The Swimming Pool Library

The Swimming-Pool Library

First edition
Author Alan Hollinghurst
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Chatto & Windus
Publication date
22 Feb 1988
Media type Print (hardback & paperback) & audio book
Pages 304
ISBN 0-7011-3282-5
OCLC 17841394

The Swimming-Pool Library is a 1988 novel by Alan Hollinghurst.

Plot introduction

In 1983 London, the privileged, gay, and sexually irresistible 25-year-old protagonist Will saves the life of an elderly aristocrat having a heart-attack in a public lavatory. This chance meeting sets in process a chain of events that will ultimately require the highly intelligent but essentially carefree Will to substantially re-evaluate his sense of the past and of his family's history.

Explanation of the title

The title has at least three meanings.

As recounted at the beginning of chapter 7, at William's unspecified prep school, prefects were known as 'librarians', the designation often taking a prefix to indicate the particular prefect's area of responsibility. Will, a keen swimmer at school as afterwards, became the 'Swimming-Pool Librarian'. His father, writing to offer congratulation, amusedly comments, 'you must tell me what kind of books they have in the Swimming-Pool Library.' For Will, the Swimming-Pool Library is slang for the changing-room to which he and his friends would slip in the middle of the night for illicit sexual activities.

Also, at Charles Nantwich's home there is a room that has served as a library and was once a Roman bath.

And, Will borrows trashy homoerotic novels from one of the lifeguards at the Corinthian club. The club, then, is a swimming pool library.

Plot summary

William Beckwith is a highly privileged, cultivated and promiscuous young gay man. He is the grandson and heir of Viscount Beckwith, an elder statesman and a recent peer. To avoid death duties, that grandfather has already settled most of his estate on Will, who therefore has substantial private means and no need of work.

As the novel opens, we learn that Will is currently seeing a young, working-class, black man named Arthur. Will is deeply sexual and physically very attractive. His preoccupation with Arthur is almost entirely physical.

Will is a member of the Corinthian Club (‘the Corry’) at which he swims, exercises and cruises men. The Corry is in no formal sense a gay club, indeed it is made clear that there are non-gay members, but there is a pervasive homoerotic atmosphere.

Whilst cruising a young man in a London park, Will enters a public toilet to find a group of older men cottaging. One of them suddenly suffers what is perhaps a minor heart attack and collapses. Will applies artificial respiration and saves the man's life. He returns home to find Arthur bleeding and terrified. Arthur has accidentally killed a friend of his brother Harold's, after an argument about drugs. Will agrees to shelter Arthur.

At the Corry, Will meets the old man again and learns that he is Lord (Charles) Nantwich. Charles invites Will to lunch at Wicks': his club. Wicks' is filled with men "of fantastic seniority". We learn here that Will studied History at Oxford, getting a 2.1 rather than the first that he says had been expected of him. That he has studied history will in the course of the novel be revealed as an irony.

Trapped in close confinement with Arthur, Will begins to resent him. Their boredom and tension occasionally erupts in bouts of vaguely abusive sex. Will goes to a cinema that shows gay pornography and has anonymous sex. On the train home, Will reads Valmouth, a novel by Ronald Firbank, given to him by his best friend, James. James is a hard-working doctor who is insecure and sexually frustrated as a gay man. The novel by Firbank echoes themes central to The Swimming Pool Library; secrets and discretion; extreme old age, colonialism, race and camp; the sense of deeper truths residing behind a thin façade of artifice.

Back at the flat, William finds his small nephew Rupert, an enchantingly self-possessed boy of six, who has run away from home. Rupert loves Will and is interested in homosexuality. Despite his youth, Rupert exhibits a strong gay sensibility. Will calls his sister Philippa and her husband Gavin comes to collect Rupert. While they're waiting, Will and Rupert look a photo album containing photos of a young Will and members of his family. Will goes to the Corry with James; on their return, Arthur has vanished.

Will visits Charles at his home, where he lives with his servant Lewis. Lewis is curt, even slightly aggressive and seems jealously protective of Nantwich. Charles's house is filled with memorabilia and books; there are homoerotic paintings as well as a portrait of a beautiful African boy. In the cellar, they look at some Roman mosaics and Charles asks Will to write his biography for him.

At the Corry, Will is attracted to Phil, a young bodybuilder. Despite his physique, Phil is shy and a sexual novice. Will suspects that Phil is the man with whom he had sex in the cinema.

James believes that Will is wasting his intelligence and his literary skill and urges him to write Charles's biography. Will returns to Charles's house to find him locked in his bedroom by Lewis. Their master/servant relationship is complex and fraught. Will takes Charles’ diaries and notes home.

On the train, Will cruises a young man whom he takes home; they engage in sexual intercourse. He begins to read Charles's papers.

Charles’s early life vividly illustrates themes central to the experience of being homosexual, privileged and British. Will reads of his boyhood at public school, where he experienced sexuality by turns brutal and tender. He is cruelly raped by one boy but later taken under the protection of an older boy, Strong, who treats him gently. We learn that Strong became a soldier in the Great War, was badly injured and died insane. Charles becomes aware that he is strongly attracted to black men when he is openly propositioned by an American soldier. He experiences feelings of desperate arousal, fear and revulsion and flees.

As a student, Charles goes on a spree with some friends in the country. They go to an abandoned hunting lodge and drink champagne. Charles has sex with one of them; a young man who feels insecure about his (comparatively) modest background and sexual inexperience.

As a young man, Charles enters the Foreign Service and travels to Sudan to act as a regional administrator. He is enchanted by the land and powerfully drawn to African men but finds himself cut off by his race, his rank and his position as a colonial. Charles ruminates on the sense of devotion that homosexuality can foster between men and how that devotion aids duty and right action.

