On the Lower Slopes

Stefan Collini

  • Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family by Jeremy Lewis
    Cape, 580 pp, £25.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 07921 1

Graham Greene was more than half in love with easeful failure. He chose to end A Sort of Life, the sly memoir of his early years that stood in for an autobiography, with ‘the years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel’, adding the characteristic gloss that ‘failure too is a kind of death’ and so may conclude the story of a life as appropriately as one’s last breath. Greene had famously gambled his adolescent life on the odds that one of the five empty chambers of the revolver he held to his head would come up when he pulled the trigger (or so he later wanted us to believe). In his case, it is not clear which outcome should more properly be regarded as failure: ‘winning’ at Russian roulette could be seen as condemning him to more years of unbearable boredom. A typical character from one of his novels would presumably have put the gun to his head but been unable to pull the trigger, thereby generating further grounds for the self-loathing which had driven him to his desperate act. Desperate and sinful: suicide, even attempted suicide, perhaps even the stagey simulation of possible suicide, is a sin against the Holy Ghost, and although Greene, who converted to Catholicism when he was 22, may have had no orthodox belief in the Holy Ghost, he devoutly believed in sin. And sin, too, is a kind of failure, a confirmation of man’s fallen state as well as a welcome escape from the tedium of virtue. It is easy to come away from Greene’s books with the thought that the deepest form of inauthenticity is to be a worldly success.

But that is precisely what Graham Greene became. He became a bestselling author who was also critically acclaimed; he became a very rich man; and he became that indefinable but recognisable thing – a public figure (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, a major form of consecration in the decades after the Second World War). This was success as members of his family and class understood it, though Greene inhabited his fame in an idiosyncratic and reclusive way. It was, he always felt, just a series of disguises; he was driven on, he claimed, by ‘this damned desire to be successful that comes from a sense of inferiority’. The wealth, fame and independence that he came to know in the 1950s could never still the itch of self-disgust. During that decade he roamed the world with even more than his usual restlessness: ‘I had no employer from whom to escape – only myself, and the only trust I could betray was the trust of those who loved me.’ Escape and betrayal were something to hold onto when one’s life seemed to be slipping into a bottomless abyss of success.

Greene had gambled with his life in a different way when in 1929, at the age of 25, he resigned his secure job as a subeditor on the Times in order to try to convert the unexpected success of his first novel, The Man Within, into a career as a writer. Three years and two woeful flops later, it looked as though the chamber with the bullet was spinning into place. He wished, he later reflected, that he had had an experienced mentor to call on for advice – someone such as Robert Louis Stevenson, who ‘had always seemed to me “one of the family”’. Greene was distantly related to RLS through his mother’s cousin. ‘Names which appeared in his Collected Letters were photographs in our family album. In the nursery we played on the bagatelle board which had belonged to him.’ This sense of connection, even identification, with Stevenson stirred his imagination. Wishing in retrospect that he had been the beneficiary of the right kind of avuncular counsel, he instinctively thought of ‘my relative in Samoa’, a writer who had capped success in his thirties with voluntary exile and early death at the age of 44. As a boy playing on Berkhamsted Common, Greene had cast himself as David Balfour, and as a novelist he can be thought to have given his own bleak twist to the kind of ‘adventure story’ with which Stevenson’s name was for so long associated. In 1949 he began to write a biography of Stevenson, abandoning it only when he discovered that another biographer was well ahead of him. For such a determined loner, Greene had a pronounced streak of family piety.

