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Beguiling

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Like Charles Lamb trying all his life to like Scotsmen, for forty years I wanted to enjoy the nine novels of Henry Green. They have such beguiling one-word titles – Loving, Living, Doting, Concluding. They look so tasty on other people’s shelves. They start so well: ‘A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do care fully, because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue.’

Published between 1926 and 1952, they have had such passionate admirers – W. H. Auden, Terry Southern, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen – and since the author died in 1973 there have been omnibus editions, a uniform edition, a dozen critical studies, at least six Ph.D theses, a biography and a lively website.

But I read them with gathering impatience, gave up, tried another, gave up again. The novels easily seem precious, overblown, erratic and illogical. They take off at wilful tangents. The plots are sometimes nebulous; the stylistic trick in Living, of leaving out the definite article to tighten and pare the prose, soon becomes irritating. My own ungratified urge towards them, and their muffled but persistent fame, were a mystery.

In 2000 Vintage republished Henry Green’s memoir Pack My Bag, begun in 1938 and published in 1940, when he was 35. He had already produced Blindness, begun at Eton and published in his second year at Oxford, and two other novels. Green believed he would not survive the war everyone knew was coming. He felt compelled to look into the past and name what was there before war swept him and everything else away. Not much of Green’s fiction is in print at present, but suddenly, demurely, this wonderful little work appeared, and the mystery was solved.

Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, son of a rich industrialist. He grew up on a large Gloucestershire estate, where his mother, a daughter of Petworth, required the gardener to bowl
mangel-wurzels for he

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Like Charles Lamb trying all his life to like Scotsmen, for forty years I wanted to enjoy the nine novels of Henry Green. They have such beguiling one-word titles – Loving, Living, Doting, Concluding. They look so tasty on other people’s shelves. They start so well: ‘A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do care fully, because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue.’

Published between 1926 and 1952, they have had such passionate admirers – W. H. Auden, Terry Southern, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen – and since the author died in 1973 there have been omnibus editions, a uniform edition, a dozen critical studies, at least six Ph.D theses, a biography and a lively website. But I read them with gathering impatience, gave up, tried another, gave up again. The novels easily seem precious, overblown, erratic and illogical. They take off at wilful tangents. The plots are sometimes nebulous; the stylistic trick in Living, of leaving out the definite article to tighten and pare the prose, soon becomes irritating. My own ungratified urge towards them, and their muffled but persistent fame, were a mystery. In 2000 Vintage republished Henry Green’s memoir Pack My Bag, begun in 1938 and published in 1940, when he was 35. He had already produced Blindness, begun at Eton and published in his second year at Oxford, and two other novels. Green believed he would not survive the war everyone knew was coming. He felt compelled to look into the past and name what was there before war swept him and everything else away. Not much of Green’s fiction is in print at present, but suddenly, demurely, this wonderful little work appeared, and the mystery was solved. Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, son of a rich industrialist. He grew up on a large Gloucestershire estate, where his mother, a daughter of Petworth, required the gardener to bowl mangel-wurzels for her to practise shooting. Among his relations were prime ministers, generals, barons, earls and numberless Honourables; in the fullness of time the Queen Mother, as she then wasn’t, stood godmother to his infant son. He did two years on the factory floor of his father’s Birmingham engineering works and later, unsurprisingly, became its managing director. Green never relinquished the privileges of his class, nor its essential habits and attitudes, but he was from early on a subtle, satirical observer of all the institutions that contained him, their absurdities and the motives of their inhabitants, his own included. Pack My Bag is sombre, yet gleaming with humour; not elegiac, but pressingly aware that the tide was rushing in; and alive with those swift original flowerings of thought that are this writer’s special badge. Henry Green was fascinated by the differences between people, and the different circumstances of lives. His social intelligence and his ear for speech we re accurately tuned to servants – heaven knows , he had squads of them to observe – to his companions in the factory workshops, and to the unearthly imperviousness of his own kind. The family manor house became a First World War hospital for wounded officers, not all of them gentlemen, I’m afraid. ‘One of them took out my father’s gun, his cartridges and his dog and shot his pheasants out of season without asking. I remember what upset us as much was the behaviour of my father’s dog, that it should lend itself to such practices.’ Green is as clear-eyed about the primitive society of his prep school, the savage philistinism of the Eton of his day, and Oxford as it offered itself to rich young men at that time. But he does not write as hero. He records as evenly his own strategies, pretences, follies, manoeuverings and politickings along the path to manhood. And he writes like this:
She was not the first strange girl I had talked to alone for I was at that time one of those who speak more loudly than they need to a companion while seeking out with their eyes sidelong what effect their conversation has on others present. In this way horses clumsily pretend to crop the grass as they draw near.
Moved by this small, seductive memoir, I turned back to the novels. Now I understood Green’s habit of developing from a word a great colour-filled blossom of idea, enclosed in the ordinary narrative. Life is ragged and illogical and goes off at a tangent: that’s why Green’s novels do. They are like no other fiction, and each of Green’s is quite different from his other eight. Charles Lamb never succeeded in liking Scotsmen, but Pack My Bag led me to Green’s novels as new old favourites – a pleasure we can’t expect to come to us very often.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Mary Sullivan 2004


About the contributor

Mary Sullivan is a writer and reviewer. Some years ago she lived in the Great Ormond Street flat which had been Anthony Powell’s in the 1930s and which Henry Green, a close friend of Powell’s from schooldays, must often have visited.

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