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Brooke and Strachey: Such Dear Friends

ISSUE:  Winter 2001
Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905—1914. Edited by Keith Hale. Yale University Press. $35.

This book of letters records a moving love story. Rupert Brooke and James Strachey first met as boys of ten at Hillbrow School. Brooke was the son of a housemaster at Rugby, while Strachey was a member of one of England’s most illustrious literary families. Strachey’s older brother Lytton became a leading figure in the Bloomsbury group. Both Brooke, who attended King’s College, and Strachey, a member of Trinity College, were elected to Cambridge’s famous society called the “Apostles.” I can still remember my shock at discovering that the Apostles, described so eloquently in moral and intellectual terms in one of the volumes of Leonard Woolf’ s autobiography, were programmatically homosexual. Brooke and Strachey were 18-years-old when they renewed their acquaintance at Cambridge, which marks the beginning of this collection of letters. Shortly after Strachey’s death in 1967 his wife Alix sold the correspondence to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.

Brooke, who died of blood poisoning in 1915 on his way to fight for the British at Gallipoli, is known mainly for his patriotic poetry. I would have called him a minor poet except for a talk Brooke gave in 1906: “People who speak disparagingly of minor poetry are either stockbrokers and lawyers and rich practical people who don’t understand, or reviewers in the Press, who are always young men fresh from a university with souls so stuffed with intellectual pride that they might as lightly speak of minor roses or minor sunsets.” My central interest in the Brooke-Strachey letters was elicited by Strachey’s having become Freud’s main translator into English; Freud had picked him as one of his translators during the time when Freud was analyzing both James and Alix in Vienna following their marriage in 1920.(One reliable-sounding story I heard dated the occasion for the marriage by the way it eased the Stracheys getting a visa to Austria after World War I.) Following World War II, at a time when a committee might have been struck in London to undertake translating The Standard Edition of Freud’s works, Anna Freud and others were relieved when Strachey volunteered to take charge of the whole project himself. No one has so far explained how or even whether he was paid, but that set of translations remains Strachey’s real claim to fame. The editorial apparatus he constructed has been taken over by the Germans for their own edition. In France, despite more interest in Paris about Freud than almost any place else in the world, a committee is still in the beginning stages of bringing out its edition of Freud’s writings.

We have known for some time that Strachey could be an unusually pithy writer, although of course his brother Lytton is the one who wrote the justifiably famous books. When James saw the results of the biography of Lytton that James had authorized Michael Holroyd to undertake, James was unhappy, and Holroyd made the brilliant decision to publish James’s acid-sounding comments as footnotes on the pages of the text. It should not detract from all that Holroyd succeeded in accomplishing if I say that James’s testy objections helped liven up the text. Then a volume of the letters exchanged between James and Alix, while they were temporarily separated during 1924—25 when Alix went for a second analysis in Berlin, came out as The Bloomsbury Freud in 1985.

Although James and Alix were obviously deeply attached to one another, there was plenty of suspicion about the extent of their heterosexuality. Alix Strachey put some restrictions on the early appearance of these letters, and Brooke’s literary trustee Geofrey Keynes (John Maynard’s brother) not only dragged his heels about the release of these letters to Strachey but tried to deny the homosexuality of Brooke.

Although I decided to read this book primarily for what light it shed on James Strachey, nothing prepared me for the immensely touching human encounter to be found in Friends and Apostles. Until about 1912 the letters do make for some difficult going. At least I found all the studied archness on the part of both Brooke and Strachey difficult to take. Of course they had some fascinating friends and acquaintances. Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest of them, wrote about the Strachey family in her diary that she found “an air, a vapour, an indescribable taste of dust in the throat, something tickling & irritating as well as tingling & stimulating.” But all the cultivated cleverness, especially on James Strachey’s part, seemed to me off-putting. He was so cerebral about sex that it is hard to imagine that he could have enjoyed it much; he kept using the word “copulating” as if he were writing about another species, and I can almost see the wry smirk on his face. These letters give a picture, I hope, not of homosexual attachments so much as those specific to the British upper classes at the turn of the 20th century. I could not help being reminded of the way that D.H. Lawrence had loathed the whole Bloomsbury set.

After Brooke has some sort of nervous breakdown in 1912, the letters change. For years Strachey had been the adoring pursuer, and Brooke standoffish. But with Brooke’s collapse his letters grow almost out of control in length, and Brooke comes to doubt his own sanity. In a note to Virginia Stephen (not yet married to Leonard Woolf) Brooke wrote about how he hated “the healthy unimaginative hard shelled dilettanti” like James. Strachey stuck by Brooke, and financed at least one trip to the continent. Brooke wrote a letter to Strachey concerned with an acquaintance of theirs (Denham Russell-Smith) who had just died, and whom Brooke had seduced in 1909; Brooke provides all the details of the night’s encounter in which he lost his virginity, which reminds us just how inexperienced these people were. James, in the midst of Brooke’s collapse, was still trying to encourage Brooke’s writing talent; but also Strachey revealed something of his own sort of thinking when he wrote to congratulate Brooke on the letter: “It seemed to give the whole of that sort of copulation so completely. They say there’s another sort, that I know nothing about, —with people one’s in love with. Is that really quite different? I’ve always thought it must be . . . . Well, one way or another you’ve immortalized Denham.” For some reason the editor, Keith Hale, who has done an extraordinary amount of conscientious work identifying the people in Friends and Apostles and providing an editorial apparatus that would have pleased Strachey’s own exacting standards, finds this letter about Denham “in many ways the most fascinating . . .written by Brooke.”

