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Green Conversation Essay

Essay by Daniel Green — Published on September 12, 2016

Back by Henry Green. NYRB Classics. 224pp, $14.00.
Loving by Henry Green. NYRB Classics. 224pp, $14.00.
Back by Henry Green. NYRB Classics. 208pp, $14.00.

In 1959, Terry Southern conducted (for The Paris Review) the most substantial extant interview with the British novelist Henry Green. Southern actually did most of the talking (almost as if he were a Henry Green character), with Green rather diffidently agreeing with Southern’s remarks, offering some fairly circumspect reflections on his work that are nevertheless revealing enough to make the interview worthwhile. What is most interesting about this interview, however, is that Southern is participating in it. He is not a writer one immediately thinks of as influenced by or particularly sympathetic to a novelist of manners of the sort Henry Green represents. That he clearly admired Green’s work should persuade us to reconsider the perceived practice of both writers, but perhaps especially Green, since the terms and categories that are typically used to assess his fiction have not really done justice to its sustained, if subtle subversions of the form, style, and subjects it ostensibly adopts.

It is understandable that Green’s novels might be regarded as comedies of manners similar to those produced by such writers of Green’s generation as Evelyn Waugh or Elizabeth Bowen. They are by and large novels about groups of people as they interact in a specific social setting, frequently, but not always, an upper middle or upper-class setting, whose habitual behaviors are scrupulously depicted. Formally, they proceed almost entirely through what Henry James called the “scenic method,” narrative progression through scenes, with exposition and description usually subordinated to dialogue. The underlying tone of the novels could be called comic or satirical, although it is a comedy of suggestion and implication, not outright mockery or ridicule. At the same time, the satire does not impede the overall goal of presenting a comprehensively realistic portrayal of the social milieu the work takes as its subject.

Contemplating Green’s body of work more closely, however, reveals that even to the extent that Green was willing to work loosely within the confines of this important mode of English fiction, his novels simultaneously seek to escape, enlarging the scope of the “manners” portrayed, expanding the formal range of the scenic method, disturbing assumptions about the role of “voice” in fiction. If Green’s fiction finally doesn’t entirely leave the formal ambit of the novel of manners, it does stretch and reshape its conventions. This use of the form to alter its own usual habits, to determine possibilities not yet realized, is what most warrants considering Green an “experimental” writer. Literally Green’s novels explore new ways to test the limits of the presumed norms that novels must observe for them to be fully intelligible.

Among Green’s books, the one most accurately classified as a novel of manners of the familiar kind would probably be Loving (1945), one of the novels now being reprinted by NYRB, along with Caught, published immediately prior to Loving (1943), and Back, published immediately after (1946). Loving is a satirical narrative of class that might have served as inspiration for such television shows as Upstairs/Downstairs and Downton Abbey in its twin focus on the lives of an aristocratic family and its staff of servants, both residing on an Irish estate (although both the family and the servants are English) during World War II. The Tennant family (primarily the matron, Mrs. Tennant, and her married daughter) come off as predictably clueless and hypocritical, defined by their possessions and elevated sense of dignity. We actually get much closer to the servants, especially through the experiences of Charley Raunce, the head footman who assumes the duties of butler when the old and venerable current butler dies. Charley could be called the novel’s protagonist, although the focus and perspective fluctuate among numerous characters over the course of the few weeks on which it concentrates.

Loving may also be the prototypical example of Green’s application of the scenic, or dramatic, method in the formal construction of his novels. Over the course of his career (Green stopped writing in 1952, at the age of 47), Green became increasingly radical in his reliance on this method—his final two novels, Nothing and Doting are among the most radical in their use of it in modern fiction—but Loving is no doubt marked enough in its blending of dialogue with narrative exposition that readers find it familiar enough as a strategy, even if Green is nevertheless unmistakably a writer who tells his stories primarily through his characters’ talk, which also serves as the main source of characterization. Ultimately what makes Green’s writing compelling is that his dialogue may be both the most evocative of real human speech and the most responsive to the needs of the imagined narrative of which it is a part in all of English fiction. Green fashions his novels from dialogue not because this is an expected feature of the genre but because above all he is interested in the spoken word as a phenomenon of language and in the potential for the creative rendition of speech—of the particulars of human interaction more broadly—to be the center of narrative and artistic interest in a work of fiction.