Commenting on The Man Within, his rich uncle ‘Eppy’ (Edward) told him: ‘It could only have been written by a Greene.’ In his memoir, Greene stages his puzzlement at this remark: ‘I thought of my parents, I thought of all those aunts and uncles and cousins who had gathered together at Christmas, and of the two unknown Greene grandfathers … and then I thought of the novel, the story of a hunted man, of smuggling and treachery, of murder and suicide, and I wondered what on earth he was driving at. I wonder still.’ But he didn’t really, because in his mind he had already constructed a pleasing line of descent. There was ‘something at least of the Greene character in The Man Within, if only that irrational desire to escape from himself which had led one Greene grandfather out of the Church and the other to die in St Kitts’. Much later, he called the episodic volume which served as the second half of his autobiography Ways of Escape, but he knew that one never could escape, and that even through the fug of sex and drink in low dives in far-off ports he could find ways to torment himself. In the later decades of his life, he lived abroad permanently in an attempt to escape from success, or at least from some of its undesirable consequences, such as being buttonholed by strangers or having to pay a lot of income tax. Antibes wasn’t exactly the South Seas, but it tickled the vestige of English upper-middle-class conformity that lurked beneath his bohemian exterior and helped him feel that he was maintaining something of the family tradition.

Family is, ostensibly, the organising theme of Shades of Greene. Jeremy Lewis has not attempted to add yet another Life of the most famous Greene, but has written a narrative account of aspects of the lives of the more prominent Greene siblings and cousins, Graham included. The bloodstock details are quickly stated. Grandfather William Greene came from a family with West Indian and brewing interests; we are told that ‘he qualified as a solicitor but never practised; he dabbled in scientific farming, but was unable to retain his interest’; and then, rather magnificently, that he ‘abandoned full-time employment’. He married the daughter of a master mariner, and they had nine children between 1855 and 1870. The fifth was called Charles and the sixth Edward (lots of Greenes were). Charles became a schoolmaster, eventually the headmaster of the public school in Berkhamsted. He married his first cousin Marion Greene, and between 1896 and 1914 they produced six children. His brother Edward went into the coffee business in Brazil, becoming quite rich. In Brazil he met and married a young German girl, Eva Stutzer, and between 1901 and 1914 they too had six children.

Edward moved his family back to England, buying a large house in Berkhamsted in 1910, so that the two families saw a good deal of each other when the children were growing up. ‘Large house’ doesn’t really do justice to The Hall: when it was put up for sale 17 years later, the estate agent’s particulars (Lewis hasn’t stinted on the legwork) recorded that it was ‘set in 25 acres of parkland and boasted 17 bedrooms, three bathrooms, a billiards room, a “Tudor-style dairy”, a vegetable garden, a “garage for three large cars”, an orchard, a walled garden, tennis courts (two grass and one hard), stables, a home farm producing milk, cream and eggs, and three cottages for members of staff’. This establishment, Lewis adds with his customary twinkle,

employed 11 indoor servants, as well as a carpenter, several gardeners, a chauffeur called Collins who, according to Barbara [one of the children], had been brought up on a farm and ‘was far more used to animals and never understood the workings of a car’, and a very old man, the chauffeur’s father, whose sole job was to mow the lawns with a horse-drawn mowing machine, and remove every weed in the process.

As this suggests, the book takes an indulgent view of local colour. When one of the Greenes (Hugh) was involved in interviewing captured Luftwaffe pilots during the war, we are told: ‘His life was made easier by the fact that Luftwaffe crews often carried diaries and letters in their pockets, and he made use of his fluent German and his knowledge of their country; a dead Luftwaffe officer on Chesil Beach was found to be wearing pink silk women’s underclothes and carrying lipstick and a powder puff.’ A good thing Hugh was on hand to bring his knowledge of the country to bear.

