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, “why whatever’s the matter?” She got no other answer than a wail. Then Miss Burch rolled over face to the wall. The cap twisted off her head. Edith gently put it back and because her shiny skull was sideways on that pillow she could only place the cap so that it sat at right angles to Miss Burch’s pinched nose, as someone lying in the open puts their hat to protect their face and terrible eyes.
We feel Edith’s native kindness and Miss Burch’s grief, all from one glimpse of that shiny skull. But Green doesn’t lead us inside the mind of either woman; we don’t overhear their thoughts.
What’s more, Green’s narrator seems to have a mind — almost a physical existence — of his own. In a different kind of book, that simile about “someone lying in the open” with “terrible eyes” would necessarily come from Edith’s point of view. Instead, like many of the close observations in Loving, it seems to originate from a sort of invisible recording angel, who watches the characters with sympathy though from a distance. That sympathetic narrator sets Green apart from the “naturalist” writers of the 19th and early 20th century, who, like him, limit their storytelling to what characters say and do rather than delving into their minds, but whose narrators maintain an emotional distance as well.
Though he avoids editorial comment, the narrator of Loving doesn’t pretend to be unmoved by what he sees. He is a human being, just like his characters, and although there are satirical elements in Loving — with this book Green claimed to have “torpedoed” the Anglo-Irish gentry — it is a gentle torpedo; the general tone of the novel is one of solicitude. That solicitude extends even to the reader. The first words of Loving, “Once upon a day,” and the last words, “happily ever after,” suggest a fairy tale, like the story of the doves told to the Tennant children by their nanny, dear Miss Swift. First and last, we are in the hands of a storyteller.
It is notable that Green’s charity extends even to the slippery butler, Charley Rauce. In fact, he is not only the novel’s most ambiguous character, he is also the closest thing it has to a portrait of the author. At 39, Raunce is the age that Green was when he wrote Loving. He shares the author’s weakness for whiskey and young women, his premature old-fogeyism (when asked his age, Green always rounded up), and his penchant for secret compartments — in love, in work, in his family life.
Above all, Raunce is, like Green, a born fantasist, frightening the rest of the staff with dire warnings of IRA plots, then forgetting all about them as soon as he is distracted by some other iron in the fire. Raunce has to be one of the unlikeliest, and most believable, seducers in modern fiction: a would-be Machiavel (“Clever Charley’s the name”) who gets so tangled up in his own lies and half-truths and self-aggrandisements that by the end of the novel he seems to have all lost track of his motivations, Green sharing cheerfully in the confusion.
In his own life, Green was no stranger to double-living. He was born Henry Yorke in 1905 to a very old family that had grown newly rich manufacturing equipment for breweries. After he left Oxford he entered the family company, Pontifex, where he spent the rest of his working years, apart from his brief service during the war. In his youth he frequented country houses and nightclubs, traveled extensively on the Continent, fished, deplored the income tax, and carried a tightly rolled umbrella to his wedding; he was, to the outward eye, a model specimen of the English club- man. (His classmate Evelyn Waugh called Henry and his wife, Dig, “the bright young Yorkes.”)
Yet Henry’s artistic ambitions, his earnest need to invent a modernist idiom of his own, always made him feel like a stranger in his family and their circle. Starting at university, where he began work on his first novel, Blindness, he carved out a separate existence under the pen name Henry Green. His books can be roughly divided between comedies of upper-class manners and “proletarian” novels — set on a factory floor in Birmingham, or in London rooming houses, or on the back stairs of Kinalty Castle — all of which demonstrate the breadth of his acquaintance and his keen, uncondescending interest in the ways different people talk. (Not to mention the breadth of his reading: he is perhaps the only English writer to have revered Proust and Céline with equal intensity.)
Green joked that he was good at making up dialogue because he was slightly deaf, and so often had to imagine what other people were saying. It was never clear to his friends exactly how deaf he actually was. In fact he had an astonishing ear for dialect, an ear so fine that it explodes the idea of dialect in its received midcentury sense. Today sociologists call it code switching, the way Raunce will talk posh one minute, cockney another, then borrow jazz slang, calling Edith or Kate “baby” and “honey,” when he’s trying to be smooth. Green loved jazz and American movies, and he was quick to notice how these had infiltrated British speech: in the kitchen of Kinalty, “OK” is already lingua franca. More conventional writers (or writers who had spent less time having actual conversations with servants) claimed to find his dialogue unrealistic, even deplorable. As Waugh wrote to Green when Loving was published (the same year as Brideshead Revisited), “You are debasing the language vilely.”
Although he had a gimlet eye for class distinctions, Green was democratic in his affections. His love affairs — to which Dig turned a resolutely blind eye — crossed class boundaries and settled into long friendships; he was a mentor to the American writers Eudora Welty and Terry Southern; and the servant who gave him the idea for Loving remained a regular visitor to the Yorkes’ house in Knightsbridge, long after Green had fallen out of touch with the high society of his youth.
Although Green lived to the age of 68, he published his last novel, Doting, in 1952, when he was 47 years old. Even at the time, Green knew he would never write another novel. His drinking, which had always interfered with his writing, had become a full-time job; eventually, it ended his career at Pontifex as well. It also aggravated his eccentricities and the melancholy streak that haunted him all his life. “I’m out,” he told a BBC interviewer in 1962. “I don’t sell books anymore, and the critics despair of me. No, I don’t exist.” Although his reputation grew steadily in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in France, where he was embraced as a herald of the nouveau roman, it is true that his books never sold many copies. For a long time Green refused to see his novels reissued in paperback (for tax reasons, he said). Even Loving, his most popular work, went in and out of print until 1978, when it was reissued together in one volume with two of Green’s earlier novels, Living and Party Going. There it remains today, filling out a collection, an equivocal fate for a masterpiece.
Yet no English novel of the 1940s has better stood the test of time. Indeed Loving has gathered power, the way photographs and very few novels do, simply by outlasting the people in it. The characters we meet in these pages seem so real, so attended to, so beautifully themselves, that it is a question whether we can forgive them for ever having to die. For me this question forms the real drama of Loving, where the sight of someone looking out a window, or of someone else lighting a cigarette against the wind, can move you to tears … but tears of what? Of compassion? Of regret? At any rate, of love.