Yet within weeks of Strachey’s own response to this letter Brooke is acknowledging his own “dreary flippancy” toward Strachey. Two days later Brooke lowers the boom on Strachey. “Listen. Men & women neither “copulate” nor want to “copulate”: men have women: women are had by men. Listen. There is between men & women, sometimes, a thing called love: unknown to you. It has its laws & demands. It can be defiled: poisoned: & killed. . . . All these sentences—there’s the point—are entirely meaningless to you. I might as well write in Assyrian. You’d just twitter on . . . .” The next day Brooke continues: “I’ve changed, not you. I suppose if I got better; or if you grew up; we could manage it again.”

After that Hale tells us that “Brooke all but disappeared from Strachey’s life . . . .” Brooke started to refer to the Stracheys “in the plural, as a disease.” To a friend Brooke acknowledged that James was “less dirty” than Lytton, and “so defenceless that it is no sport kicking him.” To Brooke James did not “understand about the only important things.” “He’s far too selfish & minor to be hurt ever. He’s precisely as he always was: with his brilliant sense of humour, & his liking for contemptuous criticism; which keeps him happy.” Brooke, as one of their friends commented, “yearned for marriage but not a wife.” Brooke was romantically interested in several women, one of whom would later have a long extra-marital liasion with Strachey. Brooke wrote her: “Really the unrelieved sordidness of that man’s career—loving me for nine years and you for the rest of his life! I sometimes think God has been a little too hard on him, dreadful as he is.” Yet Brooke could also write of Strachey: “he’s a very fine person extraordinarily honest and trustworthy, very intelligent, and meaning well (which is important).”

In 1913 Brooke wrote James that he had “no sense of what are to me the most important things in the world. Perhaps one day you’ll grow up; or I shall have got down to your level. No doubt, both motions are in process. But I wish you well.” Brooke had been responding to a note of James’s in which he had written “I hated you, dear, a good deal a few months ago. . . . But that’s gone now, I think, I love you (and don’t care if you laugh at me for saying so) and I believe I’ve loved you all the time.” Brooke found this note “dreadful,” and Strachey did mind Brooke’s sharp response. Strachey defended himself: “It seems rather a pity that your sorrows should have turned you into prig. And aren’t you a bit uncharitable too? But I suppose that usually goes with self-righteousness.” The mood, Strachey serpentinely wrote, of Brooke’s last letter made Strachey “foam a good deal. But like all the troubles of babyhood, ça passe, ça passe. I feel, and always felt, infinitely benevolent towards the mysterious worries of these perplexed grown ups at whose feet I crawl—I’m placid even when they tread on my fingers. My good Rupert, I’ve got one great advantage over you. You can’t prevent my being fonder of you than of—well, of almost anyone else in the world.”

Brooke and Strachey stayed in touch until Brooke’s death in 1915. Brooke enlisted in the war effort, while Strachey stayed a pacifist. In one of his war sonnets Brooke was probably referring to Lytton Strachey among the “half-men.” W.B. Yeats had considered Brooke “the handsomest man in England,” and thanks to Brooke’s poetry he became at his death a national hero. Henry James, on hearing of Brooke’s death, was reported to have wept. Strachey had been fired from his position at the Spectator because of his position on the war. After James and Alix Strachey married, they honeymooned in Vienna. Hale suggests that “it is likely that Strachey’s desire to understand both his own sexuality and Brooke’s strange behavior partially accounts for his being drawn to Freud.” Strachey’s last quoted comments on Brooke came in someone else’s 1964 review of a Brooke biography: “Rupert wasn’t as nice as people now imagine; but he was a great deal cleverer.” (But Brooke had been unable to follow a 1909 reference of James’s to Middlemarch, and thought that the world of Chekhov was one of “tired children.”)

Brooke had actively sought the oblivion of death in the great campaign of World War I; Strachey had the common sense, however unrequited his adoration of Brooke, to be a survivor. Strachey did not set out, like Brooke, to destroy his closest friendships. One wonders whether the poetic intensity of Brooke was not too much for the commonplace world to endure. Strachey never did, in Brooke’s terms grow up, but he lived to have the last word.(Lytton Strachey had written to Virginia Woolf about James that he was “either incredibly young or inconceivably old.” One of my friends once commented about James that in his old age he had “grown into” himself.) The publication of the letters in Friends and Apostles may lead us to wonder again about the nature of love, and how it struggles to fulfill itself. Especially because of the exchanges between Brooke and Strachey dating from 1912—13, Friends and Apostles becomes a poignant record of the tragedy of unfulfillable human affection. Intellectual historians do not usually come across in non-fiction the makings of poetry and fiction. I cannot speak for experts on modern British literature or Brooke, but I am certain that students of the history of psychoanalysis will now have a fresh picture of James Strachey.


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