THE STRANGER’S CHILD by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, £20)

Not the least of Alan Hollinghurst’s achievements in his marvellous new novel has been to transform himself — amid many other delicious literary parodies — into a purveyor of verse that might have been written by a moderately successful Georgian poet. Here, for instance, are lines ostensibly from the pen of his hero Cecil Valance: “The greyhound in its courses,/The hawk above the hill,/Move not more surely to their end/Than England to the kill.”

Valance has clearly been modelled, in part, on Rupert Brooke, his Two Acres, from which this quatrain comes, being the equivalent in terms of his posthumous reputation (he, too, dies during the First World War) of The Old Vicarage, Granchester. Different aspects of his character derive from other ‘doomed youths’, including Julian Grenfell. Is there something, too — Valance is a mountaineer — of the intrepid George Mallory, destined to die on Everest, who was favourite eye-candy for the biographer Lytton Strachey?

The spirit of Strachey hovers over the early chapters, set in 1913, of this long and deeply moving novel. Like him, Valance is a Cambridge man and a member of the exclusive Cambridge Conversazione Society; like him, he is homosexual (or at any rate bisexual), his lover being the fellow ‘Apostle’ George Sawle at whose ‘arts and crafts’ home, Two Acres, we find them in secret embraces as the book begins. Valance’s poem commemorating this visit is not, however, dedicated to George but to his equally smitten sister Daphne.

Thereafter, through a period covering almost a century, we follow the fortunes of the two families. Cecil having perished, Daphne marries his younger brother (later, a pompous drunk, beautifully drawn), thereby becoming Lady Valance and chatelaine of the Victorian gothic mansion Corley Court. Meanwhile, we are shown how the posthumous reputation of Valance is measured and adjusted through the study of his life and work, some of it by the sympathetic, if rather dishonest gay biographer Paul Bryant. (I would not suggest anyone else try his method of ripping off the Oxford bookshop Blackwell’s).

As in Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning A Line of Beauty of 2004 his knowledge and love of architecture are as clearly revealed as his interest in upper-class life, his concern to chart the changing sexual mores of the times, particularly where gay liaisons are concerned, and his obvious passion for the world of letters. The Stranger’s Child already looks like being the novel of the year.