The daily grind of the average literary wife—pouring drinks, looking nice at parties, managing multiple selves, and talking the loved one down off ledges—has opened up a whole new seam in the publishing industry. If Lady Macbeth were around today she’d surely be ready to launch Is This a Life I See Before Me?: The Girl I Was in the Bonnie Before and angling for a spot on Oprah’s Book Club. I say this is new but of course in some respects it’s pretty old. Who could forget Jane Welsh Carlyle’s dazzlingly tortured letters about being Mrs. Minimus next to Master Sage, or indeed Double Drink Story: My Life With Dylan Thomas, in which Caitlin Thomas looks through the empty glasses darkly, to find her Welsh wizard, only much more and much less than she had expected?
Being married to the man who took first prize is evidently a hazardous fandango, but in the newer memoirs, at least, there is a wonderful sense of liberty born of survival. One after another these books turn out to be tales of how the clearer morals of the smaller life, distilled by hard experience, can come first to shame and then to haunt the pronouncements of the moralist.
To call them revenge narratives won’t cover it: they are clever, self-conscious books proclaiming the human wonders and terrors to be illuminated by sidelight. If memoirs by the likes of Adele Mailer and Claire Bloom were propelled by anger, hurt, and a sense of defeat, then many of the newer books by ex–literary wives are, to some larger and more striking extent, nurtured in self-confidence and pity for the Man Who Wasn’t Quite. Let it be known: somewhere in the stratosphere of literary affairs, adjacent to every unwritten novel by Cyril Connolly, there is a small, scintillating volume of published memoirs by Barbara Skelton, the last of them containing a photograph of the smiling authoress, captioned “Today.”
Elaine Dundy, who was married to Kenneth Tynan, started her own battle against invisibility rather fabulously and rather early, and she did so in a way that involved the novelist Henry Green.1 In June 1954, Marlene Dietrich, in spangled dresses and with lines fine-tuned by Tynan and Noel Coward, enjoyed a brilliant opening at the Café de Paris in London. After the performance, Tynan, along with Coward and his entourage, gathered in Dietrich’s suite at the Dorchester to toast her success. “As it was getting late, Noel and his contingent said their goodnights and left,” reports Dundy:
Significantly, they noted, Ken had stayed behind with Dietrich. In the hall they found themselves waiting for the elevator for some time.
“Poor little Mrs. Tynan,” said Noel, “she must be putting her head in the oven by now.” No sooner had he uttered this than Ken appeared. The elevator arrived and they all descended together. “There was a most embarrassed silence,” said Cole [Cole Lesley, Coward’s friend and biographer], because of the discovery that Dietrich and Tynan were not having an affair after all.
“Poor little Mrs. Tynan,” I corrected, “was—at that very moment—on the town with Henry Green. The great English novelist,” I added for dramatic effect.
Dundy often went to the pub with Henry Green. “Henry laughed easily,” she recounts, “he was someone with the highest gift for drawing you out and staying in step with you…. I told him about some of my misadventures in Paris…. I began to recognise that I was hearing a voice that was me but that wasn’t me. It was a voice Henry gave me, yet I’d heard it before…. Henry was just what I needed: an enheartener magically capable of cheering up a lonely, distraught and rudely awakened wife.”
One can only be grateful that Elaine Dundy never compared notes with—or indeed rudely awakened—Mrs. Henry Green, the famous Dig, whose forbearance when it came to Henry’s enheartening nights in the pub might have contributed to a blazing new-style memoir all of her own. Jeremy Treglown does not include Dundy’s reminiscences in his elegant biography Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, and it must be assumed that the cheerful Tynan-survivor was keeping quiet as Treglown researched, saving it all up for herself. But in many enjoyable respects he devotes his book to understanding Green’s tribulations with young women fascinated with brilliant men, and this proves to have been a wise move, for it is hard to think of a modern novelist, besides Joyce or Fitzgerald, who was more devoted to bending his romantic affections into new kinds of sentences.
