EDMUND MARLOWE'S ALEXANDER’S CHOICE REVIEWED BY MARK ANDREW
Alexander’s Choice, a love story set at England’s most famous boarding-school, Eton College and written by old boy Edmund Marlowe, was published in December 2012.
WARNING: This review contains many spoilers.
The story of a great love and a heartbreaking and enraging tragedy *****
6 April 2018
When reading this book, I was already thinking that I would write a review of it and about what I would write. There are two aspects to this book that I thought should be reviewed separately, but the extremely powerful closing chapters have made this division less clear in my mind.
Firstly it is a work of fiction, the story of a great love and a heartbreaking and enraging tragedy. Alexander Aylmer is a extremely beautiful, intelligent and sensitive 13 then 14 year old boy student at Eton college at Windsor in England. He is from an aristocratic family and the son of a judge. He has a loving mother but a somewhat aloof father. Alexander’s mother dies suddenly while he is at Eton. Though heterosexual, Alexander has a relationship with a 17 year old fellow student, Julian Smith, the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who has idealised the English and has worked extremely hard and made many sacrifices to get his son into Eton and take his place in English upper class society. Though Julian’s relationship with Alexander never becomes physical, it causes a scandal and Julian’s father forces him to end it.
Alexander’s despair at the sudden breakdown of his relationship with Julian is noticed by his English teacher Damien Cavendish. Damien is a 23 year old enthusiastic and caring English master newly arrived at Eton. He previously unjustly accused Alexander of lying about a late essay that has been shat on by a dog. Damien invited Alexander back to his flat for a talk during which Alexander breaks down and tells him all about what he has been going through since the death of his mother and his breakup with Julian. Damien allows Alexander to cry in his arms, the first physical affection Alexander has felt since the loss of his mother.
Damien allows Alexander to visit him in his flat whenever he wants to. The author makes it clear that both Alexander and Damien are heterosexual. In fact it is a slightly sour note in this book that in order to make that distinction, its portrayal of gay men is negative. Indeed it is made clearer as the story progresses that the mediocre and cowardly Julian is gay. Nevertheless, Alexander and Damien soon find themselves deeply in love with each other. The depth of their relationship completely relieves Alexander’s depression, increases his confidence and results in a spectacular improvement in his academic performance. Ultimately, fully at Alexander’s instigation, their relationship becomes sexual.
Secondly, this book aims to make a political point. Specifically, that there is nothing wrong with “pederasty”, that is, sexual relationships between men and “boys” meaning young post pubescent sexually aware teenagers, as opposed to “pedophilia”, sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children. It argues the virtues of these relationships and that there is no place for interference by the law. More generally, the book argues that throughout history, people have sought to identify evil where often no evil exists purely in order to have something to stand shoulder to shoulder against, often in the process perpetrating far more evil than what they purport to be fighting.
In this argument, the book frequently references “Greek Love”, the custom in Ancient Greece that young men not marry until they are in their mid to late twenties, and before then seek out the customary role of mentor to a boy. It was also the role of a teenage boy to find such a mentor and the process was one of romance and courtship. The relationship was primarily educational but also involved love and sex. It is argued in this book and also elsewhere that this custom is the main reason that the cluster of small villages (in terms of population) that was Ancient Greece brought us so many great minds, poets, playwrights and artists that remain influential today.
Certainly the modern relationship between Alexander and Damien portrayed in the book fits very well into this ancient ideal and must be considered blameless and clearly of benefit to Alexander. Those who see evil and seek to “rescue” Alexander from “sexual abuse” ultimately become responsible for great tragedy and immeasurable evil.
Of course, one can not generalise too far from this. We hear many cases of sexual abuse of young teenagers and children at the hands of the staff of institutions that would certainly not fit the model of Greek Love or the example of Alexander and Damien.
In the end, whatever you think about its subject, this book is beautifully written, extremely powerful and thoughtful. Be warned, it does not have a happy ending. I was heartbroken and extremely angry.
Review originally posted on goodreads.com.
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