- Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green by Jeremy Treglown
Faber, 340 pp, £25.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 571 16898 1
Henry Green put in an incongruous cameo appearance in Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 biography of Roald Dahl. When an interviewer from the Houston Post asked the bestselling author of the low-life and hilarious ‘adult’ short-story collection Someone like You who his favourite British writer was, he answered loftily: ‘Henry Green.’ Treglown thought the reason might have been that Dahl (who anyway loved a put-down) shared a friend with Green, the painter Matthew Smith, whose work he did know and like. For surely Dahl could have had little time for an avant-garde writer like Green? Besides, Green was just the kind of Eton-and-Oxford Englishman who had made him feel so alien and unappreciated in the London literary world when he first tried to set up as a writer after the war.
The truth, as it turns out, is that by the 1950s Green was in his way as much of an outsider as Dahl. His literary friends and fans, too, were un-English – the Americans Eudora Welty and Terry Southern (author of The Magic Christian and the famously dirty book Candy); or the French New Novelist Nathalie Sarraute, who singled out Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett as (after the demise of Woolf) the most original and distinctive voices in British writing. Southern managed to coax out of Green, who was notoriously inarticulate (and not just from the booze), a 1958 Paris Review interview in which he confessed to admiring Céline, Joyce and Kafka: but they were ‘like cats which have licked the plate clean. You’ve got to dream up another dish if you’re to be a writer.’
By now Green was pretty hopelessly blocked. Sarraute, who thought this a perfectly natural and logical state for any real writer to find himself in in the later 20th century, praised him for making the deadly conventionality of British life into a kind of brilliant metafiction. Writer’s block was a starting point, a theme, an inspiration for writing about writing. Her description of the contemporary character fiction should be focusing on – ‘a being devoid of outline, indefinable, intangible and invisible’, an avatar of the author – fits Green’s writing very exactly. Except that for Sarraute this was contemporary fiction’s game, whereas for Green, it seems, it had become an authentic, personal mess. By the time he was being regularly praised as an original he truly hadn’t two ideas to rub together.
It’s this double alienation – being without definition, being so much the outsider to your own vocation that you can’t work any longer – that Treglown’s book explores in Green. It’s partly the story of the relations between his family identity as Henry Yorke, upper-class inheritor of the family firm, and his character as Green the writer; but it’s also an exploration of the fatal attraction of anonymity, the love affair with society’s nobodies that’s at the centre of Green’s best writing. The title, Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, sounds thoroughly traditional, but signals a provocative intent. The puzzles of Green’s texts are, Treglown wants to argue, intimately connected with his singularly centreless personality: ‘his fiction is an oblique form of self-portrait,’ and readers ‘who have not swallowed the critical dogma that tries to exclude authors from their works’ should find the life-story illuminating. Which it is. Green’s Modernist textual density and his authorial absenteeism are here inextricably entangled with the way he set about the business of living and working.
So we’re not going to reread Green and understand how he ended up imaginatively bankrupt unless we have a Life. This sounds like an echo of Treglown’s protracted negotiations with the Yorke family – first this biography was authorised, then authorisation was withdrawn, though there’s no blow by blow account of the process. Nor, in the book itself, of any seriously scandalous revelations people might have wanted to suppress. But then that’s not necessarily why survivors and family feel so equivocal about biographers. Another reason, and a good one, is the fear that the subject will join the wax museum of ‘characters’ on display in accounts of ‘Bloomsbury’, or of the Waughs and Spenders and Actons and Nicolsons and . . . Lives too often deny their subjects’ particularity, the banal but precious fact of everyone’s uniqueness, which is just what they’re cracked up to celebrate. Indeed, it’s often the juiciest biographical subjects, Vita Sackville-West, say, or Kingsley Amis, who anticipate the process, and turn themselves into caricatures and stereotypes in life. There’s a touch of this about Green’s long years of decline, when he drank himself silly, and retreated into an especially British style of polite, slurred anecdotage. But earlier on he was one of the few real anti-novelists whose books explored the dissolution of the old social and sexual plots that kept – still keep – the heritage show on the road.
Green’s masterpieces, like Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945), are devoted to demonstrating the hollowness of traditional loyalties and roles, for all the world as if he were a fictional anthropologist looking at the last days of an alien culture, except that, uniquely uncomfortably, he’s doing it from the inside, almost as trapped and confused as his characters. Treglown quotes V.S. Pritchett finely describing Green’s special subject as ‘the injury done to certain English minds by the main, conventional emphases of English life’. Hence his New-Novelish expertise in ‘the blurred, the lethargic, inarticulate part of human beings’.