Certainly most American readers will find the talk in a novel like Loving, with its close attention to the diction, cadences, and inflections of each of the social classes it portrays, to be authentically “English.” Some of the effects Green creates may be discernible mostly to British readers, as in the phenomenon described by critic Lorin Stein, by which “Raunce will talk posh one minute, cockney another, then borrow jazz slang. . . . Most conventional writers (or writers who had spent less time having actual conversations with servants) claimed to find Green’s dialogue unrealistic, even deplorable.” Further, the expository passages in the novels themselves often integrate elements of speech:

He was kicking this flower into his pantry not more than thirty inches at a time when Miss Burch with no warning opened and came out of Mr. Eldon’s death chamber. She was snuffling. He picked it up off the floor quick. He said friendly,

“The stink of flowers always makes my eyes run.”

“And when may daffodils have had a perfume,” she asked, tart through tears . . .

At the same time, as Tim Parks has put it, the narrative voice “is not a strict imitation of dialect, since many other dialect elements are missing.” In other words, neither in dialogue nor straight expository prose is Green merely copying or imitating the speaking habits of people “like” the characters he has created. Idiom and accent are suggested but not methodically reproduced. The goal is a realism of sorts, but one in which we can find the characters “real” as fictional characters rather than reflections in the mirror the writer has held up to life. What is “missing” in Green’s emphasis on speech is an effort to make talk itself the focus of interest apart from the way talk works to develop and distinguish his characters. Several of Green’s novels, including Loving, involve a rather large cast of characters, and it is surely a mark of his artistry that almost all of those who speak more than a few lines are consistently recognizable and entirely “rounded,” even if their actions are limited or repetitive. This is especially impressive in Loving, where the temptation to have characters seem uniformly representative of their respective class might be particularly strong.

Such a temptation surely existed as well when Green was writing his earlier novels Living (1927) and Party Going (1938). Like Loving, Living is a parallel portrayal of social classes, although in this case the divergence is between the owners of a foundry and its working-class employees. This novel led some to praise Green as a “proletarian” writer because of the empathy he extends to the working-class characters, but really this is something Green does with all of his characters, even the upper-class characters, whose behavior may otherwise seem the object of satire. If these characters, even in Party Going, which is the most directly a satirical take on the leisured class of all of Green’s novels, inevitably come off as pompous and absurd, it is not because Green has so firmly applied his thumb to the scale that their sins are weighed more heavily but because he allows the characters to be and speak as themselves without violating plausibility. Green can so convincingly ventriloquize all of his characters because he is able to so fully inhabit each of them, flaws and all (and all of them are indeed flawed).

Throughout his work Green exhibits a facility for this sort of “negative capability,” although perhaps an even more apt description of his approach is to view it as what T.S. Eliot called an “escape from personality” that the genuine artist seeks to accomplish. Few novelists have achieved the escape from authorial presence, the removal of all traces of direct intervention by the narrative voice, as if the author is hiding, as convincingly as Henry Green. This quality is arguably what most strongly identifies Green’s early novels as modernist; such an attempt at narrative removal is what gives Living and Party Going a someway disassociated tone, that, in combination with the abrupt shifts of perspective, the unorthodox dilation or foreshortening of time, and the generally drifting plots, warrants regarding them as contributions to modernist experiment in fiction. It could be said that Green’s work is an extended effort to determine how thoroughly the outward signs of the author’s control of his fictional creation can be erased, how little can be revealed about the author’s attitude toward his characters and their actions. Green’s fiction conveys the impression that these actions in effect relate themselves, the narrator simply a verbal necessity of sorts.

