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three pairs of lovers with space



The first edition (on which this review was based) of Alexander’s Choice by English writer Edmund Marlowe was published in 2012. A very slightly amended edition was published by Arcadian Dreams of London in 2022.


9 April 2018

On the front cover of this novel, which centres on a love affair between a boy and his schoolmaster, is a representation of the Brygos Kylix, a 5th Century BC wine cup in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The image painted in the bowl shows a bearded man and an adolescent boy in intimate contact. When I last saw the cup, not long after Marlowe’s book had been published, it, unlike the other pieces of pottery in the case, had no explanatory label. I wondered if that was because it could have been branded as a “sexual-abuse image”. In fact, could its display nowadays be illegal? I don’t know if it is still there.[1]

Oxford Ashmolean 1967.304. Attic by Brygos ptr. ca. 480 1a

Since the eruption, especially since the Jimmy Savile allegations in 2011, of stories in the British news media about “Child Sexual Abuse”, often abbreviated to CSA, or CSE (for “Exploitation”), a mass hysteria has seized upon the prudish and prurient public mind. The mental maelstrom’s vortex is ever widening, starting from cases of “paedophilia” to virtually any physical contact between adults. The stilted and formulaic language gushes forth in an endless stream: rape, assault, grooming, exploitation by gangs, abusers, perpetrators, predators, survivors, safeguarding. The litany of this ritualistic, stultifying language, distorting the reality of human relations, goes on and on. The outbursts of this curious hysteria seem to be coming in regular waves, about three weeks apart. The now huge Sexual-Abuse Industry has peopled our streets and countryside with pseudo-traumatized compensation-claimants, who roam the land like zombies from George Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead or Stephen King’s pulse-crazed flocks in Cell.

When Marlowe’s novel was published it was prophetic, but by now that grim prophecy has been amply fulfilled. It is, nevertheless, refreshing to read, through the main part of the story, to find a sensible, logical argument on themes of sexuality, morality, and tolerance. Although the book’s theme examines the nature of Boy Love, or Greek Love, in a fictional context, that enduring, evolved form of love is a real one. The language is lucid and clear, the syntax rational and comprehensible, but the book’s message, in the context of Modern Britain, is revolutionary. The Etonian schoolboy, Alexander Aylmer, has quite rationally and sanely chosen to love a young man, his English teacher, Damian Cavendish. The matter is not about abuse, but about human relationships, the privacy of which should be respected by other individuals and by society.

The novel’s clear unfolding of plot, interspersed with Socratic dialogues on the nature of man-boy relationships, makes it a didactic model. Young people should read this book. The intimate subject is probably best presented in a novel, rather than a scientific paper. The experience of police procedure and intimidation by social workers are described in their full horror, an admonitory Civics Lesson for lovers both young and old. Frightening, too, is the portrayal of the militant feminist and child-protection activist, Denise Smith, mother of Alexander’s former school friend Julian.

Renault. Fire from Heaven. Pantheon 1969

There have been in the last century historical-sociological studies of Boy Love, as in J. Z. Eglinton’s  Greek Love, Parker Rossman’s  Sexual Experience between Men and Boys, and William Armstrong Percy III’s Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.   Alexander’s Choice refers to another such book, that I didn’t know of: Greek Love: The Role of Pederasty in the Classical Age by Professor C. A. Jameson.[2] Alexander himself finds validation of his love for Damian Cavendish, however, in the historical novels of Mary Renault, particularly her first two books on Alexander the Great: Fire from Heaven (1969) and The Persian Boy (1972). As a schoolboy in the Sixties, I was similarly struck with revelatory awe by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1954) and Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956). Although the main discourse of Alexander’s Choice is on Alexander Aylmer’s love for a young man, his prior relationship with an older boy, Julian Smith, is actually the type more common in British boarding schools. Fire from Heaven was significant to Alexander because it described such love-friendship between two adolescent boys, which continued into adulthood. Therefore it is fitting that it is Damian Cavendish, the man, who introduces his beloved pupil to The Persian Boy, where a man-boy relationship is the main subject.

Behind the very human and moving story of a 13-14 year old boy trying to exercise his human right to love, Marlowe’s novel raises several moral concerns which are now utterly ignored or trampled on in the concerted state-crushing of an entire sexual orientation, one which evolved over millennia to the benefit of humanity. Alexander, in a dialogue with an older brother, vehemently opposes the artificial Age-of-Consent laws, which inflict injustice on young people. For a state artificially to declare that a young person has no right to choose whom he may or may not love is a repudiation of his core identity as a human being. There is also the historical paideia, the lessons elucidated by the study of the civilization of Ancient Greece. From Professor Jameson’s book Damian learns that “pederasty, meaning the love of boys, … was considered by most of the great philosophers to be the noblest form of love because it was love of the soul as well as the body, and society’s most powerful means of bringing up a boy to become a worthy citizen.”

Gilbert. The Holocaust

Seeing this great tradition being ruthlessly crushed by the barbaric Britons, I am grateful to Marlowe for standing up for what is right and self-evidently for the good. I hope his will not be a lone voice in the wilderness, but a harbinger of a great epochal change of our civilizational premises. Was it just a coincidence that while reading Alexander’s Choice I was finishing Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust (1985)? No, it wasn’t. Like Julian’s father, the ex-inmate of Sachsenhausen KZ-Lager, I could see the similarity between Britain’s persecution of the lovers of the young and the Third Reich’s persecution of the Jews. I had hardly finished the novel when I read in Gilbert’s history of the murder by the S.S. in Birkenau, on 10 October 1944, of 600 Jewish boys aged 12-18. First the corralled boys were bludgeoned into stripping off their clothing, then savagely beaten with clubs to herd them into the gas chamber. Many boys ran about naked trying to delay their fate, embracing members of the Sonderkommando, imploring help from those whose job it would be to remove their corpses after the gassing was completed. The sound of young voices raised in lamentation hovered spectrally over the other parts of the camp. I could not but compare society’s treatment of Alexander Aylmer with this vision of a still recent past.

I end this review with this epic simile in tribute to Marlowe’s achievement:

As might have some lowly ploughman, labouring on the Troad Plain, unearthed a glittering remnant of great Priam’s treasure, and knelt in awe at the jewels of a sacred yore slipping through his grimy hands, so I saw in wonder a so precious Past returned anew.


[1] Oddly enough this is an extremely rare modern instance of the situation improving with respect to public honesty about Greek love. Early this century, this vase was indeed hidden by the Ashmolean Museum in its access-restricted Bothmer Gallery. Around 2008, it was finally brought out for public display and shock. This shock was not, as might be imagined, because of the vase’s depiction of blatantly and mutually affectionate eros between man and boy, but because it was revealed that one Michael Vickers, then the senior assistant keeper in charge of the Greek antiquities in the museum and already notorious for a myopic and bigoted study of the Athenian general Alkibiades, had assigned the vase the label “Paedophile and Victim”. This was too much for much of the world of Oxford University, even at such a late date. After heated exchanges in which Vickers made it clear that he was motivated by a determination to write pederasty out of Greek history, in July 2010 the Ashmolean agreed to change the label and Vickers left his ill-suited post. Since then, the vase has remained open to public view with the caption, as honest as it is uninformative, “Man and boy making love. The nature of Greek homosexual love is the subject of current academic debate.” [Website footnote]

[2] I have subsequently found out that this is a fictional title that does not exist. [Reviewer’s footnote]



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