The Richness of the Moment

The nine ambiguous, anticlimactic novels of Henry Green, our author writes, "raised the pedestrian to the sublime"  

Henry Green, who died in 1973 at the age of sixty-eight, was one of the best English novelists of the twentieth century, and the hardest to classify. By some standards a modernist and an experimentalist (his style was so oblique that his American disciple Terry Southern was prompted to call him not merely a writer's writer but a writer's writer's writer), he was also defiantly anti-intellectual, always scorning literary conversation in favor of gossip. His prose tended toward high intensity, but it could be awkward, even bumbling. And he made a whole career of ignoring fashion, writing a proletarian novel during the heyday of the Bright Young Things and switching incongruously to brittle drawing-room comedy during the austerity-conscious era of the Angry Young Men.

By all rights Green's novels should be among the well-thumbed classics of twentieth-century literature. He has always been held in the highest esteem by his fellow writers: W. H. Auden considered him during his acme to be "the best English novelist alive"; Eudora Welty, writing in the 1960s, stated her opinion that Green's work had "an intensity greater than that of any other writer of imaginative fiction today." Philip Toynbee considered him one of the most important writers in the language. John Updike, writing two decades after Green's death, gave perhaps the highest praise of all: "Henry Green was a novelist of such rarity, such marvellous originality, intuition, sensuality, and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious."

Yet despite all the accolades Green's nine novels have remained the enthusiasm of a coterie, and a surprising number of well-read people draw a blank at his name. Green insisted on anonymity: he wrote under a bland pseudonym (his real name was Henry Yorke) and usually refused to be photographed except from the rear, or to provide any personal information to the press. The privacy he sought in life has obfuscated his posthumous reputation, and every decade or so, it seems, he has to be introduced afresh.

The process is playing itself out again with the appearance of Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, by Jeremy Treglown, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the biographer of Roald Dahl. Treglown's enterprise appears to have been fraught with problems from the beginning. Green's son, Sebastian Yorke, authorized the biography in 1991 and then changed his mind a year later, so Treglown had to battle on with many doors closed to him. The Yorke family has every reason to mistrust such a project, for a biographer in any way unsympathetic to the eccentric novelist could produce a damaging portrait: Green's countless sexual infidelities, his streak of emotional sadism, and his spectacular alcoholic decline during the twenty years between his last novel and his death do not make for very edifying reading. But to quote Harold Ross, "Talent doesn't care where it resides," and Treglown has managed to produce a fine biography that is profoundly appreciative of its odd subject, warts included.

Most first-rate British writers have come from the middle classes. Green was unique, as Treglown points out, in that he was both an aristocrat and an industrialist. His mother, a daughter of the second Baron Leconfield, was brought up at Petworth, one of the great houses of England. His father, Vincent Yorke, was a brilliant classicist who turned to business, taking over a failing coppersmith's and turning it into a profitable supplier of brewery equipment and plumbing supplies. H. Pontifex & Sons became a family concern, of which Henry would eventually assume rather incompetent control.

"If one side of Yorke found the silver spoon a handicap to respiration," the novelist Anthony Powell, his lifelong friend, commented,

another accepted it as understandably welcome; and coming to terms with opposed inner feelings about his family circumstances, his writing, his business activities, his social life, was something he never quite managed to achieve to his own satisfaction.

Powell's observation was, if anything, an understatement: Henry Yorke's ultra-conservative background combined with his subversive nature and sense of himself as an outsider to make for a life of irreconcilable values and longings, to such a point that, as one friend said, there was a real difference "between Henry Yorke, who could be very grand and rather sharp, surprising people by putting them in their place, and the sympathetic, unthreatening Henry Green."

Yorke was born in 1905 and had a conventional upper-class childhood at the family estate in Gloucestershire, though he preferred billiards to the more traditional hunting and shooting; unlike his two dashing elder brothers, he was a "plump, uncompetitive, and nervous" child. At Eton and Oxford his eccentric outlook and what was developing into a powerful personal charm began to make their mark on his contemporaries, a remarkable group that included Anthony Powell, Robert Byron, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, and Evelyn Waugh. He made no attempt to shine academically, though: he attended the cinema twice every day at Oxford; scorned his tutor, the bluff, hearty C. S. Lewis; and resented being compelled to study, he said, "when I have my own work always running in my mind."

That work was his precocious first novel, Blindness (1926), published under the pen name Henry Green by J. M. Dent when the author was only twenty-one. Although in many ways autobiographical, it is not the solipsistic exercise one would expect from an undergraduate but a mature effort bearing all the hallmarks of his later work: the awkward yet uniquely descriptive prose, the quick observation, and the deep vein of black comedy that anticipated the "sick humor" of the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of 1926 Green left Oxford without a degree and at his own request joined the family firm at the bottom, as a factory laborer; he wanted, he said, to write a novel about workingmen. He spent two years toiling at Pontifex's Birmingham factory and living in a boardinghouse that was, he gleefully wrote to a friend, right out of Balzac. But apart from his Birmingham idyll, Green's life was unexceptionally class-bound and conventional. One of his brothers died of leukemia in 1917, and the other proved too eccentric for a business career, so it was he who became his father's partner in Pontifex's London office. In 1929 he married a distant cousin, Adelaide ("Dig") Biddulph, and the couple embarked on an active social life. (Waugh teasingly referred to them as "Mr H. Yorke the lavatory king and his pretty wife.") Like others of their class, they occasionally visited the Continent during the interwar years, but Green didn't like traveling: "It interferes with my masturbation," he complained. In 1939 he published Party Going, an apparently slight but haunting, almost Beckettesque novel about the insignificant doings of a vacuous group of socialites.

Party Going proved too uncommercial for even the tolerant Dent, and Green moved to the Hogarth Press, under John Lehmann and Leonard Woolf. Upon the outbreak of war, under the impression that he would soon be killed, he wrote a hasty memoir, Pack My Bag; sent Dig and their small son, Sebastian, to safety in the country; and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in London, where he spent several not unenjoyable years fighting incendiary bombs and tomcatting around with various smart and what one friend called "high-octane" ladies. Green was a notorious charmer with a streak of cruelty: "Hurting—that should be the title of your next novel," complained one of his girlfriends. What spare time remained to him was spent on Caught (1943), a novel about the London blitz and his fire-service experiences, a brilliantly truthful portrait of wartime London—so truthful, in fact, that Green was afraid to give permission for a German translation, lest it bolster enemy morale. Leonard Woolf had complained that it represented the fire station "as completely inefficient and corrupt from top to bottom without a single redeeming feature or even averagely competent and honest person in it."

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