23 January 2013

Loving by Henry Green

'Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch.  From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.'

These opening lines of Loving had me instantly picturing an iron bed in a sparsely furnished room, a narrow darkened hallway and a green baize door.  England is at war and the English male staff contemplate whether it is best to sign up for duty or stay where they are until called upon.  A country house in Ireland provides the backdrop for a story primarily about the lives of the servants but don't expect pages of skin-blistering scrubbing or toiling.  This story centres mostly around the lives and relationships of the staff when their employer, Mrs Tennant, is away...or in another room.  The stolen moments behind closed doors when toiling should be going on but romance or plotting seems like a better idea.

With Eldon's death, Raunce steps into the role of butler.  A bit of a pasty fellow he sets his cap on Edith, a housemaid twenty years his junior.  At times she appears to be an innocent but at others it is apparent she has given a fair bit of thought as to her chances in life and how to get what she wants.  As their level of intimacy increases the lovers begin to reveal their conniving side and how skimming a bit off of the establishment is not only necessary but justified.  The disappearance of Mrs Tennant's sapphire cluster ring and the sightings that follow lend an almost farcical tone to the story especially when an insurance broker is sent out to investigate.  Convinced that the gentleman is from the I.R.A and casing the house, Raunce sends the staff into a state of complete paranoia.  They can't resist the opportunity though to have a good laugh during a very mocking session of the representative's lisp.

For the most past this story is delivered through dialogue and it's a style that I felt completely at ease with.  In fact, I felt it added a slight hint of mysterious allure not knowing for sure whether the characters were being sincere or not in their conversations with others.  There is a complete microcosm composed of just the staff and the relationships between them would create quite the Venn diagram.      

Near the end of the book Edith remarks to Raunce that she doesn't like the way the peacocks roaming the grounds spy on her.  'They've been raised in a good school,' is his reply.  Perhaps the majestic birds represent something of a conscience for one or two of the characters as they feature quite prominently throughout.  I definitely think a re-read will perhaps reveal something of a deeper meaning unless someone can help me out with that one straight away.

By most accounts Green was something of an eccentric which makes me like him all the more.  And many would debate whether or not he is one of the greats in the world of literature.  After reading one of his quotes I am in no doubt that he is, well in my book anyway:
Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone . . .
It is truly a wonderful thing to ride on the coat tails of some of my favourite bloggers, pointing the way to fantastic reads.  Thanks to Harriet and Book Snob I have discovered yet another sublime author and oh lucky me to have two more novels Living and Party Going in my Penguin edition to enjoy on another day.

10 comments:

  1. I've known of Green as an eccentric writer for what seems like forever, but have never read him. This sounds well worth the effort of digging out a copy and would be an interesting book to include in a course on World War II literature, giving, as it does, such a different perspective.

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    1. Oh Alex, you definitely must give Green a try! As a different perspective this novel would fit the bill nicely as rather than rushing to sign up it was more a case of avoidance. Although, with Raunce hitting that forty year-old mark he probably would have been given ARP duty.

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  2. I am completely in love with Henry Green and I'm so glad you loved Loving. Hope you go on to enjoy the others as much. Look forward to hearing about them in due course. Thanks.

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    1. Harriet, I was dumbfounded by the reviews of some that simply, for whatever reason, didn't get Green's style of writing. He's fantastic! To each his own but still...what's not to like?! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this book way back when and opening up my bookish world even more.

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  3. SO glad you loved this, Darlene - brilliant review! I can't wait to hear what you think of the other two novels! I don't understand those people who didn't find the magic in Green either - yes, he's an eccentric - but once you get started, you can't help but be drawn into his world and mesmerised by the amazing images he creates. I adore him and need to read more!

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    1. Oh this was fabulous...and that last bit where Raunce sees the birds fluttering around Edith, one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever read! It was so much fun to see the downstairs staff in their own microcosm and just how much idle time they could manage to scrape out of a day. Well, while the boss was away - but still!

      Keep pointing me in the direction of such lovely books and my reading will be set for life, Rachel.

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  4. I like your new blog. Interesting review, I suspect Henry Green is an author I would have to be in exactly the right frame of mind for or it won't gel

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    1. Why thank you, Karoline! I am a firm believer in just the right book for your mood. It justifies my book hoarding...mustn't be caught with nothing to read! Hope you take the leap with Green one day and enjoy his writing as much as Harriet, Rachel and I did.

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  5. Oh my gosh that Pied Piper jacket art to the right is stunning.

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    1. That cover worked its magic and drew me in at BMV last weekend. The content is surpassing my every expectation, a book to rush home from work for!

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