For some time now a whole new audience has been due to Henry Green. He is generally not part of the syllabus in English Studies at British universities, his books have been in and out of print, and there have been very few films made of his works. He is not discussed in the way Virginia Woolf or Evelyn Waugh are, though his best novels are more sonorous and more unexpected than the best of either, giving a far deeper account of the modes and manners of English expression at that time, and taking risks with matters of color and structure in ways that would have Evelyn Waugh running for his Arnold Bennett. Treglown’s biography comes in on a fresh wave of interest in Green, as do the Dalkey Archive’s new editions of some of the less well known works. In Britain at the moment, and more so in the United States, there is an element of disaffection with the mannered simplicity of creative writers and their schools of pristine thoughtlessness2; and Green, an unlikely hero with his aristocratic, Old Etonian orderliness, has gained a following because of the commitment his novels show to a level of everyday difficulty and precise mindfulness, to the high style, and to a kind of sentence-writing at once less charming and more penetrating.
“His novels made more of a stylistic impact upon me than those of any writer living or dead,” wrote John Updike. “A certain abstract shimmer,” he adds, “a veil as it were of transcendent intention, adds luster to all his pictures, and piquancy to his prose. Each paragraph has something of a poem’s interest and strangeness.”3 Elizabeth Bowen read him, met him, and was smitten: “Green’s novels reproduce as few do the actual sensations of living,” she wrote. This is the story of Henry Green’s career: largely praised and smally published (none of his novels sold more than ten thousand copies in his lifetime), his work has always been surrounded by a sense of its being almost-but-not-quite great. He has been blamed for being too experimental and not experimental enough; some have called him too self-conscious and writerly and others have thought the work too sparse. Mainly he has been called lyrical and mannered—the greatest of his similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald—as if being those things put him out of control, and made him the opposite of an artist. If Green is mannered he is mannered in the way of the late Henry James: the narrative and stylistic locks turn with the same key, and the prose, as Green himself observed, is “a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go.”4
Green’s entry in Who’s Who for 1973 mentions, under recreation: “romancing over the bottle, to a good band.” Mary Keene, one of his lovers, wrote in a letter of having “a great hangover, and a huge grazed bruise on my forehead and a little black eye all because of a great dramatic meeting with beloved Henry. It was so madly gay.” There is always something sore about the gaiety in Green’s novels, something pricey and uncertain about his characters’ enjoyments, as well as something enlivened about the boredom. He was truly a student of the English hours, and he often got them by the collar as they passed. Treglown writes of a “fluent density of suggestion,” and he quotes from Green’s first novel, Blindness, written while he was still a student, a book that sets past beauties against the incoming newness of the world:
The boat floated gently too, a bird sang and then was silent, and he would watch the jaunty fly, watch for the white, greedy mouth that would come up, for the swirl when he would flick lightly, and the fight, with another panting, gleaming fish to be mired in struggles on the muddy floor of the boat…. The day would draw away as if sucked down in the east…. A kingfisher might shoot out to dart down the river, a guilty thing in colours.
There is innocence in all this—the innocence of bee-drowsy school days and fresh, youthful imaginings, of sudden distances from the family home—but Green was soon to embrace all dislocations. Birmingham and London, with all their machinery, all their motor vehicles, all their modern noise, were to become like kinds of a Cubist adventure park to Henry Green.
City pubs and assignations with young girls, disappointed wives in the country, fading brilliance all around, familial disturbances to the fore and aft, and wonderful bohemian parties going on elsewhere. Green’s world was all work and all talk, everything to the strains of a depleted grandeur, and every last grain of that life would be planed and rubbed, stained and painted, in the course of writing his ten books. Yet Green is the poet of misapplication: he invented a kind of sentence to carry confusion, mishearings, blindness, boredom, habit, uncertainty, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or, more often, being with the right person in the wrong circumstances. From Caught:
But there was nothing in what he had spoken to catch her imagination. She went along at his side, by this path she hated, and looked up at his face in what he took to be the attention she was paying to the account he gave….
“Excuse me a minute, dar-ling,” she said. “Christopher,” she shouted, “come here. Do be careful. You’ll only be getting wet through. That last lot of snow went all over you.”…
“Look,” his father interrupted, “haven’t you knocked those branches about enough? There’s hardly a bird left in the garden since you’ve been out. You’d do better to put food for them. They starve in this weather you know.”
