Loving by Henry Green

loving

A spate of bloggers read Henry Green earlier this year and raved about him, piquing my interest. I’d never heard of him before; subsequent research revealed that he was a prominent modernist writer, with a unique style that was highly praised by the likes of Elizabeth Bowen and W H Auden, and he was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at The Hogarth Press. With all these connections and accolades, I was rather surprised that I hadn’t come across him in my reading life before. Enthusiastic to try something of his, I popped a cheap used copy of Loving in my Amazon shopping basket, but for some reason didn’t buy it. I then completely forgot all about it. That is, until I ordered some books for school a couple of weeks ago, and an unexpected extra parcel arrived. Confused, I ripped it open to find a beautiful 1940s hardcover of Loving, complete with original John Piper dustjacket. I was pleased to have it, but didn’t plan on reading it right away; I was in the middle of something else and was going to relegate it to my very long TBR pile. However, before I went to bed that night, something made me want to start reading. I opened it up, just planning on scanning the first page. An hour later, I was still turning the pages voraciously, not wanting to stop. To my very pleasant surprise, I found it absolutely mesmerising, despite it being just the sort of book I don’t normally like. Intriguing, no?

Set in the Irish country house of widowed Englishwoman Mrs Tennant during the early days of WWII, Loving mainly concerns the personal lives of the household staff. As the novel opens the old butler dies and the mantle is passed onto Charley Raunce, who has been eyeing up the top job for years. This causes great consternation in the house, with Miss Burch, the highly sensitive housekeeper, taking umbrage at the uncouth and disrespectful Charley taking over from the adored Mr Eldon. Miss Burch rules over the two young and giggly housemaids, Edith and Kate, while the gin drinking cook Mrs Welch rules over her kitchen girls, who are never allowed to fraternise with the tradesmen who come calling. For this is a household of English staff marooned in a foreign and hostile land; Ireland is a savage place according to the staff at the Castle, and they live in fear of being besieged at the back door by the IRA. However, with the war raging just across the Irish Sea and the certainty of being called up to war work or the army if they set foot back on their native land, they have no option but to stay put and live in a state of constant agitation. On the plus side, they have a very good deal; in the wilds of Ireland during a war, domestics can’t be found for love nor money, and Mrs Tennant and her daughter in law Violet find themselves held to ransom by the demands of their often difficult household staff.

The passing of Mr Eldon triggers a period of upheaval in the house. When Mrs Tennant and Violet go over to England for an extended visit, the staff are left alone to fend for themselves. Mrs Swift, the old Nanny, retires to her bed, as does Agatha, unable to cope with the stress. Charley, young Albert the footman and the girls are left with a free rein of the house, and Charley and Edith’s long burgeoning love affair is allowed to flourish. These are long days of largely nothingness; Edith looks after Violet’s abandoned children, Miss Moira and Miss Evelyn, in the peacock filled gardens; Charley watches Kate and Edith dancing in the shrouded drawing room; there is drama over an accidentally murdered peacock and a missing ring. This is not a plot driven novel; it is a study of character, written with an astonishing attention to detail and a lyricism that is astoundingly beautiful. There are moments in Green’s prose where you just have to stop, re-read, re-read again and then sit back and allow the images he creates to distil and unfold, chrysalis-like, in your mind. In a few words, he creates an entire world in meticulous minutiae; one that bursts with colour and seethes with repressed emotion, all encased in a veneer of fear of the unknown wilds of the countryside that unfolds outside of the closeted grounds.

The novel is mainly written in dialogue; ordinarily I can’t stand this, but in Loving, it feels entirely natural. Each character bursts effortlessly to life, their dialogue infused completely with their individual personalities. I felt like I was reading a play, and one that was being staged in a slightly fantastical location at that. The Castle is an intriguing background; a gothic pile with rooms heaped with ornate and unusual objects, it appears totally incongruous with the brash simplicity of the majority of people who inhabit it. Even the vague Mrs Tennant never feels quite at home there; it is a strange and uncomfortable place that everyone seems desperate to get away from. It is a fairytale castle, a symbol of the once almighty aristocracy whose power has been rapidly eroded, and its otherworldly quality perhaps stems from the fact that it is largely empty, and actually lived in more by the servants than the aristocrats. The social order has become inverted; the domestics rule the roost here, reflecting the turmoil in the world outside which the inhabitants of the Castle are hiding from.

This is a magical, special, uniquely brilliant novel, that merits endless re-reading and analysis to fully appreciate the splendour of the language Green uses to weave his tale. I loved how the opening and ending lines created a frame of a traditional fairytale, undermining the reality of the novel and reminding us that we are in a pretend world, where everyone is escaping from the realities of life. It is not just an aesthetically pleasing work of literature, however; it is also a hugely entertaining and very funny exploration of character. I adored every minute of reading it; even if you think modernism isn’t for you, you have to give Henry Green a try. I can’t wait to read more. This is literature as its best; an absolute feast for the imagination.