This strategy is still evident in Caught, although the narrative center of gravity is more readily discernible, less dispersed among a large cast of characters and a digressive story. Caught is a multi-character novel, but it does feature one who could be called its protagonist, a character who, because he so undeniably resembles his creator, at least helps to focus the events related as parts of a unified experience recognizable as more or less coherent narrative. The narrative follows Richard Roe, an upper-class Englishman who has joined the Auxiliary Fire Service to do his part in the war effort as the London blitz is about to commence. For most of the novel, Roe is engaged in training for the duties of a fireman—react quickly during a bombing raid to put out ensuing fires—and we are concurrently introduced to a range of other characters, including Roe’s superior, Pye, who in a bizarre coincidence is the brother of a woman, clearly not of an entirely sound mind, who had briefly kidnapped Roe’s son and has been committed to a mental hospital (a matter of considerable frustration to Pye, who is made to bear the cost).

As with Living and Loving, Green in Caught proves extraordinarily adept at creating working-class characters whose habits and states of mind he renders without condescension or reduction to caricature. This is especially true of Pye, whose confusion and resentment, both toward his sister’s predicament and his own as the uncertain leader of a fire brigade in wartime, are unmistakable but genuine, the qualities of a character that finally affirm his essential dignity. They are the qualities that, along with the perhaps inevitable sense of solidarity that would arise among a group of people engaged in an important if terrifying task, lead Richard to express strong feelings when contemplating Pye’s ultimate suicide: “when I was posted to his station it was much worse for him that it was for me. Then what finally ruined him was the authority he got. He didn’t do anything to get it. It came with the war, because he was an experienced fireman. He wasn’t in the least ready to have men under him.”

Perhaps because it engages an inherently dramatic subject—if not immediately action-oriented, the narrative proceeds through the underlying tension provided by the increasing likelihood the characters will soon be swept up by dangerous and dramatic events indeed—Caught, although still mostly related through dialogue as characters interact with each other, blends speech with expository prose more fully than most of Green’s other novels. Most of the time this prose is muted, revealing little further of the author apart from the impassive narrative voice employed, but at times it offers a kind of deadpan lyricism:

Coming back after his second spell of leave, Richard found he could not remember what his home life had been only a day or two before. All he had done lay ready to hand, but as dried fruit is to fresh off the tree, tasteless, unlike. Now that he was kept all hours in the station he had no privacy with which to ferment those feelings, shriveled after so short a journey.

At other times, Green’s prose becomes less muted, its lyricism more insistent:

The firemen saw each other’s faces. They saw the water below, a dirty yellow toward the fire; the wharves on that far side low and black, those on the bank they were leaving a pretty rose. They saw the whole fury of that conflagration in which they had to play a part. And they cowered where they sat beneath the immensity. For, against it, warehouses, small towers, puny steeples seemed alive with sparks from the mile high pandemonium of flame reflected in the edge, the perimeter round which the heavens, set with stars before fading into utter blackness, were for a space a trembling green.

Such passages do not aspire to “fine writing” nor to help advance the plot (the actual bombing raids and their aftermath are finally alluded to rather than depicted directly) so much as provide the color (in this case literally) that fills in and around the characters’ verbal exchanges, as much a kind of structural device as a narrative mode.

Caught was written subsequent to Green’s own enlistment in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and Richard Roe seems transparently to represent his creator’s response to the experience. Although Green’s status as a son of the upper class informs all of his work, Caught surely comes closest to being a direct autobiographical transformation of Green’s personal sense of class consciousness into literary art (although the character of Dick Dupret, heir to the foundry in Living also seems an overt enough representation of Green’s experience working in his father’s business). The most explicit autobiographical account Green ever offered, of course, was his memoir, Pack My Back, written immediately before Caught (1940). If Caught, Loving, and Back could be considered a kind of World War II trilogy, we would probably need to make it a quartet by adding Pack Your Bag, which according to Green’s own testimony at the beginning of the book was written in anticipation of the war: “I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine years before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming down upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.”