Four of the ‘schoolhouse Greenes’, as they were known (to distinguish them from the ‘Hall Greenes’), made enough of a mark on history to merit extended discussion in this book. Raymond, the eldest brother, became a leading doctor and mountaineer, taking part in the 1933 Everest expedition. Graham became a writer. Hugh Carleton became a journalist and eventually director-general of the BBC. And Elisabeth helped to recruit people into MI6 (including, predictably, Graham). Of the ‘Hall Greenes’, three receive extended treatment. Ben was active in the Labour Party in the 1930s, playing a leading part in reforming its constitution, but his extreme opposition to war with Germany led him to be classed with the far-right British People’s Party, and as a result he was interned during the war. Barbara knocked about a good deal, accompanying her cousin Graham to Liberia, and then spending the entire war in Germany (she inherited excellent German from her mother). And Felix, too, became a journalist, the BBC’s first North American correspondent, and subsequently an authority on China, as well as an adept of various forms of Californian New Age twaddle. They could be ruthless in their appraisal of each other, especially the schoolhouse Greenes of the Hall Greenes, and being interesting was de rigueur. ‘He had a dull life,’ Barbara said after the death of her cousin ‘Tooter’ in 1990, ‘and his wives were all dull too.’ There was also the obligatory black sheep, Herbert, who drank and lost jobs yet nonetheless managed to do the odd spot of spying along the way (for the Japanese, as it turns out, but still, the important thing is not to be boring, and old Herbert was frightfully entertaining in his frightful way). One thing the Greenes did not do was die young: in this particular interfamily competition, the Hall Greenes (I calculate) just beat the schoolhouse Greenes, with an average life span of 82 as opposed to the latter’s 78. The score of the winning team was perhaps disproportionately boosted by the contribution of Eva, otherwise one of the less enterprising siblings, who was the last to die, aged 98, in 2001.

I expect this book will give a lot of people a lot of pleasure: it is not hard to imagine reviewers finding it ‘readable’, ‘entertaining’, ‘the story of a remarkable family’, ‘a panoramic account of English society’ and much else besides. It helps that the leading Greenes knew nearly everybody who was anybody in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, and it particularly helps that the life of the best-known member of the clan involved lots of religion, lots and lots of drink, and lots and lots and lots of sex. In addition, it won’t do the book any harm that not only does Lewis write agreeably and have a shrewd eye for amusing quotations, but he is also a senior figure in British publishing, having worked at Collins and at Chatto, as well as being an editor-at-large at the Literary Review and a former deputy editor of the London Magazine. He has written well-received biographies of Cyril Connolly and Allen Lane, and has already published three volumes of autobiography, the last entitled Grub Street Irregular. Now he has written a book which is, the blurb tells us, ‘both a riveting exercise in group biography and a masterly account of English society in the 20th century’.

Perhaps I’m just not that easily riveted. The book is full of interesting details, but the protocols of the genre seem to require that a wearyingly unbroken narrative pace be sustained, with any larger analysis or questioning of sources strictly forbidden, and that the more the text can be crammed with well-known names the better. Thus, when Graham’s soon-to-be-estranged wife Vivien is parked in Oxford early in the war, we are told: ‘She had begun her collection of dolls’ houses, and included among her Oxford friends A.L. Rowse, Lord David Cecil, Maurice Bowra, Roy Harrod, Neville Coghill, and A.J.P. Taylor and his wife Margaret.’ Graham’s older brother Raymond was principally an endocrinologist, but when his career in the 1930s is under discussion we are told that ‘he enjoyed obstetrics and, years later, took a retrospective pride in having delivered Antonia Fraser.’ Even the background fact of Uncle Eppy’s having worked, when first in Brazil, for the firm of Edward Johnston prompts the titbit ‘a scion of the family was Brian “Johnners” Johnston, the much-loved cricket commentator.’ Fortunately, the occasional appearance in these pages of a hitherto unknown name serves to stir one’s flagging interest.

In practice, the interesting aspects of the seven main characters did not overlap very much (at one point Lewis frankly concedes ‘there was not much contact or even much liking between the two families’), so that what we have in effect is a series of episodic mini-biographies. The book’s chief technical device as far as the narrative is concerned involves having a longish section on some colourful Greene followed by a paragraph beginning ‘Meanwhile, another Greene …’ Lewis concentrates on the 1930s and 1940s, a period he obviously finds attractive, so the subsequent decades get rather brisk treatment, though there is a good account of Graham’s later career among, and his entanglements with, publishers, a topic on which Lewis writes with particular authority. There is also a very fair discussion of Hugh Carleton’s controversial tenure as director-general of the BBC, from 1960 to 1969. This Greene (six years Graham’s junior) had a generous measure of the family self-confidence, but he also had a genuine and unstuffy liberalism about social and cultural matters, and he encouraged and defended much that was good about the corporation’s broadcasting during that decade against a variety of narrow-minded, philistine and downright self-serving complaints.