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 the other and which went ricochetting 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.

26 comments

  1. Oh, this sounds perfect for me! I love novels which are mostly in dialogue – hence my love of ICB! Also love books about servants. I thought Blindness was brilliant when I read it for Stu’s readalong, and I’m keen to read more – but I’m determined to read him in order (because I never do this, and he seemed like a good person to try it with) so it’ll be an age before I actually get to read Loving.

  2. I was one of those who was raving about it and as soon as I started reading this excellent review I decided I must now re-read it — so when I came upon your comment that it merits re-reading it seemed very apposite. Thanks. Now going off to find it on the bookshelf.

  3. I read Loving this year too – in a volume that also contained Living and Party Giving. I was as entranced as you were. I especially liked his portrait of Charley: quite a scary man.

    The Irish setting makes it perfect for me. No wonder Elizabeth Bowen approved.

    More wonderful pre-war fiction. And an excellent review from you, Rachel!

    1. I need to get hold of the other two, Chrissy – I can’t wait to read more. I agree – Charley was quite an intriguing!

      Thanks Chrissy – I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

  4. i will read it as i too have had it on my pile for ages. What have been your 5 best reads this year or is that too difficult to choose ? I wish you a happy Xmas and may 2013 be a year of wonderful books and blogs

    1. Glad to hear it Enid! Oh that is a tricky question – I’ve had a great reading year actually, so it is hard to choose! Probably The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf and Loving by Henry Green would be my favourites if I were pushed to choose…though Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris was a brilliant non fiction book. Thank you very much – I wish the same to you. Have a wonderfully relaxing Christmas!

  5. For some reason, I have always been prejudiced against him, thinking him an unreadable modernist but I was obviously wrong.Your review has aroused my interest and he shall swiftly go to my TBR list! Am currently reading Diana Tutton thanks to your review and am absolutely loving it – thank you!

    1. Absolutely not unreadable, Deborah – give him a try and you won’t regret it! Oh I’m so glad you’re enjoying Guard Your Daughters – there has been a slew of negative reviews of late so I’m delighted you’ve seen the magic in it!

  6. That book was meant to be yours! How fantastic that it arrived so serendipitously and phew…good thing you didn’t clean out your shopping cart! First Harriet and now you, that does it…I’m ordering a copy as a little Christmas present to myself. Oh, and that first snowflake falling against your header made me smile this morning, thanks for that.

    1. I know, I’m so pleased I have it now – what pleasure I would have missed out on! Hehehe I’m glad to hear that – you won’t regret it!🙂 I love the snow that comes down once December hits – it’s a wordpress thing, nothing I do!

  7. I read this a few years ago in my quest to read all the Modern Library Top 100. Sadly, I was underwhelmed, but maybe I should give it another shot. I have the Penguin classic which also contains Living and Party Going. I’ve been reading more novels about country houses (since my obsession with Downton Abbey); maybe I’d appreciate it more if I tried again.

  8. I love Henry Green and I’m so glad you have discovered him! I think Loving is often cited as his masterpiece but just as good in my opinion are Living, Party Going and Concluding (the latter in particular has a haunting, enigmatic quality I have rarely found anywhere else in literature). Beautiful books by a very talented author. Happy reading!

  9. I enjoyed Blindness and Party Going but have found some of his dialogue-heavy (polyphonic?) novels rather laborious. It’s always been a mystery why HG spent the last 20 years of his life in ever-deepening silence. Some suggest that drink destroyed his powers but this may confuse cause and effect. Maybe, with his last novel, Doting, he had ploughed his idiosyncratic furrow to its conclusion and lacking the potential for further development entered a long emotional decline.

    Anthony Powell relates (at the very end of his memoir Infants of the Spring) meeting HG at a party in 1959 and finding him in very poor shape, rambling about long-lost contemporaries until nearly in tears. ‘People thinks it’s the drink but it isn’t … I think I’m going to die.’

    (Aren’t I just brimming over with Christmas cheer today?) I am glad you’ve made HG’s acquaintance and hope you’ll review some more.

    1. Fascinating information as always, Bruce! That’s made me feel quite sad now! I’d like to read more about him as a person…I shall have a look into a biography once I’ve read some more of his novels.

  10. I read Caught a couple of years ago and, although I admired it, I didn’t take to it. The depictions of the firefighters, the London working class, all jarred with me. I was probably being too sensitive but I think I’d struggle to try another book of his. He wrote his autobiography when he was still in his 30s. You can get his biography from Amazon for a five. He was, if nothing else, large than life.

    1. Oh you must try Loving! Caught sounds like a very different novel entirely to Loving. His autobiography sounds intriguing…I get the impression that he was an interesting man!

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