One of the things Romancing brings out with great vividness is the tragicomic character of Green’s disaffection – less traumatic than bathetic. His parents belonged to the previous century, and lived on a larger, altogether more picturesque and energetic scale: Vincent Yorke was a classically rounded character, a scholar, a huntsman, a shrewd and autocratic businessman; his mother, Maud, lived for dogs and horses, and seems to have exhausted her interest in her sons with her monumental grief over the death of the eldest, Philip, while still a schoolboy at Eton. She turned his bedroom into a shrine, where nothing could be changed or moved, and then – this is the really revealing bit of the story – moved her maid Mabel in there for convenience’s sake, so that Mabel had to sleep among the relics. But then Mabel could sleep among the relics without dispelling the magic of mourning, because she didn’t occupy space in the same way at all.
And nor did Henry. He sided with the help. Loving, for instance, reverses the Maud/ Mabel set-up, with Anglo-Irish nobs Mrs Tennant and her careless, adulterous daughter-in-law Mrs Jack playing bit parts in the lives of their servants. The plot stages an ingenious double-take: Mrs Jack is caught in flagrante by the maid bringing in her breakfast, because what the servants see doesn’t count much, for her. But in fact what Mrs Jack gets up to doesn’t matter that much to Edith, because Edith has a perfectly absorbing life of her own, with quite enough excitement and confusion and loose ends to be going on with. Evelyn Waugh, revealingly, found this book infuriating; prewar he’d praised Green, but while he confined himself to complaining fussily to his face about some of the social detail in Loving – surely if these were really gentry they wouldn’t be renting the house, and so forth – to others he declared it ‘obscene’. Perhaps he was thinking of scenes like this one between Edith and her friend Kate, in the afternoon, in their bedroom:
‘Kate I’m getting too hot.’
‘Take off some of your clothes then silly. Come on with you I’ll help.’
‘Quiet. There’s Mrs Jack’s stockings I’ve got to go over.’
‘If you lie on your buttons I can’t undo ‘em at the back can I?’ Kate said. Then she tickled Edith to make her shift.
‘Mercy stop it,’ Edith screamed . . . But she made it easier for Kate by moving her body here and there as was required.
‘It’s only your old uniform,’ Kate said and soon Edith was lying almost naked.
‘I’ll stroke you if you like,’ Kate said. ‘Shut your eyes now.’
‘I ought to be going over those silk stockings.’
‘If you don’t take good care I’ll run over you like you was an old pair Edie and darn you in all sorts of places you wouldn’t think.’
They giggled in shrieks again at this and then quietened down.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the writing here is that it’s not voyeuristic, but one of those moments of (textual) bliss when Green seems to lose himself – his gender, his class, his authorial voice – in his characters. ‘It’s only your old uniform . . .’ He longs to be ‘demobbed’, liberated into a state of indeterminacy and ambiguity. Not that it’s possible to sustain it for long. Edie and Kate will go their separate, conventional ways; the children of the house, allowed to run wild and play with the cook’s nephew, will be safely accounted for as they grow up, the world will restabilise itself, more’s the pity.
You can hardly imagine a scene more at odds with the sensibility of the author of Brideshead Revisited. And to add insult to injury, the whole thing has no camp allusion to metaphysics, either. Emma Tennant, who was briefly Green’s daughter-in-law, thinks that his scepticism is one of the keys to his elusive character as a writer and as a man:
He was too clear-sighted to have any religion. He wasn’t going to have any Communism or Fascism or any God or anything at all. That was a cruel fate for him. But if he hadn’t had that complete lack of belief in things he wouldn’t have been able to write those books with their extraordinary poetic distance, because something sentimental would have got into the writing. It’s because he didn’t that the writing lives.
Thus his 1929 novel, Living, the book that established his reputation at the age of 24, dealt with the lives of factory-workers, based on those he’d met when he dropped out of Oxford and went to work on the shop-floor of the family foundry in Birmingham, entirely without benefit of ‘collective’ political language or conviction. And this is of a piece with his particular vision, if you can call it that.