If we try to adopt a slightly more analytical perspective on the wealth of interesting period detail in Lewis’s book, the main organising themes would have to be social class and cultural capital. Lewis claims that one of the things his cast had in common was ‘an ability to make their own ways in the world with the self-confidence that was once so typical of the English upper middle classes’. Only his blithely individualist focus could suggest that they ‘made their own ways’ in the world. Their ways were smoothed by caste connections and class privilege at every turn. They mostly exude a sense of entitlement, which their experiences as narrated here would have reinforced. At the mere approach of a confident young Greene, doors to promising careers opened themselves.

The Greenes grew up on the lower slopes of those peaks of privilege and gentility that dominated English society until the 1950s. Even though Graham tried heroically to turn himself into an isolated outsider, removed from any kind of ‘establishment’, the family, actual as well as imagined, helped him on his way at many points. He twice failed to win a scholarship to Oxford, but, as he coolly explained, ‘we still lived in a world of influential friends,’ and the history tutor at Balliol was ‘an old pupil and disciple of my father’s’ and awarded Graham an exhibition on very slender evidence. As an undergraduate, he was the contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton and other gilded youths who expected the world to pay attention to them. As the editor of Oxford Outlook, he asked his father to try to persuade their Berkhamsted neighbour, the eminent historian G.M. Trevelyan, to contribute, while sending his first book of poems to another Berkhamsted contact, Walter de la Mare. Edith Sitwell was gratified by an article on her poetry, but the terms in which she wrote to thank its undergraduate author suggest she also had other reasons to be well disposed: ‘Do remember me to your aunt, whom I knew when young.’ While still an undergraduate, Greene was introduced to many of the leading figures of literary London, and he managed to persuade the BBC to allow him and a group of student friends to read their poems live on air. Perhaps most strikingly of all, when he was 20 he successfully wrote to the German Embassy in London suggesting that they might care to subsidise a visit by him to the French-occupied Ruhr in order that a case sympathetic to Germany might be presented in the pages of those mighty organs Oxford Outlook (a student mag) and Oxford Chronicle (a local paper).

His father extended the normal parental subsidy of the day by paying off his son’s Oxford drinking debts (not small) and helping to keep him afloat financially during the lean years that followed. Having been part of the tiny elite of English society who went to Oxford in the 1920s meant that Graham thereafter had a passport valid for entry to a series of influential social networks. A friend got him some reviewing on the Spectator, another acquaintance helped him get a publishing contract, and on it went in the small world of London literary life in the 1930s. When, in 1937, Chatto tried to found a smart literary weekly, Night and Day (the launch party for 800 people was held at the Dorchester), Greene became its literary editor, but the paper folded within a year. During the war, several people in addition to his sister helped ‘to pull the requisite strings’ to get him taken on by MI6, thus initiating him into a world for which he seemed so well fitted by inclination. His immediate superior was Kim Philby, whom he liked and later refused to condemn when Philby defected to the USSR. Philby in turn found Greene a ‘tonic’ for his section, ‘the equivalent of a lot of stiff whiskies’ – not, presumably, an innocent comparison (but then perhaps Philby didn’t do innocence). Before the war ended, another friend recommended Greene for a job with the publishers Eyre & Spottiswoode, and by the early 1950s his books were so successful that he no longer needed a regular job. Nonetheless, having an eminent Harley Street doctor and a future director-general of the BBC among his brothers could still come in useful at times.

