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three pairs of lovers with space

A REVIEW OF
SADLER’S BIRTHDAY BY ROSE TREMAIN

 

Sadler’s Birthday, the first of the many novels of English writer Rose Tremain (born 1943), was published by Macdonald & Co. in London in 1976.

 

A Life Redeemed by Boy-Love
by Diogenes
30 May 2024

This interesting and remarkable debut novel from Rose Tremain is about an old man, Jack Sadler, reflecting on his life and trying to make some kind of sense of it, of all the waste and loneliness. Most of the story thus comprises ‘flashbacks’ to earlier episodes of his life. The various characters from Sadler’s past are drawn with remarkable vividness and compassion.

The most important component of Sadler’s life is a pederastic relationship he had in 1939 (when he himself was 39 years old) with an 11-year-old evacuee boy, Tom, a relationship which continued until the boy was sixteen at the end of the war, at which point the boy returned to his mother. This is not, however, a ‘pederastic’ novel, in the sense of a novel in which the evolution of the pederastic relationship is the focus. The point of the relationship is that it is the most important thing to happen in Sadler’s life, and the only time when he was really emotionally and sexually fulfilled; so the thought of Tom keeps coming back to haunt his old age.

Tremain. Sadlers Birthday Vintage 1999 ISBN 0099284375

Tom is not even mentioned until more than a quarter of the way through the novel, and only two-thirds of the way through the novel does the relationship between the two take a more intimate turn, when Tom, afraid to sleep alone in his own bed one night, is invited by Sadler to share his bed: “Sadler closed his eyes. Very gently, he took Tom in his arms and began to kiss his face.” (p.131) As these intimacies are not unwelcome on the part of Tom, the relationship quickly develops into a sexual one, and, on Sadler’s side, into a romantic one as well, as he falls completely in love with the boy. A pederastic relationship at this time would, of course, have necessitated a certain amount of secrecy, but this is certainly not a problem for young Tom, who “liked to keep things secret that he’d enjoyed. He said telling them spoiled them.” (p. 149) Sadler’s separation from Tom at the end of the war is a shattering blow to Sadler, far more than it is for the boy, for whom the relationship was really just a bit of fun, to be left behind as he grows up. Sadler reflects how for five years he had watched Tom’s “every movement, every grin, and passionately for every sign that Tom loved him. Now and then, Tom came to his bed, never guiltily, often oddly amused by Sadler’s little rituals of passion, discovering his own sexuality with surprise and without emotion, then to fall asleep without a word while Sadler, tremblingly awake, held him.” (p. 134)

The nuances of the developing relationship over the five years are not, however, described in any detail. Instead, in a reminiscence of a moment in 1945 in which Sadler looks at the boy whilst he is fast asleep, we are informed that “Tom was sixteen. His hair had grown darker. His body was still thin, but now it was strong. Sadler knew every part of it. He had kissed and caressed it, held it and penetrated it, believing that his love shaped its growing, that Tom needed him as much as he, released from what now seemed like years and years of death by this passion, needed the boy.” (p. 136) The passages I have quoted so far are in fact the only descriptions of the sexual aspect of the relationship. Anyone looking for erotic prose, therefore, will be sorely disappointed.

To me, the overarching theme of the novel seemed to be the sense of life being pretty lousy most of the time – in fact, of life being largely a waste – but redeemed by moments of wonder, which, however, are transient. This is captured in the opening of the last chapter when Sadler sees a glorious sunset from his bedroom window: “The sky was marvellous, a real charcoal fire of a sky. ‘Last!’ he said to the sunset, ‘go on, last!' Less than half-an-hour, though, and it was gone and the room quite dark.” (p. 177) Sadler’s relationship with Tom was simply the greatest and most important of these redemptive moments.

English boy in countryside by JH 2024 4

The author creates a vivid sense, through her characters and their inner thoughts (to which, of course, she has privileged access), of the loneliness of the individual human soul, and the difficulties of human communication. In Sadler’s case, the loneliness is all the greater because he has never felt heterosexual attraction, and the sexual longing he discovers that he harbours is one which cannot be spoken of in his epoch. Now, of course, the sexual heresy of the protagonist is spoken of a great deal, but only in tones of unthinking hysteria and condemnation. It is significant that this novel was published in 1976, in a brief moment when it seemed the West was becoming less judgemental than it had been, more accepting of the spectrum of human sexuality, and more genuinely open. This was quickly smothered by the trauma narrative that hit England’s shores towards the end of that decade. But, writing in the mid-70s, Tremain presents the pederastic relationship between Sadler and Tom as something good and beautiful, and certainly without presenting the relationship as in any way involving any harm to the boy.

The real accomplishment of the author in this work is to blend together the light and the dark, as it were, the sense of waste with the moments of wonder, and still manage to leave the reader with the impression that, on the whole, Sadler’s life was worth it; that, for all its apparent mediocrity, his life was redeemed – and most of all by his love for Tom.