MiniReview: "While England Sleeps" by David Leavitt

Cover of the original 1993 edition, which became the subject of a legal dispute and was withdrawn from circulation. 

What is it?

It’s a novel by American writer David Leavitt, first published in 1993 (and then republished in 1995 after a legal dispute).


You’ve liked his books before. So what’s this one about?

In 1937 London, an aspiring young writer of the upper-middle class falls for Edward, a ticket taker on the Underground, and they move in together. But their relationship is soured by the fact that the writer, Brian, doesn’t believe that two men can form a sustainable couple, so he tries to straighten himself out, so to speak, by courting a young woman, even as he’s living with Edward.


That sounds like a scenario ripe with dramatic possibility.

It’s a page-turner. I can never quite figure out whether or not David Leavitt is a first-rate writer because he’s just so damned readable! And the snob in me says he can’t be that good if his books are that enjoyable. But he really is a very fine writer, intelligent and cultured, and he always has fine observations to make about gay men.


Such as?

Here, he offers up a very credible portrait of what it was like to be gay in England in the 1930s. What I found particularly fascinating was the way Brian treats his love for Edward as something not quite real, or (even worse) as a second-rate love, and feels the need to try to be “normal” in his choice of a life partner, with disastrous results for him and for Edward, who ends up going off to fight in the Spanish Civil War when things deteriorate between him and Brian. It’s ultimately a very sad story, but Leavitt manages to keep it from being too depressing.


You mentioned a legal dispute. What was that all about?

When the novel was first published, English poet Stephen Spender said it was all based on part of his autobiography. The book was withdrawn from circulation, but Leavitt later removed some offending passages and republished it.


Is it really based on Spender’s life?

Who knows? What I find interesting is that I’ve read Spender’s autobiography that he said inspired this novel, and one of the things that really struck me was his assertion that love between a man and a woman is a fuller kind of love, a sort of completion, whereas two men loving each other will eventually get bored because they’re too much alike. (I’m grossly paraphrasing.) And Brian, in Leavitt’s novel, clearly labours under the delusion that his love for Edward, and Edward’s for him, isn’t good enough. This is his tragedy.


You obviously liked this. Stars?

I’m going to give it one. This is a very conventional novel, literate and absorbing. It’s a bit like candy for a gay reader—it goes down very pleasurably. In the end, it’s not groundbreaking (although in the mid-1990s some critics found it pornographic). A novel to take with you on your next holiday, or to read at Christmastime by a roaring fire.

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