Review: While England Sleeps by David Leavitt

Review by Erastes

From the blurb:

At a meeting of republican sympathisers in London, Brian Botsford, a young middle-class writer and Cambridge graduate, meets Edward Phelan, an idealistic, self-educated London Underground worker. They share a mutual attraction. Across the divisions of class they begin an affair in secrecy.

But Edward posesses “an unproblematic capacity to accept” Brian and the love that dare not speak its name, whereas Brian is more cautious and under family pressure agrees to be set up with a suitable young woman. Pushed to the point of crisis Edward threatens to volunteer to fight Franco in Spain.

There are (to my perception, at least) a few inaccuracies in the blurb, but I won’t quibble over them. This is an excellent book which I devoured in two sittings.

It has a readability that draws the eye, and the narrator’s voice is completely convincing. It’s written in first person, there is a faux prologue “written” in 1978 where Brian explains that he’s now living in America and considers himself to be an American and an epilogue which looks back at 1938 from that fifty year gap. Both of these devices go far to convince that the book was written by Brian and not by David Leavitt.

Like “As Meat Loves Salt” (although not to the same extent) Brian is not a likeable or attractive character. A product of his class, he coasts through life, unlike Edward who takes what he wants with more enthusiasm, facing what he is face on. Brian still thinks that being homosexual is just something one did at school and that he would get over it, although it’s obvious he’s deluding himself. He’s a playwright, and he plays at it, having no drive to support himself; he sponges off his Aunt Constance (or “Inconstance” as he cruelly calls her, as she doesn’t pay him regularly enough for him to depend on her support. He mumps off his friends and generally won’t commit to one thing or another, which leads to the crisis event in the book – one which he will regret, and will haunt him for the rest of his life.

I found it to be tremendously absorbing, like the best of historicals, it immersed me in the era without info dumping. As I’ve said before, if a book reads like it was written in the time, rather than about the time, it earns big kudos from me. The class divide might be hard for non-Brits to grasp – but pre-war it was still more relevant than people would suppose. I felt ashamed of Brian’s inability to admit his affair to his own friends, but then found it perfectly acceptable to talk to Edward’s sister about it. I wanted to smack him with the clue-by-four several times in the book – but that’s ok – that meant that the author was doing his job.

It also brings the situation in Europe at that time into sharp relief, there’s a lovely sub-plot with a friend of Brian’s who is attempting to get a friend out of Europe which breaks your heart, and you, as the reader, knowing what is going to happen in a few short years, hold your breath and weep at the hopeless cause and loss of life that is the Spanish Civil War.

If you prefer to like your protagonists, then this book might not be for you, but if you want a meaty and rich story that takes you so viscerally into the period that you can smell the steam engines and feel the bubble of the champagne of the Fast Set, then you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. A definite keeper.

Buy at Amazon US: Amazon UK

5 Responses

  1. I read this a few years ago and it really stuck with me. You’ve put your finger on it – it feels written
    “in,” rather than “about,” the time.

    Terrific review, Erastes!


  2. Yes, excellent review. I’ve not long finished his ‘The Page Turner’, which I really enjoyed, and this one was mentioned on the back cover. Another one to add to the ever-growing TBR list. 🙂

  3. Thank you both!

  4. I’ve ordered it. Oh my poor wallet. O.o

  5. I’m a real cheapskate – I order the penny 2nd hand versions or even a cent and then ship it from the states, it’s always a lot cheaper.

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