An off-kilter visionary

Henry Green had a strange and distinctive talent


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1952, W.H. Auden was asked by Life magazine to name his favourite writer. He was spoilt for choice: he could have singled out Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, E.M. Forster, J.R.R. Tolkien — who he was a great admirer of — or any number of internationally famous and lauded figures, including some women, too. But his choice was far more unconventional. 

Auden said simply that “Henry Green is the finest living English novelist.” 

It was a tremendous accolade from one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, but, unknown to Auden — and perhaps to Green — his nominee would not write another novel in the remaining two decades of his life. (Coincidentally, Auden and Green died a matter of a few weeks apart, at the end of 1973.) The endorsement therefore became a quasi-epitaph for the career of a man described, probably aptly, by the American satirist Terry Southern as “a writer’s writer’s writer.” 

Apart from Patrick Hamilton, there is no other twentieth-century British novelist whose cult reputation has never translated into mainstream recognition. Despite the endorsements of an eclectic range of writers including John Updike and his friend-cum-rival Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot and Anthony Burgess, Green remains an obscure figure, whose brilliant writing has never been appreciated to the extent it deserves. 

Although he was loosely associated with the Modernist movement, Green cannot be pigeonholed or forced into any kind of literary straitjacket. Instead, his poetic and magnetic novels defy conventional categorisation, and remain the connoisseur’s choice, even as they reflect their author’s unorthodox and ultimately disappointing life. 

Waugh came across Green when they were Oxford contemporaries. He pronounced his friend “lean, dark and singular”. Both were hard-drinking, clubbable men with literary ambitions, but Waugh — a lifelong parvenu who both admired and detested those wealthier and grander than he was — recognised the presence of an extraordinary talent almost as soon as they met. He was consumed by both jealousy and admiration. 

Green — or Henry Yorke, as he had been christened — had been educated in the conventional upper-class fashion. He had been schoolfriends at Eton with Anthony Powell (another lifelong admirer). It was at Eton that he began what would become his first novel, Blindness, a semi-autobiographical study of a young man, John Haye, who is accidentally blinded while attending the prestigious public school Noat. Although slight in comparison to what would come later, it already displayed Green’s effortless facility for combining witty social satire with poetic flair. 

It was published in 1926, when Green was 21, and Waugh wrote to him through gritted teeth to say “at the risk of appearing officious, I am impelled to write to you and tell you how very much I like it. It is extraordinary to me that anyone of our generation could have written so fine a book, and at Oxford of all places.” 

His praise was not unconditional, however. He sneered at his friend’s nom de plume, saying privately, “From motives inscrutable to his friends, the author of Living chooses to publish his work under a pseudonym of peculiar drabness.” 

Green might have been expected to become the toast of literary London, but instead he headed to Birmingham to his family’s beer-bottling factory, and began working on the shop floor. Although he swiftly rose to become managing director, his experiences of ordinary working-class life — atypical for a man of his background inspired his 1929 second novel Living, which made Green, in one critic’s words, “an honorary member of a literary movement to which he never belonged”. 

Just like his Eton compatriot George Orwell — another man who changed his name to find success as a writer — Green was a chameleonic figure who was equally at home, or equally ill at ease, among Birmingham factory workers as he was in Champagne-swilling high society. 

In the same year he published Living, Green married his second cousin, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, who rejoiced in the nickname of “Dig”. Waugh wrote to him in backhanded congratulatory fashion, saying “I do think it extraordinary to be called ‘Diggy’ … you must be married at once very obtrusively — a fashionable wedding is worth a four-column review in the Times Literary Supplement to a novelist.” His advice was not taken. 

Green’s third novel, Party Going, would not appear for another ten years, at the end of the “low dishonest decade” that Auden lamented in “September 1, 1939”. It concerned the fortunes of another sector of society altogether, the idle wealthy, who find themselves stranded in a railway hotel while waiting for a train to take them to a party. Its mixture of apparent naturalism with overarching mythic symbolism would inspire T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, and Eliot, the acknowledged Grand Master of the modernist movement, was impressed: he later said to The Times that Green’s writing was proof that “the creative advance in our age is in prose fiction”.

Yet Green refused to play the literary game. Perhaps appropriately, he so loathed having his photograph taken that his first (Cecil Beaton-shot) official author portrait was simply of the back of his head. 

The Second World War became a strangely fecund time for his writing, while many of his contemporaries found themselves depressed and frightened by it. Green was often heard to remark of some situation or other “It will make a good book one day,” and the extraordinary series of novels he wrote over the next decade, including his masterpieces Back, Loving and Concluding, justified his comment that his prose represented “a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known”. 

Green had, by this stage, become one of the most incisive chroniclers of English society. Loving’s examination of the intertwined fortunes of characters in an Irish country house both above and below stairs was a direct influence on Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park, as well as, regrettably, on Downton Abbey. And Back’s story of a young English amputee who becomes involved in a strange, almost incestuous relationship with the half-sister of a woman he once loved is rich both in beautifully observed writing and dark psychological detail. Both are unforgettable. 

To read Green’s novels is not to be amused and cossetted, as one might be by reading Waugh or Powell, but to step into an off-kilter literary world where everything is faintly but noticeably awry. Harold Pinter once said, in a rare and much-regretted moment of candour, that his plays were about “the weasel underneath the cocktail cabinet”. Green’s books offer a similar degree of displacement — if, that is, the cocktail cabinet is poisoned, the weasel is rabid and the house is on fire. 

Unfortunately, as with Patrick Hamilton, Green’s undeniable talent was soon to be usurped by the bottle. Waugh might have remarked in early 1946, of a dinner with Green and Dig, that there was “no hospitality of any kind … their parsimony has become morbid”, but when their friends were not there, both of them would immerse themselves in drink with a grim relish. 

In Green’s case, the unfortunate effect was to stifle his talent entirely and ensure his last novel, 1952’s Doting, would be followed by two decades of silence, during which time he expressed reactionary Conservative views and developed a near-obsession with the workings of the Ottoman Empire. 

It may have been a pose, like Waugh’s adoption of the Blimpish country squire persona, but alcohol stifled and blunted what Maurice Bowra called Green’s “piercing insight, stripping men and ideas of their disguises and going straight to some central point.” 

His friendships with other writers endured, but never to the same degree as they had flourished at Oxford and during the war. Shortly before his own death on 10 April 1966, Waugh sardonically wrote, “Bright young Henry Yorke I hear is quite decrepit.” 

The most famous picture of Green, taken later in life, shows a man looking askance at the camera, as if to show his continued distaste for the demands of publicity. 

He wanted to be left alone, and, long before his death he was, even as the likes of Terry Southern prostrated themselves before him. Rebecca West said, “He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh-minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before.” Yet, at the same time, West sorrowfully concluded “He is nearly forgotten.” 

Little has changed. Today, there seems little likelihood of a Green resurgence, unless something unexpected occurs. Although most of his books are in print, with admiring introductions from D.J. Taylor and Sebastian Faulks, he is too distinctive and strange a talent to be forced into respectability by the Vintage Classics of this world. There is no definitive biography and no film adaptations of his work. 

Instead, his off-kilter worldview remains true to his view, expressed in his autobiography, Pack My Bag, that prose is “a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go”, and that “it should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.” Few who have come to know, and love, Green’s work could disagree with such an apt summation.

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