Eton and Oxford educated Henry Green seems an unlikely candidate when it comes to the best novels of working-class experience written during the 20th century, yet his second novel, Living, published in 1929, falls exactly into that category. Green ‘researched’ the novel while working in his father’s factory, but this alone does not explain his ability to articulate the lives of the workers with such unpatronizing detail. Partly it is a choice of style, deliberately avoiding conjunctions and articles and instead echoing the speech of his characters – disconcerting at first but developing into a rhythm uniquely suited to world he is describing.

The novel has an extensive cast but focuses mainly on the experiences Lily Gates, the daughter of one of the workers, and Dick Dupret, the son of the owner. Both, in their own way, are attempting to establish themselves as individuals and also find someone to love. Lily lives with her father, Joe, and her father’s friend and work partner, Craigan, whom she calls ‘grandad’. It is Craigan’s house, and he is the head of the household, as we discover when Lily talks to a neighbour about getting a job:

“Then she said to Mrs Eames… how the old man would not let her try for a job at Waley’s though she knew her father would not think twice about that if it was for him to decide, who thought only of money.”

The fourth member of the household, Jim Dale, is a younger man, and the three men hope Lily will marry him in order to preserve their way of life (i.e. with Lily doing all the cooking and housework) but Lily has her eye set on another factory worker, Bert, with whom she intends to elope to Canada. Green conveys Lily and Jim’s contrasting characters on a visit to the cinema when Lily cannot “understand what he came to the pictures for, to listen to the band and not watch the picture, she liked the stories.” Lily is a dreamer who want to improve her lot. Dupret is also something of a dreamer:

“Standing in foundry shop son of Mr Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them…”

He intends to succeed his father in running the factory, and the novel opens with him being shown round the works. He, too, flirts with the idea of marriage, but the woman in question only has eyes for another, and when that other isn’t interested, she still does not turn to Dupret: “though each day she circled further from Mr Tyler yet she did not draw any nearer to where Dick lay.” Lily seems more successful, and, after much pressing, she heads to Liverpool by train with Bert to stay with his parents and borrow the money which will allow them to go to Canada. What Bert hasn’t told her, however, is that he has lost touch with his parents. In one of the novel’s most famous sequences, the couple head into poorer and poorer parts of the city on their search.

In Green’s hands, all of his characters are sympathetic though none are entirely admirable. Dupret not only has minor faults such as nose-picking, but he makes the decision to sack all the older workers (like Craigan and Gates) as he regards them as too slow. Craigan is looked up to by many of the men, but we see in his treatment of Lily that, though he is a kind man, he has little time for her plans to better herself. Her father, Joe, on the other hand, is bad-tempered, prone to drink, and at one point hits his daughter. Yet we can see that this bluster disguises a fear of poverty and homelessness (it is Lily Craigan wishes to remain in the house rather than Joe). Sebastian Faulks has written of his characters, “So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them – protective even against the plotting of the author.” This is not because Green takes the time to flesh out their back story but just the opposite, revealing them always in the moment. As Adam Thirwell has put it:

“Green’s subject wasn’t only working-class life but the universal, unavoidable minuteness of living.”

Living is a novel which does, indeed, live and breath. Green is not a writer like Dickens who revels in describing his city, but you will feel you have walked the streets and factory floors of Birmingham because you have walked them in the footsteps of his characters.


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6 Responses to “Living”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, a great choice for 1929, Grant, and another one I wish I’d realised was from that year because I have a copy! It sounds really good, and very unlike what I expect Green to be writing about!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I don’t think it’s his typical novel. I actually found a second-hand Harvill shortly after you announced the year, so I think I was fated to read it!

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I love this author!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve struggled to get to grips with Green’s prose in the past, but this one sounds more my type of thing, particularly as the prose seems in step with the subject matter. You’ve done well with your 1929 reads Grant – great choices!

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