Archive for the ‘Henry Green’ Category


October 30, 2022

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.


November 15, 2016


This year has been characterised by some great readalongs – Virginia Woolf in January, Jean Giono’s Hill in May and Jean Rhys in September. When Mookse and Gripes suggested Henry Green’s Back for November it seemed another chance to experience a writer whom I hadn’t read before in good company. All I knew about Green was that he was published by Harvill in the 1980s (certainly a recommendation) and that all his novels seem to have one word titles (at the very least to be admired for consistency – and one would imagine a certain bloody-mindedness in the face of publishers). Even better, although the readalong was ostensibly to tie in with the reprinting of his work by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint, I was aware that his novels had also been reprinted this year in the UK by Vintage Classics in budget three volume versions which made buying yet another book seem like a money-saving venture.

Back was Green’s seventh novel, originally published in 1946, and, as its title suggests, its central character, Charley, has just returned from the war, having lost a leg and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp. The novel opens with a visit to a graveyard – while he has been away the woman he loved, Rose, has died:

“For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath. She was dead and he did not hear until he was a prisoner. She had died, and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him…”

This neat reversal (not only of soldier grieving civilian, but the reversing of the experience, so common in war, of not seeing the body) is further complicated by the fact that Rose was married to another man, James, whom Charley meets as he leaves the graveyard. He also visits Rose’s parents, his “rather not speak of it” when asked about the prison camp typical of the reticence which runs through the novel – we learn almost nothing of his wartime experience. Rose’s father gives him an address where, he says, “you’ll find someone who knew Rose…

“She’s just the age Rose was, maybe a month or two younger. She wants to meet you. She’s a widow.”

The expectation that Charley is looking for a woman, whether for sex or marriage, is a common thread in almost every conversation. His landlady, Mrs Frazier, tells him:

“I can’t make up my kind why you don’t go out more often…At the age you are as well, and after what you’ve been in. Find a young lady I mean.”

When he doesn’t visit the address immediately, a fellow returnee, Middlewitch, comments, “then you must be getting your oats, right enough.” At work it is quickly assumed that he must be sleeping with his female assistant, Dorothy, and he goes as far as taking her on a visit to James with no particular feelings for her but under the weight of that expectation, only for James to visit her room at night in his stead.

When he does eventually visit the address which Rose’s father gave him he is met with an unexpected sight:

“She opened, almost at once. He looked. He sagged. Then something went inside. It was as though the frightful starts his heart was giving had burst a vein. He pitched forward in a dead faint, because there she stood alive, so close that he could touch, and breathing, the dead spit, the living image, herself, Rose in person.”

Here we see Green’s skill as a writer. Superficially rather ordinary – there are few flowery phrases – but capturing the essence of his character’s experience, from the short, shocked sentences which open to the final, repetitive incredulity; the clever pairing of ‘dead’ and ‘living’ to mean the same thing, and placing of ‘herself’ before ‘Rose’, but without, as a lesser writer might have done, leaving it the final word. Charley becomes convinced that the woman is Rose, living under a different name. Her denials only inflame his certainty, and at one point he even takes James to see her. (There are echoes of this in his conviction that there is something of himself in Rose and James’ son, as if the world is not what is presented to him anymore).

Back presents a perfect snapshot of England towards the end of the war. Green has fun with the fact that “everything’s initials these days” and acronyms scattered across every page. There are countless conversations about food which is, of course, in short supply. The war itself is rarely referred to in more than an elliptical and euphemistic way. Here, for example, are James and Charley on the subject of Charley’s lost limb:

“’Yes, well there you are,’ James said.
‘There it is,’ Charley agreed.

Charley’s grief for Rose is surely also for the loss of the life he had before, however; his need to heal related as much to his war-time experience as her death. As a character study it is, just like the times it presents, restrained, but beautifully observed. Luckily there is much more Green to come.