“A Room in Chelsea Square” by Michael Nelson— A Poet’s Tale

a room in chelsea square

Nelson, Michael. “A Room in Chelsea Square”, Valancourt Books, 2014.

A Poet’s Tale

Amos Lassen

“A Room in Chelsea Square” is a semi-autobiographical novel that was first published in 1958 with the author listed as anonymous. At that time homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom and the author’s characters were actually prominent London literary characters who were disguised here. In this new edition from Valancourt Books, Michael Nelson is the author and there is a new introduction by Gregory Woods. The book is regarded as a gay classic. It is a very witty satire about a group of gay men in London of the 1940s.

In the very first sentence we learn that Patrick is very rich and he is single. We meet him first as he shops for presents for Nicholas, a young man he met in the country. He uses his friends to arrange a job for Nicholas at a tabloid paper and in this way he can lure him to London. Yet when he meets him on his arrival he tries many excuses to stop him from going to work and moves him into his fancy suite at a posh hotel and presents with gifts, gifts, and gifts. The book takes place in a week— from the time that Patrick introduces Nicholas to his friends and we learn that Nicholas is not the innocent boy that Patrick had thought him to be.

Nicholas knew that he could only resist Patrick’s affections for long and it was no good pretending that Patrick was going to support him from purely altruistic motives. Patrick wanted Nicholas and he was determined to have him and Nicholas realized that sex was a small price to pay for all the things that Patrick could offer him in exchange.

Patrick is a manipulator and seeing him with his friends is good fodder for satire, Nelson also describes what gay life in England was like at that time. Doing a bit of research, I learned that Patrick is a thinly veiled portrait of Peter Watson who associated for a long while with Cecil Beaton the wealthy homosexual sponsor of Bacon, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Vaughan, Minton and other homosexual painters. The author himself is Nicholas who was really pursued by Watson, who bought him Picassos and Sutherlands as part of his seduction technique. Other characters are based on Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly.

Two of the things I found to really be of interest here is the fact that there is no angst about being gay and there are no sex scenes. Sure there is backstabbing and betrayal but we learn of this through the dialogue of the characters. I can imagine how shocking the dialogue was when the book first came out but then again probably only gay people understood its implications and the double entendres. What the characters say to each other is quite nasty and bitchy but not unlike what you hear a group of gay men today saying to each other. Some may find the character stereotypical, out-dated and boring but that is how it once was.

Nelson is a wonderful narrator and there is both suspense and humor in the story. When it was first published, this is what the London times has to say about it— “Odiously funny and delightfully unwholesome … a distinct relief after the ponderous treatment homosexuality has tended to get in some recent novels.”

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