It is Christmas Eve, 1956, and the reclusive Mr Page is remembering a dream from thirty years ago. The dream is about the rich and wild Mr Clive, a man who could have been Page’s twin, and what really happened to the beautiful white-haired boy who served in his house. And the dream is about Clive’s house itself–ostensibly modern and spacious but in truth deeply secretive, with its invisible network of staircases, corridors and hidden rooms. Neil Bartlett bears angry witness to the oppression of gays in the past and evokes their concealed world with dark, erotic tenderness.
Review by Erastes
I’ve just closed the book and am completely blown away.
It’s probably not for everyone, because it’s written in first person; is interspersed with (relevant) articles and news clippings; is written in a realistic diary-style; has a very campy-fussy-gay-man-tone and rambles quite extensively. But for my money it’s one of the best books I’ve read.
For a start it emphasises the very real fear that gay men were feeling in late 50’s England. Compare and contrast this with Isherwood’s bohemian gay life of A Single Man and you will appreciate the difference of Californian sun to the cold austere post-war severity and class-conciousness.
You’d think that – as the Labouchère amendment had been in place for 70 years – that the gay community (such as it was) would be a little more confident but for those who didn’t already know that was not the case, this book shines a light on the constant fear of discovery.
Mr Page is a wonderful character; from his first words “I’ve got the gas on, Lovely,” you immediately picture him: fussy, beautifully turned out, and alone. The entire diary is written with a core of the fear of detection running all the way through it, and he explains, just by the way he describes his life, why he’s so repressed because of the case of that household guard, those two navy boys, that man in the university – a catalogue of less fortunate men who have been “found out.” He even says that he can’t name names because if they found any of those names in this – they’d know. It’s a terrible thing to be so very afraid, afraid to love.
In a very real way, it reminds me of Rebecca; there’s a gothic feel to Mr Clive and his huge empty expensive house, and Mr Page even mentions the book at one point, which probably helps the comparison. Mr Page meets Mr Clive (a Gatsby type figure, apparent wealth and eccentric behaviour) outside the Turkish bath where Mr Pages goes every week. Although it’s very veiled (as Mr Page doesn’t want anyone getting hold of his memoir and naming names) it’s clear that the bathhouse is a meeting place, as such places have been in history.
Mr Page wonders why Mr Clive picks him up the way he does, first thinking that it is because they look so alike, but then realises it’s probably for other reasons. It’s not a friendship, never a friendship, but it’s compelling both to Mr Page and to the reader – and whether or not Mr Page’s reasoning at the end of the book- the reasons why Mr Clive did the things he did – are accurate, then that’s up to the reader.
The core of the book is one image: of one day in history 14 March – when Mr Page saw a blond man, naked, bathed in sunshine. This image is both a dream and a reality and what starts out as one certain image – what we think we know is happening – gradually unravels as Mr Page get more maudlin (fuelled by Christmas brandy) and we finally, tragically, understand what the image of the naked, blond man is really all about. You get a real feel that it’s the true meaning of the image that Mr Page has been trying to hide, but in the end, he had to get out.
I wish I could say more, but it’s difficult to do so without spoiling, despite the length of the book, it’s a very simple premise, fabulously written and I was jealous of every line. The ending had me sobbing, but not in a bad way, believe me.
This is definitely a keeper, a re-reader, an inspiration, and one of my essential reads.
I don’t often link to other sources, but I think that this essay on the book is well worth reading (after you’ve read the book, of course)