One sign that he knew what he was up to is the fact that in Living Mr Craigan, who belongs to the older generation, reads Dickens and asks his granddaughter Lily when she runs off with Bert to Liverpool whether they spent the night together. He expects a full-blooded Victorian plot. But that’s not at all what has happened: Lily and Bert simply run out of steam in Liverpool, en route to Canada – they cannot, when it comes to it, plunge into the unknown, they’re defeated by the amorphousness of their personalities, being products of the present time. Landlocked, they panic at the smell of the sea: Lily has the horrors as the searchlight from a lighthouse sweeps the sky: ‘She would not look up again . . . She was blank, blank. Again it came along the sky.’ She returns home, to settle for the old prospects.
Green himself, in his life as Henry Yorke, did something rather similar. During his two-year stint in the Farringdon Works he never lost touch with his family or friends, he kept one foot on their ground always, and if he was – as everyone who knew him thought – happy for once, it seems to have been because he was liberated as an observer, able to store up for himself other people’s voices, hobbies (racing pigeons, football), awful Sundays (‘worst day in the world’), and look at his own class from the outside, too. The year Living was published he married Dig Biddulph, the daughter of his parents’ neighbours at Ledbury Park, though he was rather in love with her sister Mary, too, and they both seem to have been very fond of him – the kind of eminently suitable, vaguely incestuous marriage that typified his world. The line of least resistance for all concerned. They had a son, Sebastian, and entertained and partied, and he went to work at head office in London, and fell in love from time to time with other women, some of them – like Rosamond Lehmann – formidably wilful and attractive, though there was never any question of leaving his wife. His girlfriends usually stayed friends once the affairs were over; and Dig usually stayed friends with them too, and no one ever knew whether she ‘knew’ or not – certainly no one ever spoke about it.
There were no domestic scenes, no ‘words’. And never a question either of affairs with women outside his class (or at least outside London’s bohemia): he wanted to be those girls, write them, not make love to them. Indeed the Yorkes seem to have been rather inept with their ‘help’, always losing cooks and having to eat out. And though he wrote children so well, he wasn’t by the sound of things a better than conventional father, a bit distant. The only other real digression was the war, when he joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service, and once again was working alongside strangers, and this period seems to have acted – as did the foundry – as a source of energy and inspiration. Otherwise he more and more listened to other people’s voices in the pub, or in the bus on his way to the office, where he also drank, and gradually lost heart. He seems to have wanted quite badly to think of his writing as honest toil, ‘work’: but the main result of that was interfering unhelpfully in his publisher’s sales of foreign rights, or wisely deciding that paperbacks were a bad idea.
His last book was Doting in 1952. Its characters, as Treglown points out, come close to home: ‘Arthur’s mid-life crisis, Diana’s reiterations of the doctor’s warnings against his drinking . . . her unhappiness, yet her unflagging dedication to her in every sense hopeless husband’. The novel’s last sentence is: ‘The next day they all went on very much the same.’ And so they did, for twenty more years, except that he wrote nothing more, though he went through the motions. He was only in his forties, but redundant, out of work, unemployed. The last chapters recounting Green’s achingly slow disintegration are the best and most original. Treglown has taken a leaf out of his subject’s books in describing the surreally inarticulate life Henry and Dig lived – she saying to dismayed visitors that poor Henry has a chill, when he’s insensible, or even, sometimes, in hospital.
Michael Holroyd, working on his book on Lytton Strachey, went to interview Green about Ottoline Morrell, whom he’d known well, of course, like most of those more flamboyant contemporaries who were figuring in new Lives: ‘Dig received him politely, picking her way gracefully over a dishevelled, sleeping figure on the stairs whom Holroyd took to be a tramp. It was Henry. Dig mildly instructed him to tidy himself up and he soon reappeared neatly shaved and well dressed, and sat down to talk helpfully to the interviewer.’ Almost to the end Henry could on occasion get back into uniform, though apparently he usually wore his bedroom slippers with his suit. Asked for his opinions on the world, he’d tell people one should sit as still as possible, try not to go out. He didn’t actually talk helpfully to interviewers, almost ever, he simply adopted a parody of the correct language. His very emptiness – that weird domestic space he shared with Dig, his true other half in this, a genius of ‘denial’ – becomes memorably real. Treglown, who has had a thing about anonymity ever since editing the TLS (and is currently plotting to ‘out’ all those past generations of anonymous reviewers), clearly takes a perverse pleasure in Green’s end. Now you see him, and now you don’t. Romancing is a hidden polemic on behalf of the much maligned craft of literary biography. Like his subject, though, Treglown can’t quite bring himself to come out and say so.