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[262] While England Sleeps – David Leavitt

” Yes, Philippa had forced me to confront the foolishness of my delusions; yes, I now recognized it was Edward whom I loved. And still I was afraid of what it would cost me, what people might say about it, this improbable union between writer and ticket taker . . . worst of all, most frightening of all, two men. ” [179]

Set against the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, on the eve of World War II, While England Sleeps tells the story of a love affair between Brian Botsford, an upper-class writer and Edward Phelan, an employee of the London Underground who enlightens himself by perusing literature. Reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s works in tone and style, the novel also bears the ambition to address the state of England during the wobbly times. Class exploitation emerges as the underlying theme at the onset, spreading paranoia and confusion in Brian, who, although is better educated, is also too conscious of his improper, unorthodox relationship with Edward. Like almost any gay man, he consoles himself with the thought that he will outstrip his homosexuality.

Surely [Edward] would throw the rhythm off, make everyone uncomfortable. They would look down on him, which would pain me—and Edward as well. [102]

I know, I know, you were embarrassed because I’m the wrong class . . . You can’t help that you’ve got a bourgeois mentality. [116]

As social norms reiterate his fears, at the urging of his patronizing aunt, he cultivates a relationship with one Philippa Archibald—falling “in love” with her if for no other reason than because being in love with her is proving to have financial benefits. The consequence of this liaison on his relationship with Edward is so dire that is beyond emotional betrayal. He has lied to protect Edward, but he is deceived by his fear. His lies and delusions have eaten away at Edward’s sense of security, because he has denied him the comfort of the truth, even if the truth is ugly. The author’s intention in naming the title as is cannot be made any clearer. Brian Botsford is asleep to his emotions as pathetically as England is cowardly to confront Germany’s insidiousness. That Edward, a Communist by heart, has fled to Spain for the cause of fighting fascism, completes the link between private (personal) and public misery.

Instead I paced the floor, trying to convince myself, as I had a thousand times before, that it wasn’t my fault, that in fact Edward had gone to Spain of his own volition, and become ill by a fluke. Unfortunately this effort only exacerbated the anxiety it was intended to allay. [288]

In moving beyond mundane domestic drama that is not uncommon in GLBT fiction, Leavitt has created a historical novel with more substantial resonance. In exploring the turmoil of a forbidden love relationship, the novel transpires to a grander scale—concerning social wholeness and condemning (the absurdity of) class exploitation and homophobia.

304 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow] *The book created controversy as Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagiarism regarding While England Sleeps and his 1948 memoir World Within World.


3 Responses

  1. This sounds edgy and neat, and like you mentioned, seems to avoid the cliche of hohum domestic drama. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. I definitel, definitely want to read this book in the not too distant future. I have a few of his on the TBR and have touched not one of them.

  3. Wow, I love your website. It’s now my number one stop to read book reviews.

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