It is an England caught in the wars and a life between the acts, and Jeremy Treglown’s achievement has been to gather intelligence at the intersections of a life where happiness was somewhat deferred and where a beautiful, strange literary style was somewhat unleashed. It is a biography of a way of writing—and to Green, everything, romancing, accounting, drinking, remembering, came down in the end to a way of writing, a way of living, a part of work.
Green was once thought of as the toffee-nosed English novelist who worked in his father’s Birmingham engineering factory. When he went to work there, in January 1927, the workers on the shop floor assumed he was being punished by his father, and although such punishments were not beyond the old man, Green was actually there by choice, mugging up on modern life. Even at Oxford, as Maurice Bowra recalled, Green liked to “walk along the tow-path, not where it goes by the fields, but where it passes through the gas works to the railway station, and the bleak, black scene gave him much satisfaction.” Green was expected to write high-society comedies, but after he published Blindness, his Birmingham experience was germane: he shared the Auden interest in crowds and electricity pylons, the new Britain of mass mobility, night trains, and mechanization. Green’s prose is foggy, modernly so, and there are long wisps of demotic, and there is much greasy gab, mingling in a new way with the orders and expectations of a dying class.
“Like all his books,” writes Treglown,
Living contains a thread of coded autobiography, and much of what he had experienced since leaving Oxford went into it: factory life, of course, but also the tensions between grown-up children and their parents and the confusions of young love affairs…. Living is a book about how people really live: their hopes, but also their compromises and defeats and the way those defeats may not be so bad after all. Green neither romanticizes his proletarian characters nor pretends to hold out radical solutions for them.
Living, indeed, with its lack of definite articles, steps beyond the sweet beautifications of Blindness, plucking personalities from the masses that fill the streets, tapping into their minds for loves and losses and inner patterns:
Baby howled till mother there lifted him from bed to breast and sighed most parts asleep in darkness. Gluttonously baby sucked. Then he choked for a moment. Then he slept. Mrs. Eames held baby and slept again….
Eight o’clock of a morning. Thousands came up the road to work and few turned in to Mr. Dupret’s factory. Sirens were sounded, very sad.
Then road was empty, only one or two were running and bicyclist, bent over handle bars, drove his legs as fast as he could.
Later office people began to come up road. And man, Mr. Tarver, who had spoken to Mr. Dupret’s son outside brass foundry came along with a man in drawing office, Mr. Bumpus, and talked to him. ‘Tis ‘im, he said, could be decent at times almost or it wasn’t decent rather but the pretence and that did not take him in.
Whatever his weaknesses, Green had all the strength it took to live a double life, on the one hand working at Pontifex and haunting pubs in the way that so appalled Evelyn Waugh, and on the other turning up to be admired at Ottoline Morrell’s house in Bloomsbury, though he later complained to Bryan Guinness that “arty high life is not my line.” If they understand loyalty, double-lifers are sometimes good at friendship, but Green was not; he lost friends hand over fist, he sniped behind everyone’s back, and only women held his gladder eye.
“Such a snob,” was how Lady Ottoline came to view the baffling, proletariat-loving Green. Anthony Powell, a friend of Green’s since childhood, remembers him in one of his late journal entries. “Cyril Connolly used to complain that Henry was inordinately conceited,” he writes.
There is no doubt that was largely at the root of the trouble. He was far too pleased with himself and, like so many from upper-class families, he was also immensely narcissistic and obsessed with his own family…. Undoubtedly there was something there, but it never seems to me to find a satisfactory way out, as said before, frustrated poet does seem the answer, not outstandingly intelligent, not really very “nice.”
While it might seem a bit much to be pulled up for snobbery and non-niceness by cold cods such as Morrell and Powell, there was clearly something excluding about Green, something self-indulgent and something depressed, a bundle of traits you see carried into the writing. Treglown is good on this:
If…there was an element of promiscuity in his nature, Henry could also be discriminating—including in snobbish ways—and, as in his novels, shrewdly, satirically firm. In the fullest sense of the word he was a charmer, and his charm was all the more powerful for containing elements of unpredictability, even of hurtfulness.
