In the second section (of five), the novel grows darker, even as it enters the giddy world of Evelyn Waugh. Daphne has married and become the mistress of a grand Victorian house with 20 servants. Her husband, however, is having its interior modernized so that the drawing room now resembles a room in “some extremely expensive sanatorium.” Cecil Valance, we learn, died in World War I at the age of 25, but “Two Acres” has become an anthology piece, certain to be enjoyed “as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” Or so asserts “Sebby” Stokes, one of the late poet’s particular admirers, who has come down to Corley Court to gather material for a brief memoir. He is clearly modeled after “Eddie” Marsh, the literary executor of Rupert Brooke.
Again, Hollinghurst sets the entire action during a single country-house weekend — preserving the dramatic unities of place, time and action. He effortlessly juggles several points of view (including a 6-year-old’s), slowly revealing people’s true characters while keeping the reader guessing about the erotic intentions of various guests: Who is having an affair with whom? Many secrets are hinted at: Did Cecil write “Two Acres” for Daphne or for George? What precisely were his relations with Sebby Stokes?
Moreover, people have aged and changed. Daphne’s attractive mother — seen a decade earlier as a lonely young widow — has missed her chance to remarry. A former lover of Cecil’s has entered into a stolidly passionless marriage: He and his wife “look much more like colleagues than like a couple.” The choleric Dudley Valance, himself a writer, feels increasingly jealous of his dead older brother’s fame. Daphne’s children are afraid of their brutish father.
In the third section, Hollinghurst jumps to the swinging ’60s, when people say “fab” and a night out requires a “tight-fitting suit and zip-up ankle-boots with built-up heels.” Here he alternates his viewpoint between two young gay men, one a bank clerk named Paul Bryant and the other, Peter Rowe, a teacher at a private school housed in the former Corley Court: “No one, it was felt, could want to live in such a place, but as an institution of learning it was pretty much ideal.” By now “Two Acres” is a regular school text, slightly sentimental, of course, but regularly memorized.
No longer is homosexuality the furtive “love that dares not speak its name” or viewed as simply an element of the artistic temperament. In the 1960s, gays are starting to come out of the closet, even if muscle magazines are still running coded personals: “Undisciplined bachelor (32) would like to meet strong-minded person with modern outlook.”