'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:
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.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 . . .