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Newly reissued by New York Review Books, the novels of Henry Green, which examine the lives and labors of the English and Irish working class, couldn’t be more timely.
The bitter end of 2016 signals both the fragility of liberal democracy and frightening rise of far-right nationalism, while the economic anxiety of the working class and its role in the matter remain a point of great contention. Some on the left allocate to this anxiety an absolute primacy, eschewing due considerations of racism and misogyny, or even the nuts-and-bolts of this year’s campaigns, while those closer to the center remain conspicuously allergic to any notion that their champions of pragmatism could have, in fact, exacerbated the worries of those most vulnerable to demagoguery. Regardless, with the president-elect choosing for his Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder — the fast-food CEO whose restaurants have been found guilty of numerous violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and who opposes increasing the minimum wage and expanding both overtime pay eligibility and paid sick leave — it’s unlikely that we’ll see these class anxieties, broadly speaking, alleviated any time soon.
And so it is rather fitting that in this climate we see the renaissance of one Henry Green, whose novels are now being reissued by New York Review Books. Green’s novels — of which Caught (1943), Loving (1945), and Back (1946) are the first three of six planned releases — often center around working class communities, though his approach to fashioning such characters is curious. In his 1958 interview with the author for The Paris Review, Terry Southern recalls a quote about Green’s 1929 novel Living — which follows several interwar England factory workers — as being the “best proletarian novel ever written.” Southern then asks if there is an authorial obligation to maintain a “social-awareness.” Green’s response:
“No, no. The writer must be disengaged or else he is writing politics. Look at the Soviet writers.
I just wrote what I heard and saw, and, as I’ve told you, the workers in my factory thought it rotten. It was my very good friend Christopher Isherwood used that phrase you’ve just quoted, and I don’t know that he ever worked in a factory.”
Green isn’t quite the same scribe of proletarian life as, say, Upton Sinclair, but to assert that his writing is entirely apolitical may not give the nuance of his work enough credit. Born to an aristocratic family, Green had a privileged upbringing, attending posh boarding schools and later Oxford. While at university, Green wrote his first novel Blindness (1926), dropping out the same year it was published. In exchange for the career promised by an Oxford education, Green instead spent his early twenties living “the proletarian life” working on the floor of his father’s Birmingham factory. It was there that the young writer became enamored with the musicality of English working-class vernacular, the cadence of which would go on to anchor much of his prose. He would adopt the nom de plume Green, a bland, ordinary name, in an attempt to neutralize the social status shouldered by Yorke.
Caught and Loving, both mid-career novels, locate themselves among working folk and against the backdrop of the Second World War, with the former centering around London’s Auxiliary Fire Service, and the latter the servants of a country house in Ireland (Back, with concerns unrelated to class, is in some ways the outlier of these three reissues). Disenfranchisement in Green’s novels is hardly rendered invisible, yet it’s seldom exploited for affect. His characters are usually as petty, hapless, and banal as anyone else; if their lives are imbued with a kind of sensationalism, it’s only ever due to the fact that Green’s prose is itself sensational.
Caught follows Richard Roe and Albert Pye over the year leading up to the Blitz in 1940. Roe is a somewhat wealthy husband and father who spends the months prior to the bombings as a new recruit in the Auxiliary Fire Service. He laments the difficulty he has eking out time with his young son Christopher, as he is never given more than twenty-four hours of leave to get up to his father’s home, where the boy lives with his mother. Among the firemen, Roe is an outsider. Green himself spent time in the AFS. And like Green, Roe, a well-to-do young man suddenly working in a substation of Cockneys, is initially our aperture through which we can crawl into this setting, setting us up for the middle sections of the book, which more closely follow Pye.
Tensions run high among the firemen as they wait anxiously for the bombs to drop, and the men and women of the station fight to stave off sexual frustration and boredom. The deeper tension may well be, however, the class resentment that runs between those of the professional fire service — like Pye and his boss Trant — and the Auxiliary members, like Richard Roe, whose son was once, incredibly, kidnapped by Pye’s mentally ill sister. For instance, the district officer Trant, incensed over Pye’s poor performance, remarks to the auxiliary fireman, Piper:
“‘[…] by God, you men ought to make yourselves acquainted with [the regulations], and these sub officers should ’ave them off by ’eart. It’s their living, it’s not as if they was playin’ at it like so many of your posh Auxiliaries.’