Phil invites Will back to his lodgings in the Hotel where Phil works as a waiter. Phil wants sex but is too shy so Will seduces him. Will goes to the opera with James and his grandfather. The opera is Billy Budd. Will is struck almost to tears by the homoerotic and emotional power of the work. During the conversation afterwards, the subject of Benjamin Britten’s own homosexuality arises and they talk about his relationship with E. M. Forster, who co-wrote the libretto. The relationship between gay sexual expression and art is gently explored.

Will continues reading Charles's diaries. On the way to a boxing club patronised by Nantwich, Will has an unpleasant encounter with a working class boy, who offers him sex for money. Will refuses; there are undertones of fear and violence. At the match, Will meets Bill: a man he knows from the Corry. Bill is a weightlifter; a large muscular man who coaches teenage boxers. Trapped inside his body, Bill seems a fearful man. He is devoted to Nantwich, his patron, and to the boys he coaches. He is also carrying a torch for Phil.

From the diaries, Will learns that Nantwich has been to Egypt and then returned to London, where he met with Ronald Firbank; an extraordinary portrait of effete decrepitude; camp and alcoholic.

Will takes Phil to visit Staines, a successful studio photographer who echoes Cecil Beaton. Staines is a gossipy queen and socialite. His lover is a "school tart" grown old; a kept man drinking too much. Staines poses Phil bare-chested and oiled; as pornography. This episode overtly deals with gay artifice, staging and the image. Phil is idealised and objectified. Staines reveals that Charles's brother was homosexually insatiable, exploited his servants and was subsequently beaten to death and that Charles's uncle was likewise into rough trade.

At Nantwich's house, Will and Charles talk about Ronald Firbank. Charles gives Will a beautiful edition of one of Firbank's novels as a gift. Afterwards, Will goes to Arthur's address in a working class area of London and calls but there is no answer. Returning, he encounters a group of skinheads who demand his watch, attack and queer-bash him, destroying the Firbank novel in the process. Will goes home, where James patches him up but beauty is temporarily ruined. He reads Charles's diary aloud to Phil: Charles describes a North African trying to covertly sell him gay pornography and is disturbed at being ‘outed’ in a foreign culture.

Will returns to Staines's home with Nantwich. There are several other men there, including two youths and a black chef, Abdul, who works at Charles’s club. Will is powerfully attracted to Abdul. It transpires that Staines and Nantwich are collaborating on the production of a pornographic film in which Abdul and the two youths are performing. The theme of voyeurism alienates Will, who finds it embarrassing and quietly leaves.

Will takes Phil out clubbing at The Shaft. He has not been there for many months and there are vivid descriptions of a night on the gay ‘scene’. Will and Phil drink, dance and meet several gay ‘types’, including a Brazilian bodybuilder. He discovers Arthur, who has been working for his brother Harold, in the bathroom and attempts to have sex with him. Arthur is obviously quite upset, and they part ways.

Will gets a telephone call from James; he has been arrested whilst seeking sex. This is ironic since James’s sex-life is non-eventful compared to Will’s. It appears to be a case of police-entrapment, with an undercover officer soliciting sex from homosexual men.

Charles’s diaries have entered the Second World War; he is entering middle-age and the tone is melancholy. He is passionately devoted to an African man; the beautiful boy whose portrait hangs in Charles’s house. The boy is now grown up and about to get married to a woman.

Will goes to an exhibition of photographs by Staines. The theme is soft-core homo-erotica. He is surprised to find Gavin there. Talking with Staines, he discovers that he and Charles have produced three pornographic films of the type that play in the cinema where Will first had sex with Phil.

From the diaries, Will learns how Charles’s life was ruined. The African man whom he loved gets married and Charles begins to visit anonymous sex clubs and cruisy bathrooms. One night he solicits a policeman, who arrests Charles for public indecency. Despite his rank, Charles is ruthlessly prosecuted by a conservative politician of the time, who wants to make an example of him. The politician is William's grandfather; now the Viscount Beckwith. Will's wealth, his rank and his leisured gay existence are all built on a foundation of homosexual persecution. He also learns that Charles and Bill met in prison, where Bill, then a young man, had been thrown for having a love-affair with a boy three years younger than himself. The theme of natural love and sexuality destroyed by elite oppression is very powerful. While Charles is in prison, he learns that Taha, the African man, has been beaten to death in an incident that is apparently racially motivated. After learning about his grandfather's past, Will decides that he cannot now write Charles's biography, nor was he intended to do so. Charles has been educating him on his own past.

Will talks on the phone with Gavin, his brother in law. Gavin tells Will that he knew it was Will's grandfather who imprisoned Charles. A past perhaps so distant that the archaeologist knows it where the historian does not.

Rupert has been told to watch out for Arthur; he reports that he has seen him with his brother Harold. Will goes to Phil's hotel. He encounters a rich Argentine who propositions him. Will accepts until he finds that the man is obsessed with gay pornographic conventions, costumes and sex toys. Will finds this all slightly ridiculous and is not aroused. He refuses to consent to sex and leaves.

Upstairs, he discovers Phil having sex with Bill. Disoriented, he leaves and wanders to James's and then the Corry, where Charles Nantwich reveals his designs in giving Will the diaries. Will and James go to Staines's to see a film, not a piece of pornography but an archive recording of Ronald Firbank in old age. The novel closes.


Major themes

References to other works


The Swimming Pool Library won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1988, and the E. M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1989.

In 1988, Edmund White called it, "surely the best book about gay life yet written by an English author."[1]


Historical references


  1. Penguin Book 1988 paperback edition, backcover (quotation from the Sunday Times)
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