Green of course was not killed, but the war prompted not just the memoir-like reckoning with personal trauma in Caught or the wartime social anatomy of Loving but also a novel that is the most removed from Henry Green’s accustomed purview and the least concerned with social behavior as such, Back, published in 1946. This novel focuses on the plight of an injured war veteran, the difficulties he has adjusting to his injuries, to his government-provided job, and to the death (while he was away) of the woman he loved. He meets another woman who looks so much like his lost love (who had been married to another man) he decides that in fact she is her. Most of the novel, in what turns out to be a surprisingly linear plot, follows Charley Summers as he gradually comes to terms with the reality that this woman is actually his lover’s half-sister, of whom he had previously been unaware. Eventually, after first provoking from her nothing but scorn, he begins to fall in love with her and the novel concludes as they plan to marry—she, in fact, has proposed to him.

Thus Back could be described as a love story, and a sympathetic and optimistic one at that. Although Charley’s war-inflicted damage is portrayed without sentimentality, Green allows him a measure of healing. His wife-to-be, Nancy, is no benevolent maiden, as she possesses her fair share of bitterness and resentment at the treatment, she, an illegitimate daughter, has received from her father. But this only makes the mutually satisfying relationship the two forge all the more affecting and convincing. Nancy is no doubt the most alive and interesting character in the novel, and in her complexity and self-presence she shares much with other women characters in Green’s fiction. If no Green novel features a female protagonist (of those that can be said to have protagonists), women are featured as prominently as men in his large-scale casts, and most of them, like Nancy, come to life as individuals to whom Green seems to listen as attentively as any of the men as they speak themselves into existence and assume their place in the world their talk allows Green to create.

Considering Loving and Back alongside Caught ultimately confirms that, despite their shared discursive features, Green’s novels are generally quite dissimilar, sometimes radically so. In this way Loving, as probably Green’s most famous book, acts to somewhat distort his actual achievement, an accurate characterization of which must at least note that Green never really wrote the same sort of book twice. Perhaps his oddest book is the immediate successor to Back, Concluding, which at first seems a fairly recognizable kind of story set in a girl’s school but eventually comes to resolve itself into a quasi-futuristic political allegory à la 1984. The girls, it appears, are being educated to assume a role in a hyper-bureaucratized England (mostly just referred to as “the State”), and the story poses the school’s two dictatorial headmistresses against a retired scientist who, to the chagrin of the two ladies, who want the land, has been granted by the State a plot of land on the school’s grounds. The novel is tightly structured, unfolding over the course of a single 24-hour period, giving it a superficial resemblance to the compressed timespan used in Party Going, but where the earlier novel brings resolution of a sorts to its ostensible plot, Concluding concludes having settled few of the questions it has raised.

After Concluding, Green wrote two additional novels, probably his least well known, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952). Here at the end of Green’s writing career, he emphatically returned to something like conventional comedies of manner, although these two novels taken together also most rigorously employ the dramatic method, effacing the narrator’s presence from the scenes about as thoroughly as is possible short of staging them as plays instead. They are also witheringly satirical, focusing entirely on upper-class characters whose speech is rendered with great care and piquancy, revealing them to be utterly vacuous, self-parodic and hilariously so. James Wood has described Green’s humor as fundamentally “gentle,” but Nothing and Doting unambiguously illustrate the extent to which this is a seriously mistaken judgment.

At this point it seems appropriate to circle back to Terry Southern, whose esteem for Henry Green is obvious enough in his Paris Review interview, but whose own work, often classified as absurdist, “sick,” or “black” humor, probably would not be immediately associated with Green’s by most readers. But it is in novels like Nothing and Doting that the kind of satirical humor characteristic of the comedy of manners is transformed by Green’s apparently absolute detachment into a comedy much more extreme in its effect. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Henry Green was kind of premature black humorist, but his last novels prior to his final 20-year silence prompt us to remember the essentially comic vision animating all of Green’s fiction, while also to regret that Green elected afterwards not to pursue it even farther.

Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His website can be found at The Reading Experience.

