and there is no way of knowing what has been cut, because the manuscripts are still privately held. These family archives also include important correspondence with James Strachey, Ka Cox, Margery Olivier and Ferenc Bekassy: it is disappointing that Harris makes little use of these materials to supplement her edition. Nor does she do enough to set Rupert’s relations with Noel in parallel with the other women in his life: Brynhild Olivier, Ka Cox, Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, Taatamata, and the rest. Rupert’s double-dealing with Noel and Bryn at Everleigh was part of a lifelong history of deceptiveness. His love for Noel was never a thing in itself, but only a half-love; the other half was the figure, male or female, who was the current object of his sensual desires. In Rupert’s own terms, Noel was the clean love that complemented and redeemed the dirty one. When Noel effectively ended the affair on 17 September 1912, Rupert fell in love with Cathleen Nesbitt four days – not by actually meeting her, but by seeing her as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale.

Once involved with Cathleen Nesbitt, he was able to have a guarded reconciliation with Noel, and to look back without anger at what they had shared. But real friendship would have required some openness about what he had been up to when Noel was not around, and Rupert was not ready for that. Nor could he accept Noel’s friendships in Bloomsbury, especially after the war began. Noel, for her part, felt both jealousy and contempt for Rupert’s success in fashionable society after 1912.

So the affair dwindled, until they were almost strangers to each other. Yet both were left with a sense of having missed their chance in life, ‘I see, you know, how entirely you’re the greatest thing for me,’ Rupert told Noel in1912, after his affair with Ka Cox had ended in disaster. Noel laid the blame on the Olivier temperament, as much as on any fault of Rupert’s: ‘Things like “The Olivier” can bear with all kinds of folk at first, extracting from them what is good until they are, as it were, boiled dry; whereupon we at last look at them critically, – seeing at one time all the objectionable qualities, which we had at first been blind to, conceive for them a bitter contempt – ennui.’ ‘Boiled dry’ or not, Rupert’s failure with Noel led directly to his sexual failures with other women, and then to his saying goodbye, in the 1914 sonnets, to ‘all the little emptiness of love!’ It’s curious to think how Rupert’s private misery in 1912 provided the raw materials for the fabrication of a national legend in 1915.