I have now finished Henry Green’s novel Loving, and while I was tempted to continue reading the two other novels in my edition, Living and Party Going, I decided to save those novels for another time. I would very much like to read more Henry Green at some point, though, because I thought Loving was very good.
It’s the kind of novel where not a whole lot happens. People talk, mainly. In fact, much of the novel is written in dialogue, and the narrator remains aloof, telling us what things look like and who does what, but not digging deeply into people’s thoughts. At times it’s a little like a play where you have stage directions in place of a narrator. It’s not a play, of course — there is a narrator who tells you the basics of what’s going on, but it’s a very distant narrator who refrains from commentary or judgment.
The novel is set during World War II (it’s published in 1945) and tells the story of a family and its servants who are living in a castle in Ireland. Most of these people are English. They are at a distance from the war raging on the continent, but are worried about a possible invasion and also about the Irish Republican Army and are uncertain whether they should remain in the mild anxiety they are currently living in or venture back to England, where they have family, but where they might be forced to join the military.
We get scenes of the family itself, a mother and daughter-in-law with her children, but spend most of the time with the servants. The story is made up of a series of small events that the servants gossip about: one of the children kills one of the estate’s many peacocks, an expensive ring has gone missing, two of the servants are flirting with each other, and others have fallen in love. The novel follows them around as one woman tries to hide her drinking habit and two young girls giggle at absolutely everything and the nanny gets sick so the children aren’t properly watched after. And then one of the servants finds the daughter-in-law in bed with a man who’s not her husband, and everyone is thoroughly scandalized. The butler spends his time learning how to cook the books and extort bribes so he can set a little money aside for the future.
It’s a quiet picture of how life really is, especially during wartime when there’s a nagging anxiety underlying everything. Conversations circle around the same subjects again and again, and more often than not, people fail to understand each other, especially the servants and those they serve. These two groups try to understand each other, obsess about each other, get frustrated and angry, and then work hard at trying to hide it so that life can proceed as quietly as possible.
The writing is beautiful. The dialogue is done perfectly, capturing the distinct voices of the characters and also the rhythms of typical conversations, the way people repeat things and jump suddenly from one idea to the next. And although the narration is extremely distant, the narrator now and then comes out with beautiful descriptive sentences: “The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets,” or “He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe,” or “When he saw her face which was as it sometimes looked on her bad days so called, pale or blotchy as a shrimp before boiling, he cleared his throat.” He gets the rhythm of sentences exactly right:
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.
John Updike wrote the introduction to my edition, and I am perfectly willing to believe him when he claims that insofar as one can learn to write, Henry Green taught him. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of his work.
14 responses to “Loving”
These books sound like my kind of thing; even the titles Loving, Living, Party-Giving sound like my life.
I’ve never read Henry Green although I’ve often thought about doing it. Lovely review, Dorothy!
I’ve been meaning to read Henry Green since I read about him in James Wood’s How fiction works. Wood wrote:
“In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalises his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (‘She said, grandiloquently’). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with one’s readers, and that nothing kills ‘life’ so much as ‘explanation’.”
Your review makes this sound spot on, so I will have to read some Green soon.
I’m always interested in reading WWII fiction from the British perspective, so different from the American. And I’ve never read Henry Green so this is getting added to the list!
I don’t think I have ever heard of Henry Green but Loving sounds like a fun read. I like stories that focus on the servants of big rich families. There seems to always be something interesting that goes on that the employer has no idea about.
Never heard of these books but it sounds absolutely wonderful. And, I know this is superficial but I’m totally digging the cover art!
I haven’t read this author, but your description of this book certainly makes me want to run right out and pick it up. Having just finished a Virginia Woolf book in which the majority of the book is done in interior monologue, makes the idea of this one being done almost entirely in dialogue intriguing to me. It would seem that you would have to speculate a great deal more about motives, etc. since you don’t know what people are thinking.
Perfectly accurate review. I think you’ll find Party Going to be fairly different, and Living to be very different, so feel free to push on!
Historic perspective on Ireland and England and WWII sounds interesting. The titles of the other two stories fit so well, I think I would have read all three together if it was in my hands. Thanks for the write up.
I love the upstairs-downstairs sorts of stories, and when the two mix, it’s especially fascinating. Do the other two stories continue on with these characters, or are they completely different books? Maybe you explained that, and I missed it.
Did you say written in the first half of the 20th century? Did you say lots of dialog? And did you happen to mention a castle? Why the hell haven’t I read this one yet?
You always get inside the story so well and describe it so that I want to go and grab my copy and start reading it now! As a matter of fact I had a feeling I would like Henry Green and now I am sure I will–maybe I will go grab it now! 🙂
Charlotte — aren’t those titles great? I can see why the editor would want to put those books together, even if just for the titles.
Litlove — thank you! I’ve love to hear what you think of Green. I had been meaning to read him forever, and am glad I finally got around to it.
Devoted reader — thank you for the passage from Wood! He captures beautifully the kind of distanced narrator I was trying to describe. His writing isn’t hard to follow, plot-wise, but he does make you work a bit to catch everything that’s happening, because you have to pick it up from what the characters say.
Verbivore — I think you’d like Green, or if you don’t like Green, I suspect you’d like analyzing his style. He’s the perfect writer for some close analysis. And he really does capture the feeling of war, even at a distance, very well.
Stefanie — this is an excellent book to help think about master/servant relationships. Green points out all the misunderstandings and frustrations in a really subtle, understated kind of way that I liked a lot.
Iliana — I like that cover too! Unfortunately I don’t have that actual edition — mine has some peacock feathers on it. But I’m sure you could find that particular copy with the three servants on it.
Lisa — I think you do have to do more speculating about motives and such here. The book requires quite a lot of imaginative participation on the reader’s part, which I think is a great thing.
Amateur Reader — oh, good to know that I can look forward to something different in those two novels. I may not pick them up for a while, but I do look forward to getting back to them, whenever I end up doing it.
Bikkuri — yes, it was extremely tempting to keep going! But I have other books I need to get to … as always.
Debby — these are completely different books with new characters and new settings. It’s just that each one is so short that it makes sense to combine them into one longer book. And yes, he does the upstairs/downstairs thing really well.
Emily — it seems that quite a few people haven’t heard of Green; he’s one of those writers who can just slip right past you. I wouldn’t have picked him up, probably, if it weren’t for a friend of mine who was a big fan.
Danielle — well, I’m glad to have that effect! 🙂 I hope you do like him, and I’m very curious to hear what you think.
I read this one not long ago and also made the decision to wait on the other two. I think I felt it was too rich to be read all at once. But I adored it. Spectacular writing. I’m having a good reading year. 🙂