Green took the same view of money as Scott Fitzgerald. He imagined it made people different from other people. All sense of style and finesse and morality and imagination were transformed by money, his novels imply, and in some ways his dedication to taking buses and drinking in pubs and loitering in factories must have been a way of testing all that. (“This difference as I have tried to show is largely occasioned by money, in other words it is accidental,” he wrote.) At any rate Forthampton, the family pile, remained a green light at the edge of Green’s desk, both a symbol of romantic possibility, just out of reach, and a beacon of some orgiastic past, an English world of plenty now fading into austerity.
As a young Yorke, in a big house, he had been the kind of child who haunted the landings, tuning in to the talk of the servants. He spied on the help. And you suspect that all of Henry Yorke’s gleanings became useful and unforgettable to Henry Green. Every other line of dialogue in Loving, his novel about English servants, comes over like remembered speech. And the silences come over like remembered silences.
“I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905,” writes Green in his memoir Pack My Bag,
Three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live….
Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years….
Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels [large beets] across one lawn for her to shoot at…. Not one of her many dogs obeyed one of her commands. But in those days they say she used to call out, “Gardener, gardener, I’m going to shoot!” and it was for him then clumsily to bowl them. She called him gardener it is said but I know she called him Poole.
By the time Green was writing this, in the winter of 1938, the world represented by Mrs. Yorke and her gardener was deeply in decline and the world at large was preparing for another war. Green finished his masterpiece, Party Going, which features a group of rich flappers waiting for a train at Victoria Station, just before the blackout. As the novel opens we find the station enveloped in fog, and a compellingly vague woman, Miss Fellowes, who has come to the station to wave goodbye to her niece, is picking up a dead pigeon and taking it into the public lavatory to be washed. Over several hours at the station hotel we meet a gaggle of spoiled girls and shifty men. They are waiting. The reader has an unforgettable sense both of something finishing and of something impending.5 That is really the point about Henry Green: to paraphrase Proust’s biographer George Painter, the books are often unforgettable, but the reader may never know what it is he can’t forget.
Green was given to premonitions, of course, and given to melodrama; it all suited the atmosphere of his paragraphs and enlarged the slight sense of dread he carried around with him. His loving relationship with his wife, Dig, was cushioned, you might say, by external romances. “It was life itself at last in loneliness certainly at first,” he wrote at the close of Pack My Bag, “but, in that long exchange of letters then beginning and for the ten years now we have not had to write because we are man and wife, there was love.” This is a knotted, twilight declaration of feeling, as if from Leopold Bloom to his wife, Molly, in her own style.
But romancing flourished in the Blitz. “One of these in Henry’s case,” writes Treglown, “was Ann Glass, a teenage debutante at the beginning of the war, precocious, clever, beautiful, and funny.” And there were several others, Rosemary Clifford and Pauline Gates, for example, who seemed ready for extra love under the threat of death. This was a time when Green could boast to his publisher of lipstick marks to be found on his typescripts. Caught is largely set in a wartime fire station. “It came directly out of personal experience,” writes Treglown in his introduction to a new edition of the novel.
Both the printers and the publisher, Leonard Woolf, were so anxious about the picture it gave of wartime London that, had it not been defended both by its editor, John Lehmann, and by another writer-fireman, Stephen Spender, it would not have appeared.
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair invokes the chaos and the costs of wartime sexual liberties famously well, but the novel is not nearly so magically done as Caught, where the machinations of class and everyday speech exist at a high pitch of elegance. And Henry Green is more vivid and more stylish too in his rendering of the whys and wherefores of sexual longing:
These women seemed already given up to the male in uniform so soon to go away, these girls, as they felt, soon to be killed themselves, so little time left, moth deathly gay, in a daze of giving.
That same afternoon the train to Portsmouth had wives dragged along the platform hanging limp to door handles and snatched off by the porters in the way a man, standing aside, will pick bulrushes out of a harvest waggon load of oats.
