Sunday, 22 January 2012

Penguin no. 958: Loving
by Henry Green

They were wheeling wheeling in each other's arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass.

This seemed a novel to be read slowly and carefully, and probably to be read again in order to fully take in all that is being conveyed. It is an unusual and at times baffling book to read, as most of the story is revealed through the dialogue, or in erratically punctuated passages such as the one above. But how beautifully evoked this small moment is, with the two young housemaids distracted from their work, waltzing together heedless of the watching butler. It was this aspect I enjoyed most; not the plot or the characters, but the poetry in Henry Green's descriptions of passing moments, which could be so easily missed without concentrated reading.

Loving tells the story of the domestic staff of an isolated country house in Ireland, over a few weeks during the Second World War. It is not a romanticised depiction of downstairs life, for as well as the affection some feel for others, we see their rivalries and disagreements, and the manoeuvrings, manipulations, and deceptions in which they engage in order to enforce or improve their status or pocket a little extra cash. No one seems to behave any better than they need to.

The domestic staff are all English, with a single exception, and isolated in what they perceive to be a hostile and foreign land. There is the head housemaid Miss Agatha Burch, supervising her charges, the delightful young housemaids Kate and Edith, the newly promoted (and seemingly out of his depth) 40 year old butler Charley Raunce supervising the very young pantry boy Albert, there is the gin-drinking cook Mrs Welch, and the ailing nanny, Miss Swift. The lampman Paddy alone is Irish, and he is presented very much as an outsider, with his words never quoted, and all references hinting of a wild and barbaric nature. The staff seem to live in a constant state of anxiety, afraid of returning to England because of the bombing and the risk of being called up, afraid of remaining in Ireland on account of the IRA, and the possibility of a German invasion. It is never clear if these dangers are real or imaginary, but fear of them is certainly encouraged by Charley Raunce to keep the staff in line.

And yet it is the war that seems to be bringing about a change in the social order. There is a sense of the staff never previously being perceived as individuals, being defined only by their roles, with the employers never bothering to learn their true names. But one consequence of the war is that the staff are now impossible to replace: it gives them the upper hand, and they use it to their advantage. It is the landowners, Mrs Tennant and her daughter-in-law Violet, who now seem vulnerable.

The opening and closing lines of the novel give the suggestion of a fairytale, although the last line is too flippant and unexpected to be meant other than ironically. The novel blends realistic and surrealistic elements, with the dialogue and the disagreements of the domestic staff portrayed in detail: their shifting alliances, the drudgery of their work, and the mundane quality of their lives. While in contrast there is nothing dull or conventional about the house in which they live. In every mention there seems some element of bizarre ornateness, with doorknobs in the form of gilt salmon, a bed in the shape of a boat, the sideboard with its shelf held up by carved swans, and what is described as a dairy of a drawing room containing a Gothic imitation of a hammock. And throughout the story the flocks of doves and peacocks intrude into almost every scene.

Love is presented in the novel in many forms: as the feeling Edith has for Violet's children, or that Agatha has for her charges, or in the physical affection shared between the two young housemaids, and illicitly between Violet and the Captain, someone other than her husband. However, the central love affair is the one which develops between Edith and Raunce, and which impacts on all the other staff. Raunce never seemed particularly appealing, but perhaps Edith recognises in him her only opportunity for a better life. The three older domestics are there as an example of the sad and lonely fate of anyone in this world who remains alone.

I have a sense that there were many aspects of this novel glimpsed but not understood, such as the unusual focus on colours, and the regular appearance of the birds. It seems a book far more complex than its deceptively simply story suggests.

I read Loving as part of Henry Green week, suggested and organised by Stu of the blog Winstonsdad. I expect there will be other discussions of this book posted this week, and I plan to include links below to any others I can find. Please tell me in the comments if you know of any I have missed.

A review of Loving at Gudrun's Tights
A review of Loving at 20th Century Vox
A review of Loving at Cosy Books


  1. This seems like the kind of book which makes me want to delve more into the life of the author. Your reviews are so perceptive, and you manage to make almost every book sound tremendously interesting ... if only I had the time to read them all.

    1. Hi Brett,

      I am having the most dreadful weekend study-wise and so this was a lovely comment to receive. I didn't mention anything about the author because I felt it was likely to be covered by others, but I have read the transcript of an interview published in the Paris Review and I understand that he actively sought to remain anonymous so that his business associates would remain unaware of his writing, adopting a bland pseudonym and refusing to be photographed. He seems to have had an interesting sense of humour.

  2. Henry Green is one of those authors I had never heard of before I started reading book blogs. I still haven't read anything by him - but he's definitely on my radar.

    1. Hi Joanne,

      There are so many authors on my shelves which I know about only because they were published by Penguin, and Henry Green was one of those. I'm glad Stu organised this week which encouraged me to get this one off the shelf.

  3. I'm about to try 'The Last September' by Elizabeth Bowen, so I might give this a go next and make it an Irish country-house themed double..

  4. thanks for the mention ,he said he got the idea for this book from a his time in the fire service from talking to some one he worked with ,you right he isn't the quickest writer to read but his works so worth the effort ,all the best stu

  5. I am intrigued by Henry Green, but I don't have the concentration at the moment for a book full of quiet details. One day!

  6. Just popped over from Winstondsdad to check out your review, which was great. I also read Loving (the only Green book my library had). The book reminded me of Godsford Park with its "slice of life" look at the servants and msters. I am definitely interested in trying another of his books.

  7. I've waited to read your thoughts until after I finished Loving. I think you explain the pros and cons of the book so well - much better than I did! It IS a very complex novel and one that I don't think I fully appreciated because I let myself become irritated by the characters.

  8. Henry Green was a remarkable and original writer, and LOVING is a great book.

    For those interested in the details of Green's own life, they are somewhat interesting. His real name was Henry Yorke. He was a classmate of Anthony Powell's at Eton, and they were good friends. (I believe his first novel was written while he was still at Eton.) He was very well off because his father owned a factory of some sort, and he took over the factory in his time. Later life rather marred by drink.

    Rich Horton

  9. The edition of Loving I read had an introduction by John Updike, in which he comments that the book is unique in its sense of what reality is actually like. I concur; (reality IS surreal).



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