While England Sleeps

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The publication of While England Sleeps created an old-fashioned transatlantic furor involving authors, publishers, critics, and lawyers. The well-known English poet Stephen Spender, at the age of eighty-four, was outraged when it was brought to his attention that David Leavitt’s plot parallels incidents described in Spender’s autobiography World Within World, published in 1948. Like Leavitt’s hero, Spender had an intimate relationship with a working-class youth who ran off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. “I am simply amazed,” said Spender, “how anyone purporting to be a writer of fiction can be so idle, slovenly and dishonest as simply to lift incidents from my autobiography and describe them as having happened to a fictitious narrator in his novel.”

A comparison of the two books leaves little doubt that Leavitt must have seen the story possibilities in Spender’s painful real-life affair. When the parallels were first noted, Leavitt himself admitted he had initially thought of including a foreword to his book reading: “I particularly want to acknowledge Stephen Spender’s World Within World, part of which formed a springboard for the story told in this novel.” Then, after consulting with his publisher’s chief counsel, Alan Kaufman, Leavitt denied this intention. In February, 1994, however, Viking agreed to withdraw the novel. Before it appears in paperback, Leavitt will revise some of the controversial passages. Viking’s announcement concluded an out-of-court settlement of a suit filed by Spender in London in October, 1993.

The outstanding feature of Leavitt’s novel is its vivid description of the homosexual subculture in England in the years just prior to World War II. His narrator-protagonist Brian Botsford likes to pick up men in public lavatories. He also frequents certain parks where lonely homosexuals promenade in the dark and engage in mutual masturbation, sodomy, and oral copulation with faceless strangers. The police conduct surprise sweeps that sometimes net and publicly disgrace erstwhile pillars of society:

And now the sound of footsteps tilled the air, the sound of pants being pulled up, of changejiggling in pockets and belts being redone. The bushes had come alive; everywhere men were abandoning their lovers of a few moments, hurrying toward the fence as they fled the torches that danced like fireflies and were getting closer.

Most of Brian’s story consists of a flashback to the year 1936, when the Spanish Civil War was raging and intelligent people knew that it was only a matter of time before a major European war would begin. Many of Brian’s friends are attracted to Communism, and the Communist Party is holding frequent meetings to raise money and recruit new members, using the Fascist atrocities in Spain to enlist sympathy with their cause.

Leavitt’s book helps the reader understand why British homosexuals, who were outcasts to begin with, should have been attracted to a movement that calls for the overthrow of existing institutions. Marxist rhetoric misled many minorities into believing that the downfall of capitalism would free them from persecution. The book also makes it easier to understand the psychology of the aristocratic homosexual Guy Burgess, who triggered the worst scandal in British government history by becoming a mole for the KGB.

Brian is not interested in politics; he believes that a serious writer should remain intellectually autonomous. Nevertheless, he attends Communist-sponsored meetings because it seems the thing to do. Meeting halls are also good places to pick up men. It was common in those days for upper-class homosexuals to be attracted to lower-class men, not only because working men seemed more virile but because many homosexuals of both classes believed that the English caste system was decadent and would inevitably break down.

In one noisy, smoke-filled meeting hall, Brian encounters a handsome young man named Edward Phelan who works as a ticket- taker for the London Underground. They become lovers that same night. Their affair is satisfying to both as long as it remains in its first blossom. Like many lovers, they delight in sharing intimate secrets and discovering similar tastes. Later, however, their differences begin to constrain their relationship. Edward is uncomfortable with Brian’s Oxford-educated friends. Brian begins going to certain social functions by himself, leaving Edward to brood alone in their flat.

Like many aspiring writers fresh out of college, Brian is having trouble finding his style and subject matter. He lacks worldly experience. Although his friends know that he is a promiscuous homosexual, he does not feel free to write about that forbidden subject. It would not solve his financial problems anyway, since such a book would be banned. Even when Brian finally decides to “come out of the closet” by writing a novel about his love affair with Edward, it is many years later and he leaves instructions that the book is not to be published until after his death.

Brian is financially dependent...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)