‘Oh, oh,’ Piper cried out beneath his breath, ‘posh is what you are now, then, you old bastard, doing ’is dirty ceiling what’ll take four hours for ’alf a bloody dollar if you’re lucky.’”
Loving, sometimes hailed as Green’s masterpiece (though Living and Party Going could arguably hold the title, too), is a more jocular tale. The novel is set in an Irish estate and kicks off with the death of Eldon, the longtime butler for the aristocratic Mrs. Tennant, and the servant Charley Raunce inheriting the position. The novel moves forward quickly from there, and follows the accretion of the servants’ various blunders and small dramas. In one scene the “little ‘Itler” Albert, the cook’s young English nephew, kills one of Tennant’s peacocks, which the rest of the staff tries to hide by plucking it and passing it off as poultry. The novel hilariously revisits to plight of the dead bird throughout, such as when it’s dug-up by a dog after the servants thought it safely buried:
“‘Why Badger you dirty thing whatever have you got then?’
He turned to find the greyhound wagging its tail at him, muddy nosed, and carrying a plucked carcass that stank.
‘Get off out from my premises,’ he cried at once, galvanized. ‘No wait,’ he said. ‘What’ve you got there mate?’”
The events that unfold over the novel’s two hundred pages remain fairly trivial — language is what really propels Loving, in which the author’s idiomatic ear is at full capacity. Despite the rhetorical populism affected by the subject matter, Green’s fusion of singular narrative rhythm (“Albert laid himself under a hedge all over which red fuchsia bells swung without a note in the wind the sure travelling sea brought with its low heavy swell”) to working class speech requires the utmost poetic sophistication and care, otherwise the prose would descend quickly into absurdity.
While Caught and Loving are much more colored by dialogue, Green’s other trademarks — his sincerity and meditative sensibility — carry his melancholic novel Back. Set during the in the year following of the Second World War, Back is novel of dislocation; its protagonist, Charley Summers is a former POW and repatriated amputee who returns to Britain only to learn that his former lover, Rose, has died during his captivity. Because their romance had been an extramarital affair, Summers is unable to openly mourn Rose’s death, and by withholding his emotion, he occasionally lapses into paranoia and, on occasion, surreality. Upon visiting her at the behest of Rose’s father, Grant, Summers is shocked to discover someone whom he believes at first to be Rose herself, but who in fact is her half-sister, Nancy Whitmore. Summers suspects that he’s been played:
“He felt extreme guilt that he could have forgotten [Rose] again. Then, for the first time, that he must get hold of old Grant. Because why had that fiend out of hell sent him on the visit? They could not all be out of their minds in that family? So they had used him as a guinea pig once more? It was vivisection? And Rose must have had good reason for acting as she did. Wasn’t for nothing that she’d sent him packing. It was Grant’s fault.”
It is through these bouts of epistemological uncertainty — not so frequent a strategy in Green’s wider oeuvre — that he finds some common ground with his modernist peers, as the novel carries the weight of Summers’ endeavor to acclimate to civilian life. He gets to know Nance, herself widowed by the War, and her initial aggravation over his sad confusion turns to romance. Summers, however, still hasn’t quite managed a full repatriation of the heart.
“‘Rose,’ he called out, not knowing he did so, ‘Rose.’
‘There,’ Nancy said, ‘there,’ pressed his head with her hands. His tears wetted her. The salt water ran down between her legs. And she knew what she had taken on. It was no more or less, really, than she had expected.”
While Green strives for verisimilitude, we cannot help but admire a great performance of text and longing unfurling across each page as he assumes the role of the “disengaged” writer of the underclass, or of the documentarian of trauma and broken bodies. This is the great irony of Green’s novels, works written at a time when English public saw a sea change of political consciousness, fresh off the heels of harsh wartime austerity and mobilized by the subsequent feeling of national solidarity. (The 1945 election would see a landslide victory for the Clement Attlee-led Labour government, which would then establish the British welfare state.)
And while these novels are profoundly concerned the working life, readers might find it difficult to extrapolate from them a latent Left politics. Instead, one finds in Green a timely — if now considered somewhat naïve — humanism, in which violence and boredom alike unite a people regardless of their status. Despite this, today’s popular discourse would do well to consider its subjects (for example, a less homogenized understanding of the American working class) with the same kind of equity and respect deployed in a Henry Green novel — object lessons for thinking through the worlds that exist outside our own.