Henry Green’s Loving is the first of the short novels in the handsome Penguin volume that recently turned up at my door. I’m referring you again to the useful Sebastian Faulks piece from 2005 for background; this is where I found that Loving was written in 1945 which makes it a later work than Living. (Green was rather fond of short titles.) It’s sneakier, subtler, and in a way both more peculiar and more seductive than the earlier novel.
The setting is an immense country house in Ireland during WWII. Mrs. Tennant, her daughter-in-law Mrs. Jack and the latter’s two daughters are waited on by nine (or is it ten?) servants. The novel opens thus: “Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid Miss Agatha Burch… One name he uttered over and over, ‘Ellen.’” This, readers, is misdirection. Eldon dies and we never find out who Ellen was. Charley Raunce, the first footman, is promoted to butler and indeed, a principal character. Description of Raunce is very limited: “a pale individual, paler now.” Some of the material in these first few pages will turn out to be useful and some will not. Only gradually does the reader make out who or what the novel is really about.
This might have been annoying but it felt… legitimate. Authentic. If you entered the Castle through the servants’ entrance, it would take you time to suss out the identities and alliances of the characters, and you would waste time on the unimportant ones. You would misunderstand what you had witnessed. I frequently had to re-read paragraphs or pages to set myself straight. Mysteries remain: do all those peacocks matter? (Green has quite a thing about birds, here and in Living.) What about the foreshadowing, when Green intimates that the house will eventually burn? That lost sapphire ring, is that, heaven help me, a symbol?
The story mattered less than the telling. Green is a tremendous eavesdropper and transcriber of informal speech. “I got those sheets from the Gold Bedroom to mend. I wish the people they have to stay would cut their toenails or lie quiet one or the other.” He captures the wandering, inconsequential nature of dialogue and the foggy way we perceive human relations. At the heart of the novel is the simplest thing, a love story, but we feel its halting progress almost in real time. Even the narrator doesn’t claim to be an expert: “This answer probably made Mrs. Tennant obstinate.” Probably?
But the deliberate obfuscation isn’t malicious. Green offers gifts with his indirection. For instance, there are two characters name Albert. Who gives two characters the same name? Well, life does. And it’s funny. Further, when it comes down to direct perception, the narrator takes charge. Here’s Edith, the beautiful housemaid in her purple uniform dress, feeding the peacocks: “They came forward until they had her surrounded. Then a company of doves flew down… to be fed. They settled all over her. And their fluttering disturbed Raunce who re-opened his eyes… he saw with great delight. For what with the peacocks bowing at her purple skirts, the white doves nodding on her shoulders round her brilliant cheeks and her great eyes that blinked tears of happiness, it made a picture.” Sometimes what you get from a novel is pictures. And sometimes that’s enough.