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The Process, a quarterly program airing on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio powered by The Wharton School, offers guidance and insight into the college admission process. In this podcast series that began airing in the summer of 2016 and broadcast its fifth segment on July 11, 2017, Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, invites guests and experts to explore all aspects of the admissions process, from discovery and decision-making to enrollment and transition. 

Here in the segment that first aired in October, 2016, Furda speaks with Eileen Cunningham Feikens, director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School, a high school in New Jersey, on a variety of topics, including how to craft the college essay. Feikens and Furda are joined by Elizabeth King, president of Elizabeth King Coaching, which specializes in college-admissions test prep and coaching. Financial aid expert David Charlow joins Furda to talk about college affordability and other issues.

We encourage you to listen to the audio podcast featured below. Meanwhile, just as this year’s college Common Application questions debut this week, here are some expert pointers for high school students who are writing their college essays.

King’s Best Advice: “The essay is the moment where you actually get to introduce yourself. You don’t want to introduce yourself when you were six. You could mention yourself when you were six, but we like to hear about you now. I have an essay that I wrote for myself because I write a lot for fun, and it’s an essay about green beans and visiting my family home a few summers ago and going out back and picking a green bean. That green bean [had] the same feeling and experience as something that happened to me when I was three years old. And I wrote this essay about this interest that I’ve always had in being out back, and the things that I value are continuity, consistency, taking care of things. I would never discourage a student from writing an essay for Penn about a green bean if that’s your vehicle for explaining something really specific and memorable about yourself. Sometimes, the smallest, most tedious things are the places where we actually learn the most about ourselves as people and we can communicate the most about ourselves as people. So, the smaller, the better.”

Feikens’ Best Advice: “Through the supplemental essay prompts of any institution [separate from the Common Application essay questions], the most frequently asked question is, “Why us?” If [you] can successfully weave together things of your experience, things that are important to you, the values that you’re looking for — and really weave together for the Admissions Committee how you expect those to be met or how you hope to take advantage of whatever the institution’s offerings are to create that synergy, that’s going to serve you well. [You don’t want to] just say, “Oh, you’re a really top school and I’m very interested in applying.” Not focusing on the what, but rather on the why and the how. Why are you interested? And how are you going to make use of what that institution has for you?

What I charge my students to do is to think about, ‘What’s the message you’re trying to share?’ Don’t worry about the story; focus on the message. And once you focus on the message and you have that in your head, then look at the prompts and let’s work together to try and find a vehicle that’s going to deliver that message the way you want it to land. So having said that, you want to make sure that it’s a much more reflective essay than narrative. Don’t point the reader outside of yourself. Don’t keep talking about somebody else, like, my great-grandmother and how awesome she was. The student is the main character of his application…he’d be best served if he remembers that.”

Charlow’s Best Advice: “Parents, encourage your students if they’re earlier in the process — eighth, ninth, tenth grade — to please, please, please take your writing assignments and your English classes and your History classes seriously. The quality of the writing, from a grammatical standpoint, is really not very high. I think that a lot of writing assignments are graded based upon the critical thinking and the ideas, and not so much time is being spent teaching students how to write. Students who wait — as teenagers do — to the last minute for their writing assignments, you never learn how to write well. It’s a problem that I have observed in reading lots of essays these last few years.”

Furda’s Best Advice (from the Coursera online course How to Apply to College): “The Common Application general essay prompts – there are a half-dozen – can give you an idea of how you can navigate your essay, whether you’re talking about your context or background or important experiences that you’ve learned from. It’s a guiding prompt. It’s an opportunity to think about yourself and how you can tell your story. You want to make sure you are using your own voice. Don’t try to use the thesaurus to sound a certain way. Authenticity and genuineness are important here. Use your tone and use your words. Let your voice come across in the common application general prompt essay. This is telling your story in a general context to help any admission office, college or university understand you better.”

Conversation Starters

Eileen Cunningham Feikens says, "You want to make sure that it's a much more reflective essay than narrative." What does she mean by this?

What is Elizabeth King getting at with her green bean example? What does she mean by, "the smaller, the better?"