WWI Poet Showdown: The Stranger’s Child vs The House at Riverton

I finished two books this week which both feature a fictional WWI poet as a central character. Since I’m not sure that I want to write a proper review of either book (I’ve already written about The House at Riverton in my readalong posts I, II, III, and IV), I thought it might be fun to pit the two characters against each other and see who comes out on top of the literary heap. (And for being my inspiration, I have to point to The Estella Society’s Dueling Monsters feature.) Caution: spoilers abound!

In one corner of the ring we have…Cecil Valance! Cecil is a well-bred young English gentleman who attends Cambridge University. While at school, Cecil befriends George Sawle and introduces him to the decadence of secret intellectual societies and a (somewhat violently) passionate homosexual relationship. Cecil is a hit with both the boys and the girls, as he also manages to charm George’s 16-year-old sister, Daphne, and at the end of a visit to the Sawle’s home he composes a poem that will one day be his most famous work. Did I mention that he’s rich? The heir to a noble family and country estate? Sounds like Cecil has everything going for him…except for that troubling war that’s brewing on the continent.

And in the other corner we have…Robbie Hunter! Robbie is also the son of a lord, although in this case he’s the lord’s illegitimate child, raised by his mother in the warmer climate of Spain, lending him an exotic air. After befriending David, the elder child of the aristocratic Hartfords of Riverton Manor, he is welcomed into the family during their Christmas celebrations on the eve of the first World War.  He rescues the younger daughter, Emmeline, after a fall from a ladder, although elder daughter Hannah is resentful of his presence which keeps her from being able to enjoy David’s company. As both boys head off to fight in the war, Hannah nevertheless gives Robbie the good-luck charm of a ribbon from her hair, so perhaps he will be spared a hero’s death on the battlefield?

So far, it seems like our dueling WWI poets are neck and neck, with both about to experience the realities of war and how it will affect their lives and art. But while both men will be changed forever by the First World War, only one of our poets will live to write about the post-war world.

Cecil dies tragically in the fighting, after asking Daphne (and another woman, too–why not?) if she will be his widow. They never have a chance to marry, though, and in the aftermath of the war Cecil’s literary star shines ever brighter, his death giving him a certain cachet as his writing is seen to represent the beauty of pre-war England. It’s possible, though never confirmed, that he also manages to get Daphne pregnant before he is killed, and so his lineage may live on in the person of Wilfred, Daphne’s son. He lies to rest in a white marble tomb in his former home, which becomes an all-boys’ school. Somehow I think Cecil would approve.

Robbie also becomes a respected poet after the war, and he publishes several well-received collections before he reappears in married Hannah’s life still clutching her (now very dirty) white ribbon in his hand. He manages to recapture the attention of Emmeline while falling in love and into an adulterous affair with Hannah, who shares his love of literature and adventure. He is shell-shocked from the war, though, and increasingly unable to write, and although he, too, manages to get his lady-love pregnant, he meets an unfortunate early end when Hannah must kill him to protect her sister.

So, do we have a clear winner? Let’s recap:

Cecil Robbie
– has an aristocratic background – has an aristocratic background
– wins the love of two siblings – wins the love of two siblings
– writes famous poetry – writes famous poetry
– fathers an illegitimate child – fathers an illegitimate child
– dies an early death – dies an early death

I think it’s a tie, don’t you? Funny, I never realized quite how many similarities these two characters had until writing this post. Obviously there are some strong archetypes in play here. After finishing The Stranger’s Child, I read that the character of Cecil was modeled in part on English poet Rupert Brooke. To give you an idea:


Image from Wikipedia

Definitely romantic enough to capture the imagination of many a writer.


8 thoughts on “WWI Poet Showdown: The Stranger’s Child vs The House at Riverton

      1. Geoff W

        I can imagine. I started it and had to stop. I mean I liked The Line of Beauty but I felt like he was trying so much harder than in his earlier novels, and that’s the feeling I got from this when I started it. I’m hoping to get to it in 2013.

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