HENRY GREEN conceived of Loving during the Blitz, when he was working as an auxiliary fireman. As he later explained in an interview with The Paris Review:
I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service […] He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.
Better than any summary, this captures the truant spirit of Green’s novel and its elegiac undertones. By the time the book was published in 1945, it was clear that the era of manservants, butlers, and country-house life — the life to which Green was born — had vanished with the war, never to return. Loving is both a parody of the country-house novel and a farewell to the genre, which had suddenly passed into historical fiction. It is also the story of a romance between a teenaged girl and an older man, of loving and the end of loving.
The main premise of the novel hinges on a “meanwhile.” The time is spring 1941. London, Liverpool, and the other major ports are under bombardment. Clothing, foodstuffs, and fuel are tightly rationed. A draft is in effect for all men and women of working age. The country is braced for invasion, and meanwhile, on a large estate in Ireland, the household staff — all of them English — are trying to decide whether to stay in the comfort and relative safety of Kinalty Castle or go home to their families, join up, and face the Blitz.
Upon this simple if fantastical premise, Green heaps various complications: the old butler, Mr Eldon, has just died, and the slippery footman Charley Raunce has been promoted to fill his place. The master of the house, Jack Tennant, has sailed off to join his regiment, leaving behind his mother and his wayward young wife. A little evacuee named Albert, who may or may not be the cook’s illegitimate son, has been taken in — Raunce is courting the housemaid Edith, to the chagrin of both her roommate, Kate, and his young apprentice, also named Albert.
Described this way, Loving sounds like a rejected Downton Abbey script. But as in most of Green’s novels, plot is beside the point. Ominous developments have an undramatic way of blowing over. Questions are left unanswered, possibly even forgotten by the author. (Green always envied Virginia Woolf’s ability to keep a whole plot in her head.) Nor does the “real” drama develop through a series of inner monologues, as in Woolf’s novels. In Loving, as a general rule, Green sticks to dialogue and physical descriptions. (“People strike sparks off each other,” he told The Paris Review. “That is what I try to note down.”) Here is Edith comforting the head housemaid, Miss Burch, over the death of Mr Eldon:
“Oh Burchie Burchie,” she said, “w...