In the middle of the house at the centre of The Stranger's Child stands the monument to the Rupert Brooke-a-like Cecil Valance, a bright young poet and indiscriminate fornicator, fallen at the Somme. When his sometime, later estranged lover George Sawle visits it a decade after they last met, he notes that 'the nose had grown somehow mathematical. The whole head had an air of the ideal that bordered on the standardized.’ The book's title is drawn from Tennyson's In Memoriam, and Hollinghurst dedicates the novel to the memory of his friend, the poet Mick Imlah. Imlah himself wrote a poem entitled 'In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson', which begins 'No one remembers you at all', a somewhat taunting paradox later explained in the lines 'we, who plainly were not there,/Construct this fake memorial'. Among other things, The Stranger's Child follows the distortions of Valance's reputation over the best part of the twentieth century, caused, wilfully and obliviously, by those who remained.
The novel opens with the arrival of Cecil – darling of King's, Cambridge and the Georgian literary establishment, and heir to Corley Court – at Two Acres, the more modest Sawle residence. Cecil charms and condescends in equal measure, though he fascinates George's sister, Daphne, a perky girl