Alan Hollinghurst is not just Britain’s premier prose stylist; he is also a poet, music lover, and an architecture enthusiast. Each of his novels is tightly shaped and formed, and each, in its own way, concerns itself with the aesthetics of form—including architectural form. So does Hollinghurst see his novels as “having an architecture”? In the current issue of the Oxonian Review Scarlett Baron asks, and Hollinghurst answers:
Victorianism is no new interest for you. Your books are full of references to the period and its architecture. What do that era and its artefacts connote for you?
My adolescence was very coloured by Victorian poetry—Tennyson in particular. The public school I went to—Canford, in Dorset—was a great Victorian house built by Charles Barry for the Guests—Sir John Guest, who was an iron founder, and his wife, Lady Charlotte, who was the first translator of the Mabinogion. Lady Charlotte had a little press at Canford Manor, and was a friend of Tennyson’s. In fact one of The Idylls of the King was first printed on that very press. At Canford a strong romantic, Victorian-Gothic element was married with a very beautiful natural setting: the manor, the river Stour… it was rather like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and very much part of the atmosphere of my growing up. I remember wanting to champion Victorian buildings and objects which were reviled by my father’s generation, dismissed with the infamous ‘Victorian monstrosity’ tag. It was just about this time in my adolescence that the demolition of St Pancras was threatened and successfully resisted by the Victorian Society. I was very excited by Victorian buildings. And I do put them into my books a lot. There’s a Victorian country-house in each of my last three novels. I think I’ve really got to go easy on them.
Do you think of Victorian architecture as a particularly gay aesthetic?
No, I don’t. Does any kind of erotics come into it? I don’t know. But one gets into very dubious territory when tries to speculate about what a gay aesthetic might be. I believe gay aesthetics take so many different forms as to make the very idea of a definition seem almost meaningless. They may, in the vaguest sense, involve certain kinds of camouflage and certain kinds of display. But I myself don’t think of Victorian architecture—or any other kind of architecture—in those terms.
Architecture is a theme in all your books. Do you think of your novels as having an architecture?
I do loosely use the term architecture when I’m talking about a book—referring to my own wish to discover what its architecture is, for instance—but what I really mean by the phrase is style and structure. These might be strengthened and ramified in the books by recurrent motivic images—like the mirrors in The Folding Star. Musical analogies seem to me more apt because of the temporal dimension music and novels share. I used to see my first four books—even before they were completed—as the movements of a symphony. It’s not an analogy that I want to press too hard—these analogies only go so far—but at the time it did seem to me a helpful way of imagining my own project. Writing a book is like going into the unknown—to feel you’re contributing to something which has an overall architecture is rather reassuring. It’s something which writers don’t much, if ever, talk about: they frequently reflect on particular books but rarely comment on how their whole body of work might cumulatively appear to them. …
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Featured image: Irish Butcher’s gorgeous proof book cover for Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011)