Tired of London, tired of life: the queer pastoral in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell
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It is telling that Alan Hollinghurst begins The Spell, his 1998 novel that splits its time between Dorset and London, with an episode that pays homage to the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s designs were often utopian in bent and reflected an interest in bringing together the city and the countryside to decentralise power away from the urban space. The Spell is a novel also keenly aware of what might be at stake in social, spatial and domestic patterns for living, and like Wright’s designs it contests the boundary between the urban and the rural to trouble the values ascribed to these terrains. More specifically, as this chapter explores, Hollinghurst’s fascination with the pastoral is motivated by a concern with the geography of sexuality and desire. Much has been written on the gay pastoral as a form of writing that queers a traditional genre, and to some extent this also seems to account for The Spell. The novel certainly exposes the idyllically erotic potential of the rural as both a locale and a condition. However, this chapter argues that Hollinghurst’s rendering of the pastoral is more complex and conflicted that this gives credit for. Indeed, the novel demonstrates an understanding of the assumptions, and the value judgements, involved in the relationship between place and modern gay identity. As a response to this The Spell manipulates the dichotomy of city and countryside that is so integral to the genre, and like Wright’s architectural designs it transposes each locale into the other, so that the urban becomes ruralised while the rural is urbanised, to ultimately suggest the possibility of occupying alternative, and non-binary, sexual spaces.
‘Tired of London, tired of life: the queer pastoral in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell’, in Mathuray, M. (ed.) Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 95-110