Dwight's Reviews > Loving / Living / Party Going
by Henry Green, John Updike
I finished Loving by Henry Green yesterday and my opinion on it seems to change each time I think about it. I enjoyed the novel but at the same time I got the feeling I was being had or duped. The abrupt, fairy-tale ending only added to that feeling. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity in the story, which would make the ending a perfect fit.
I’ll mention the links post on Henry Green and Loving since it contains several good descriptions of Green’s style and notes on the novel. Green’s comment about the novel captures some of the satiric flavor:
“The British servants in Eire while England is at war is Raunce's conflict, and one meant to be satirically funny. It is a crack at the absurd southern Irish and at the same time a swipe at the British servants, who yet remain human beings. But it is meant to torpedo that woman and her daughter-in-law, the employers.”
Mrs. Tennant, "that woman" and the owner of the Irish castle, and her daughter-in-law Violet are “torpedoed” often in the novel through their own actions and comments. Mrs. Tennant’s self-absorption is on full display in when she talks about the difficulty keeping up the castle in neutral Ireland during World War II:
“But in a way I regard this as my war work, maintaining the place I mean. Because we’re practically in enemy country here you know and I do consider it so important from the morale point of view to keep up appearances. This country has been ruined by people who did not live on their estates. It might be different if [Éamon] de Valera had a use for places of the kind. Why he doesn’t offer Ireland as a hospital base I can’t imagine. Then one could hand over a house like this with an easy conscience.”
Green still allows Mrs. Tennant to “remain a human being” as she deals with her isolation, not just in widowhood but in the distance she (accurately) perceives in her many relationships. There is plenty of ambiguity in Loving, where Green’s style mirrors his message—despite revealing a lot about his characters we never really get to know them.
The hired help of the castle provide the life and vitality of the novel. Whether they are concerned about family members in London during the bombing or filching peacock eggs for beauty treatments, their worries run the gamut from real to absurd. It turns out many of them have perfected a racket to squeeze extra money out of the household or get ahead in some manner. The resentment and devotion that the help exhibits, often at the same time, toward Mrs. Tennant and her family encapsulates their struggle with their own stations in life. Mrs. Tennant longs for order but the recurring scandals, big and small, demonstrate that such a desire will never come to fruition. Charley Raunce, the head footman who assumes a rise in stature after the death of the butler, provides a sort of stability for the other help yet he undermines it often enough with his enmity toward the head housemaid, his nervousness around his love Edith, and his failing health. My favorite character, Paddy, is not given a direct quote since his thick Irish brogue has to be deciphered and translated. Absurdities such as this continue to pile up as the story progresses (if progressing proves to be the appropriate term).
John Updike’s introduction captures several of the reasons I enjoyed Loving:
“W. H. Auden once called him the finest living English novelist. But no need exists to set up a competition; his writing generation has passed on, and his novels are sufficiently unlike any others, sufficiently assured in their perilous, luminous fullness, to warrant the epithet incomparable. And they have become, with time, photographs of a vanished England. Their substantive content, in human psychology, in social mores, in what can be seen and heard by a man alive in a place and time, is as rich as their formal design in intricate, rounded, and pleasing. … Green’s human qualities—his love of work and laughter; his absolute empathy; his sense of spendour amid loss, of vitality within weakness—make him a precious witness to any age. … With upper-class obliquity he champions the demotic in language and in everything. … They [his novels] live, in short, and like all living feed on air, the invisible; the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vital.”
The warmth and vitality may seem slight at times but they are there. At the same time, I understand many of the criticisms of, or more often the disappointment in reading, Loving. Only near the end of the novel did I feel things click in place for my enjoyment, a moment where I laughed out loud at the ridiculous world Green created. I don’t think my wife will let me live that one down any time soon.