Saturday, 28 January 2012

Loving by Henry Green

It's Henry Green Week in literary blogworld, prompted by winstonsdad, and my choice from Green's nine novels is Loving, a 1945 novel set in an Irish country house during the Second World War.  Like most Irish country houses at that time it is owned by an English family, the Tennants, and mainly staffed by English servants.  Only widowed Mrs Tennant, her daughter-in-law Violet and Violet's two little girls are in residence, since Violet's husband Jack is serving in the British forces.  This little family requires a small army of servants to care for them and the house, and the narrative shows us much more of downstairs life, the adult Tennants being in England for a good stretch of the text.  At the start of the novel the butler, Mr Eldon, dies; his place is taken by the footman Raunce, much to the disgust of the housekeeper Miss Burch.  Housemaid Edith is not so repelled by Raunce, however, and the novel traces the development of their relationship through the tensions and anxieties of wartime life.  If you are being reminded of Downton Abbey at this point you are not alone, but don't let that put you off.

Tensions run high at the house; there are fears of German invasion, fears of the IRA, and many of the servants struggle with the guilt of having evaded war service in England.  Raunce is disliked by many of the servants; Kate, another maid, is jealous of her friend Edith's closeness to him, and Albert the pantry boy suffers both from unrequited love for Edith and from serving under Raunce.  The cook's nephew, another Albert, who comes to stay as an evacuee, is a powerfully disruptive force.  A valuable ring goes missing just before the Tennants leave for England; the combination of this loss with the prevailing wartime tensions creates an atmosphere of intense paranoia.  This is brilliantly evoked in Green's unique narrative style.

Green apparently disliked being called a modernist, but I'm not sure how else I would describe his prose.  There is no internal monologue; we only very occasionally hear a character's thoughts; and the narrative voice is flat, never commenting on how characters say or do things, simply describing plainly what they say and do.  Winstonsdad quotes James Woods on Green, showing how this was a deliberate strategy:

Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers : he never internalized his characters thoughts hardly ever explained a characters motive ,and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to the reader (“she said grandiloquent” ). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with one’s reader and that nothing kills “life ” so much as explanation”.

As the reader, you are set down in the middle of dialogues or situations that you may not fully understand, where speech alludes to something you cannot know. The novel builds up layers of allusive meaning that you must interpret, driving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps and colour the narrative with detail.  For me, this made the novel a compelling and satisfying read.  Green's prose might be flat but it is also frequently beautiful.  I particularly enjoyed the description of Albert the pantry boy playing blind man's buff:

Then it was his turn.  There was only Edith tall enough to tie him and as 'I love you I love you' was knotted over his eyes he quietly drew a great breath perhaps to find out if Edith had left anything on this piece of stuff.  He drew and drew again cautious as if he might be after a deep draught of her, of her skin, of herself.  He was puffed already when his arms went out to go round and round and round her.  But she was not there and for answer he had a storm of giggles which he could not tell one from another and which went ricocheting from stone cold bosoms to damp streaming marble bellies, to and from huge oyster niches in the walls in which boys fought giant boas or idled with a flute, and which volleyed under green skylights empty in the ceiling.  He went slow.  He could hear feet slither.  Then he turned in a flash.  He had Edith.  He stood awkward one hand on her stomach the other on the small of her back.

Blind man's buff is a fairly good metaphor for the position of the reader in this text, unable to see, needing to pay attention and interpret confusing sounds and actions.  The setting for this scene, a mock Greek temple, also brings out another aspect of Green's writing; throughout the novel I had the sense that there was a symbolic meaning to most of what I was reading, although like Albert I'm not sure that I grasped the half of it.  

Karyn at A Penguin a Week has also reviewed Loving.  Six of Henry Green's novels are still in print, in two compendium volumes published by Vintage.  I have Living and Party Going still to enjoy.


  1. I loved this novel, which I read sometime last year -- in fact I've read three others since but this remains my favorite.

  2. It's great, isn't it? I've had the compendium on my shelves for ages; I'm so glad I finally got around to opening it.

  3. he is the master of dialogue and also jumping around in the narrative I think ,all the best stu

  4. I agree with your modernist calling & thought comparisons with Beckett were valid also, I read Party Going & that reminded me several times of that level of banality spouted by the protagonists of waiting for Godot.

  5. Yes, the Beckett comparison is a good one, I think. I was also reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett, who is similarly good at conveying meaning almost wholly through dialogue and avoiding the adverb.