The fear of death never really went out of Henry Green. He had his further affairs—mainly with the eye-blackened Mary Keene and the black-eyed Kitty Freud, daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein and one-time wife of Lucien Freud—but over time Green sunk into his own vulnerabilities, and he became a kind of shadow of his former capacities.
Concluding is a lovely hymn to all that. Set in a state-run school for girls, it follows a former scientist, Mr. Rock, who lives in a cottage on the grounds of the school, and whose situation is much coveted by two priggish old principals, Miss Edge and Miss Baker. Two of the girls have gone missing and there is to be a dance that evening. Meanwhile Mr. Rock worries about his daughter Elizabeth who seems to be in love with an instructor. Concluding contains all of Green’s rumbustious oddness, but there is a seam of comedy here deeper than usual. Death is the main subject, of course, as Mr. Rock tiptoes around the gathering neuroses to clear an approach on the day’s closing, but there is a great deal of sexual problematics to work though before Concluding comes to a conclusion, and Green makes it a work of vital melancholy. Though he stopped writing novels over twenty years before he died, Green never lost the mood of his writing. To a generation in the Sixties, he was, as Terry Southern put it, “a writer’s-writer’s writer,” and perhaps now at last he is settling into what he first set out to be, an artist yes, but a reader’s writer, one who disappears, like his readers, and is finally consumed, in the blazing world of his words.
Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, in their twittering letters to each other, called them the “Bright Young Yorkes.” To them Henry and Dig were a mass of social touches: all busted promise and thwarted smartness, a couple both raised and deranged, as Jeremy Treglown points out, by “the labyrinthinely extensive world of their families.” “Dearest Nancy,” wrote Waugh in May 1951, before naming names, and launching straight into his customarily evil, very funny overture of splenetics:
In any case she [a Miss Wyndham] is bound to be a relation of H. Yorke’s & that is not a thing to go into lightheartedly. He was here for a very long weekend. In London, where everyone is seedy, he did not appear notable. Here in the country he looked GHASTLY. Very long black dirty hair, one brown tooth, pallid puffy face, trembling hands, stone deaf, smoking continuously through meals, picking up books in the middle of conversation & falling into maniac giggles, drinking a lot of raw spirits, hating the country & everything good. If you mention Forthampton to him he shies with embarrassment as business people used to do if their businesses were mentioned.
Poor Dig very cowardly, quite belying her great moustaches, gentle, lost. She has picked up a whole proletarian argot which she employs with an exquisitely ladylike manner. I really think Henry will be locked up soon.6
The last novels, Nothing and Doting, are lovely works of resignation—not without sensuality, and not without drama, they use dialogue in place of almost everything else, as if the world of fields and pubs and factories and traffic was now black and peripheral to the business of being. Doting is entirely social in the most basic way: everything resides in what people say and what they don’t say. Green shows again how there is nothing so effective as the spoken word to conceal one’s motivations and intentions. Those other components of literature—description, the life of images, meditations, information, and all that—slip now from the page and are gone, altogether lost in a crackle of pauses, exclamations, and “my dears.” All at once, and with a half-smile, you begin to see what might have happened if Samuel Beckett had sat down to write a radio script for those Mitford girls.
October 18, 2001
Elaine Dundy, Life Itself! (London: Virago, 2001), p. 155. ↩
This mostly applies to the followers of Raymond Carver. However, the opposing gang, the enemies of prolixity, are still fighting a rearguard action. See “A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose” by B.R. Myers, a feeble-minded broadside currently proving extremely popular with readers who look back with longing at the “straightforward” novels of Budd Schulberg, in The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001. The piece sets it-self against “writers who are deliberately obscure, or who chant in strange cadences,” and asks the question “where would Notable New Fiction be without the willing suspension of cultural literacy?” In short, The Atlantic Monthly has run a 13,000-word article in which E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Rick Moody get it in the neck for not being Stephen King. ↩
John Updike, Introduction to Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992). ↩
Terry Southern, interview with Henry Green, The Paris Review, 1958. ↩
The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 227. ↩