Later in his life, Greene liked to portray himself as something of a misfit, but he was in fact a recognisable representative of the English literary elite of his time, shaped by his liberal upper-middle-class family even as he rebelled against its more herbivorous tendencies, with an entrée to embassies, clubs and rich men’s houses around the world. When Hugh learned, at the age of 28, that he was to be included in the next edition of Who’s Who (presumably on the strength of his being the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin correspondent), his first thought was ‘I should think Da will be able to claim a record with himself and three sons in it.’ Even when most disgusted with himself, a Greene was always Somebody.

Lewis says that Graham Greene has been ‘badly served by his biographers’, though ‘the facts of his life have been well covered,’ which suggests unspoken reservations about Norman Sherry’s vastly detailed but calamitously self-advertising three-volume account. I’m not sure that setting a much briefer (if much better-written) narrative of the novelist’s life alongside parallel accounts of selected siblings and cousins changes the story much. Graham does emerge, perhaps unsurprisingly, as by some way the most interesting member of his family, partly just because he was a much better writer than any of the others, and partly, perhaps, because in his case the common class insouciance was shot through with a haunted, remorseful sense of evil.

The slightly relentless bonhomie of Lewis’s prose drove me back to reading Greene himself, not something I had done much of since mooning around the Surrey suburbs in my late teens fantasising that I, too, was a writer used to drinking too much and having frank and unillusioned sex in exotic locations (not that I knew what frank and unillusioned sex was). As others have long noted, he is an uneven writer, and the spiritual melodrama that mars some of his better novels now grates more than ever (even my teenage self thought that the ending of The End of the Affair ruined what was otherwise a powerful depiction of properly adult lust). But his autobiographical writings, perhaps because deliberately offhand in manner, have a spare, laconic elegance which is rare among autobiographers. A tiny illustration: as a 19-year-old he fell in love with the family’s 30-year-old governess, and he tells how ‘every evening of the winter vacation I would go upstairs to the nursery where she sat alone and the slow fire consumed the coals behind an iron guard.’ This minor, passing instance of the pathetic fallacy has an almost Flaubertian or Nabokovian concision, a reminder of what Greene’s best prose can be like when not striving for dramatic or religious effect. Or, slightly longer, his memorable description of arriving in 1920s Nottingham to work on the local paper, the tone of which is far from Lawrentian romanticism. For Greene it was ‘a town as haunting as Berkhamsted’ (high praise indeed), with a bleakness that sang to him. ‘Like the bar of the City Hotel in Freetown which I was to know years later it was the focal point of failure, a place undisturbed by ambition, a place to be resigned to, a home from home.’ The deceptive ease of the slide from, or equation between, ‘the focal point of failure’ and ‘a home from home’ neatly captures the way the dialectic of belonging and escape maps onto that of failure and success in an attempted reversal of conventional patterns.

At the end of A Sort of Life, Greene is drawn back to the flame of failure. In the early 1950s he visited, and smoked opium with, an old Oxford contemporary who had lived for many years in Siam. As an undergraduate, the friend ‘had written poetry of great promise, but for long now he had given up any attempt to write. Unlike myself he had accepted the idea of failure and he had discovered in lack of ambition a kind of bleared happiness.’ Greene did not ‘accept’ the idea of failure: he both resisted and courted it, strove for success and strove to undercut any conventional estimation of success. On the occasion of this visit, he had his weapons ready. ‘For a writer, I argued, success is always temporary, success is only a delayed failure.’ Eventually his work will be forgotten; eventually the loaded chamber will spin round. Greene could afford to take the long view, following the huge success of The Heart of the Matter and The Third Man. He was much the most successful of his successful family, yet also a more spectacular failure than any of the unsuccessful Greenes – a carnal, selfish, sinful man, incapable of regular family life. One is left feeling that Graham Greene mostly got what he wanted, and that what he mostly wanted was to have it both ways. In the end, failure might only be a form of delayed success. After all, there was always the possibility of eternal damnation to look forward to.