Just before the outbreak of World War II, Henry Green published an “interim” autobiography, Pack My Bag: A Self Portrait, in which he describes himself in the opening paragraph:
I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is the 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 felt keenly that in fact he would not survive the coming war and with only two novels published he obviously felt the need to get something more into print before dying. Pack My Bag is dated 1938-1939 and really only covers Green’s early years at home, at school, and at Oxford. It is full of his thoughts on a variety of subjects, anecdotes of family life, and contains a cursory account of his love affairs, enthusiasm for movies, and the like. For an autobiography it leaves out much, and that is why Jeremy Treglown’s new book is so valuable. Romancing is an unauthorized biography (although Treglown recounts he was originally to write an authorized one), which examines the life and career of Henry Vincent Yorke, who was born into a noble family and spent his life working in various family firms, and who also engaged in writing, under the pseudonym of Henry Green, nine highly experimental novels, so original that according to Treglown they place him in the ranks of other such modernist authors as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Henry Vincent Yorke was born on October 29, 1905, at the family home Forthampton Court, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, during the heyday of Edwardian opulence and security before both were destroyed by World War I. His father, Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, was a landowner and rich businessman. His brother, Henry’s uncle, was a general. A distant ancestor, Isabelle de Charrière, wrote satires of upper-class life under the disguises of pseudonymous narrators and letter writers, especially in The Portrait of Zélide, which are reminiscent of Henry’s commentary on his society. Henry’s mother, Maud Wyndham Yorke, came from an ancient family of note that had been prominent since the Middle Ages. Her father was Baron Leconfield, one of the richest members of the British aristocracy and owner of Petworth in Sussex, one of the most magnificent houses in England, which during his childhood became Henry’s second home.
As any rich and well-connected young man of his times, Henry was first schooled locally and then in 1912 passed on to New Beacon, a prep school in Sevenoakes, Kent, where his brother Philip, who died in 1917, had preceded him and was a star pupil. Among his classmates was Anthony Powell, later himself a noted novelist, who wrote of his friendship with Henry in his multivolumed autobiography. As the war was stumbling to a close, Henry went to Eton, where he was surrounded by relatives, including his other brother Gerald, and by the sons of the rich and great who would later play prominent roles in running Britain and what was left of the empire. At Eton Henry dabbled in the arts, rejected formal religion, and halfheartedly rebelled against his family’s traditions. At the beginning of 1924, his last year at school, Henry began writing the novel that would eventually be published as Blindness. Becoming a writer, Treglown notes, was one of Henry’s fantasies.
Henry spent the summer after he left Eton in Paris and later Avignon to polish his French. In the autumn he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, at first to study Classical Mods (Greek and Latin classics). Then he switched to the relatively new subject, for Oxford, of English language and literature, where he studied under the newly arrived Ulsterman C. S. Lewis, who was a fellow in English. Academics was never one of Henry’s strong suits, and he initially began his studies for a Pass rather than an Honors degree. However, his real interests while at university, according to Treglown, were cinema, billiards, his novel, and his society of friends, many of whom had preceded him to various Oxford colleges from Eton: Robert Byron at Merton, Anthony Powell at Balliol, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, and Bryan Guinness at Christ Church. Henry’s college experience became one of friendships rather than scholarship.
On May 30, 1925, he completed his novel, and Blindness was published the next year by the London firm of J. M. Dent. Henry became an author at twenty, and his father had to sign his contract since he was still not of legal age. The reviews were few but respectful and the young Oxford undergraduate was taken up by the cultural maven Lady Ottoline...
(The entire section is 1940 words.)