A long time ago – probably much more than a year ago at any rate I bought a rather lovely Vintage books edition of three Henry Green novels, prompted I suspect by a review I saw somewhere. I had never read Henry Green before and there the book sat – almost forgotten. Reading is so often about mood and so, very much in the mood for something, or rather someone, I hadn’t read before I took it off the shelf and had a flick through. The first novel in the collection is Loving, one of Henry Green’s mid-period novels, seemed as good a place as any to start. There will be more Henry Green reading happening here soon, the other two novels; Living and Party Going, are already calling me.
Loving is set in a large Irish country house during the Second World War – it has a kind of superior Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown feel to it. The majority of the novel focuses very much on the downstairs inhabitants of the household. As the novel opens the old butler Mr Eldon lays dying, while the downstairs staff scuttle about and take turns in watching over him. Charley Raunce is the first footman, and he awaits the chance to step seamlessly into the butler’s shoes, move into his apartment and take Eldon’s seat at table in the servants’ hall. Raunce has a young pantry boy called Bert who he is educating in the ways of the big house, while dispensing his world weary advice on service, women, war and the I.R.A. Charley is a bit of a character, he is a little self-serving, but not all bad by any means. Edith and Kate are the housemaids, superintended by Agatha Burch; Mrs Welch is the cook – who is never called cook! The children of the household are cared for by Nanny Swift and her two nursery girls. The one Irish servant is Paddy – the lampman who has particular care of the peacocks that live on the estate, and whose speech it seems no one understands.
“What Miss Burch felt so she said was that nothing would ever be the same, that after thirty-five years in service she could not look forward to being in a respectable house again where your work was respected and in which you could do your best. Yet with the same breath she told Edith that Kate and her were lucky to be in a place like this. She went on that there were not many girls in their position able to learn the trade as she was able to teach it, to pass on all she had acquired about the cleaning and ordering of a house, particularly when over at home they were all being sent in the army to be leapt on so she honestly believed by drunken soldiers in darkness.”
Upstairs Mrs Tennant and her daughter-in-law live companionably, Mrs Jack (as she is invariably known) the mother of the two little girls cared for by Nanny Swift, though Violet, to give her, her proper name, has a secret. Mrs Tennant’s son is away serving in the British army – for it is understood by the reader immediately, that although this is a house in Ireland, the family and its staff are English. At this time, Ireland were neutral, out of the war, the inhabitants are safe from it, removed from the action and the danger. The war however is never that far from the minds of the downstairs inhabitants, as they each struggle with whether they should stay safe, return home, or even enlist and what might happened should the Germans arrive in Ireland. Charley Raunce receives letters from his mother at home, and worries about her and the bombs.
With Eldon dead, Charley steps into the old man’s shoes as he had planned. Now at least he can be called by his own name. Mrs Tennant has always called her first footmen Arthur, but now she shall need to learn to call him Raunce.
When Mrs Tennant and her daughter-in-law decide to go to England to meet Jack on his leave, and spend some time in London, the children and the servants are left to their own devices. Mrs Welch’s nephew comes to the house on a visit and is allowed to associate with the two young ladies under Nanny Swift’s supervision.
“They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass.”
With the absence of their employers giving them all a kind of freedom, the servants settle into a rhythm of small conflicts, gossip, and love. Amid anxieties over the war at home, and rumours of I.R.A activities locally, the household are largely concerned with matters more mundane including a dead peacock and a missing jewel, both of which keep comically appearing and disappearing. Edith and the children play blind man’s buff in the long gallery; the dovecote is the scene of childish games and lovers meetings all while household chores are still daily undertaken.
As all the action takes place in the house and grounds, it is as if the world beyond is not entirely real – there is a fairy-tale, dream like quality to the narrative, which with no chapters is a little like a stream of consciousness, but it is also wonderfully evocative and rich with imagery. The novel opens with “Once upon a day” and ends with – well, let’s just say it is a similarly traditional closing as it is an opening. I absolutely loved my introduction to Henry Green’s writing, and I feel sure I shall now want to read everything he wrote.