David Leavitt’s 1993 novel, While England Sleeps, is an ambitious inter-generational, cross-class, multi-national story about love and loss.
Set in England in the 1930s, it is narrated by Brian Botsford, a young man from a privileged background who wants to be a writer. Brian meets a young working-class man, Edward, who is employed on the Underground, itself the subject of a play Brian is writing. The two strike up a passionate relationship, living together in Brian’s small, one-bed flat.
Edward is a likable character, self-educated and deeply committed to the Communist Party ideas (it was at a CP meeting Brian and Edward first met). He carries the Manifesto with him everywhere, reading it often, determined to understand every word. He possesses an innocence which is wholly appealing in his belief that the world can become a better place, and he accepts his sexuality and his desire for Brian with an easy enthusiasm which Brian cannot reciprocate.
While they are happy together, Brian has no thought for their future, assuming his homosexuality is something he will eventually grow out of. When his wealthy aunt pushes him towards Philippa, a suitable young woman with a mind to marriage, Brian doesn’t hesitate to take her out. Soon their relationship becomes intimate, and Brian’s relationship with Edward starts to crack under the strain of Brian’s secrets and infidelity. Brian enjoys Philippa’s company, but doesn’t want to lose Edward. Nonetheless, he decides to propose to her.
Edward discovers that Brian has been unfaithful and, deeply distressed, agrees to travel to Spain with the Communist Party in order to fight against Franco’s Fascists in the Civil War. Philippa, meanwhile, turns down Brian’s proposal.
Brian is alone for a while, left ruing his mistakes and feeling sorry for himself, when a letter arrives from Edward. Shocked out of his naivety by the horrors of war, he writes that he knows he has made a terrible mistake and he wants to come home. Brian, overcome with guilt at the realisation Edward is only at war because of his actions, joins the Communist Party and travels to Spain to try to secure his release from the army. When he arrives, however, he discovers Edward is locked up, awaiting trial for desertion.
The head of Edward’s battalion is John Northrop, the English public school Communist who recruited him in London; a man who personally dislikes Brian and thinks nothing of making Edward suffer for his vindictiveness. He refuses to release Edward.
In desperation, Brian casts around for someone else who can help him and happens upon another queer upper class Englishman, elevated to judge with power over Edward’s hearing. When Brian explains the situation to a more sympathetic ear from his own background, Edward is released, although his time in the Spanish jail has left him desperately ill. They escape Spain, but Edward dies of typhoid on the voyage back to England, his body thrown overboard to prevent the authorities asking awkward questions.
Brian goes on to leave England, moved to America and achieved some small success as a writer. While England Sleeps is narrated in hindsight by an older Brian, still burdened by the past but more so by how he has suffered from it: living in America during the years of McCarthyism, being a former member of the Communist Party put paid to his blossoming writing career. It is with bitterness he reflects he couldn’t exonerate himself without condemning himself for being queer instead. The story he really wanted to write in 1936, an honest story about queer men and his own experiences, he finally completes in old age, although he leaves strict instructions that it not be published in his lifetime. That story is, of course, While England Sleeps.
The novel was published to something of a scandal, when the poet Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagarising his biography, World Within World. Leavitt acknowledged the inspiration for his narrative had come from Spender, and blamed bad legal advice from his publisher for there not being an acknowledgement placed within the book. A trial was avoided when Viking-Penguin withdrew the book and pulped the remaining printed copies. While England Sleeps was republished by Houghton Mifflin in 1995, complete with acknowledgements and a foreword from Leavitt addressing the controversy, much of which had played itself out in the pages of the New York Times.
Leavitt maintained that Spender’s main complaint wasn’t with the appropriation of his story, but with the inclusion of graphic sex scenes within the novel. The claim certainly seemed to have merit: Spender himself called it “pornography,” noted that in 1950, when World Within World was published, he would never have been able to include such scenes, but then concluded that even if he had, he wouldn’t have done so.
In part that’s one reason why I resent my biography being mixed up with David Leavitt’s pornography. I still feel that if he wanted to write about his sexual fantasies, he should write about them being his, not mine, for by his use of my copyrighted book, his central narrator was made clearly identifiable.
The matter of writing sex is an interesting one. In an interview with Owen Keehnen, the subject of queer sex scenes in literature is directly addressed by Leavitt. The year was 1993, yet Leavitt noted, “I can’t think of too many examples of gay fiction that describe sex within a relationship.” Leavitt had certainly come under scrutiny in his career for his willingness to write sex — even the fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of scenes of his earlier works. Casual homophobia shows itself in the response of the establishment critics to Leavitt’s sexually active queer characters — New York magazine noted dryly “The boys are at it like rabbits”, while the Boston Globe remarked that Leavitt’s mother “should have washed his mouth out with soap”.
Nonetheless, there is evidence opinions were changing. Writing in the New York Times in Leavitt’s defence, James Atlas declared: “By writing frankly about matters that Mr. Spender was prevented from addressing, [Leavitt] would strike a blow for sexual freedom, affirm what the older writer could only intimate — the validity of romantic and sexual love between men.” Personally, I think it’s both reductionist and sweeping to claim that only graphic depictions of sex can validate the notion of romantic love between men, but it shows just what a long way we’ve come in the last decade of queer literature.
Speaking of queer fiction, The Slave is on sale at Amazon right now for the bargain price of $0.99. Hurry, because it’s only until tomorrow!