Henry Green Green, Henry (Vol. 97) - Essay

Henry Vincent Yorke


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Henry Green 1905–1973

(Born Henry Vincent Yorke) English novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Green's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 13.

Yorke adopted the pseudonym Henry Green for all of his literary productions in order to conceal his identity as a wealthy industrialist, and during his lifetime he scrupulously avoided involvement in literary circles. Possessing a distinctive writing style marked by dropped articles, sentences without verbs, and highly idiomatic diction in both narrative and dialgue, Green eschewed long passages of description in favor of extensive dialogue among his characters. His novels, usually titled with such participles or gerunds as Living (1929), Loving (1945), and Concluding (1948), focus on the everyday lives of a range of characters. Fellow writer John Updike declared Green "one of the most piquant and original English writers not only of his generation but of the century." Despite warm recognition of his talent by other esteemed writers, Green's works are relatively unknown to the general reading public.

Biographical Information

Born October 29, 1905, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England, Green was the third son of Maud Evelyn Wyndham Yorke, daughter of the second Lord Leconfield, and Vincent Wodehouse, descendent of the first Earl of Hardwicke and managing director of H. Pontifex and Sons, an engineering firm. In 1918 he attended Eton, where he met young writers Harold Acton, George Orwell, and Cyril Connolly. While there, Green began writing his first novel, Blindness (1926), which he later finished at Magdalen College, Oxford. Green left Oxford in 1927 to work at his family's foundry in Birmingham until 1929, when he published his next novel, Living. He entered into management of Pontifex following his marriage in 1929 to Adelaide Mary "Dig" Bidulph, daughter of a peer. After publishing Party Going (1939), Green left Pontifex to join the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Nazi blitz on England. His wartime experiences rejuvenated his literary talents: between 1940 and 1946 Green wrote Pack My Bag (1940), a partial autobiography; the novels Caught (1943), Loving, and Back (1946); and several short stories. Upon returning to his prewar life, Green wrote the novel Concluding (1948); in 1950 he delivered a BBC broadcast of the essay "A Novelist to His Readers," a full statement of his theory of fiction. Thereafter, Green's literary production dwindled to two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), and occasional contributions to periodicals. He died December 15, 1973, in London.

Major Works

Green drew on his life experiences to create his fictional worlds. For instance, Blindness, written during the novelist's "aesthete" period, describes the accidental blinding of a young student at a private school who rises to the challenge of sightlessness, and Living portrays the everyday life of a foundry worker and his household in Birmingham. Both novels indicate Green's skill for rendering the precise diction of a wide variety of characters through dialogue, a technique he further developed in subsequent novels. Party Going, which concerns a group of rich, ennui-plagued young people delayed by fog in a crowded train station, analyzes snobbism and celebrity-driven society. Caught recounts a unique relationship between a professional fireman and a wealthy volunteer fireman, Richard Roe, who serve together during the London Blitz, and Back, which expands a single scene from Caught, treats the effects of war on memory. Loving considered Green's masterpiece by many, depicts the activities of several servants during wartime at an Irish country manor, while Concluding is a dystopian novel set in a public school committed to molding young females into competent state servants. Nothing and Doting, both restricted wholly to dialogue, relate the struggles of parents and their children. The posthumous collection Surviving features Green's short stories, essays, and miscellaneous prose pieces.

Critical Reception

Often likened to such modern masters of the novel as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, Green has generated a modest amount of criticism by comparison. His novels, however, received high commendation from such prominent writers as Updike, W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, Eudora Welty, and V. S. Pritchett. Pritchett called Green "an assured artist, a spirit of uncommon intensity and uncommon imagination." Many early critics treated Green as a unique stylist; Philip Toynbee considered him "the most self-conscious of modern English novelists, the most mannered, the least digestible … [but] among the most natural of our novelists and conceivably the most important of them." Others cited Green's gift for language, particularly the way his dialogue captures the idiosyncratic speech patterns of diverse characters. Welty admired not merely the mimetic quality of Green's dialogue, but his knack of "turning what people say into the fantasy of what they are telling each other." More recently, such critics as Barbara Brothers and Susan L. Carlson analyzed Green's novels in the context of psychoanalytic and reader response criticism, while Andrew Gibson examined his works in terms of Green's experiments with conventions of the novel form. Most scholars remain intrigued by his self-fashioned literary anonymity as well as his literary silence during the last two decades of his life. Jeremy Treglown remarked on Green's achievement: "His strange, various, sad, lyrical, and comic novels opened up English prose like nobody else's. Most of them were new departures, both for the novelist and for fiction itself."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blindness (novel) 1926
Living (novel) 1929
Party Going (novel) 1939
Pack My Bag (autobiography) 1940
Caught (novel) 1943
Loving (novel) 1945
Back (novel) 1946
Concluding (novel) 1948
Nothing (novel) 1950
Doting (novel) 1952
Surviving: The Uncollected Works of Henry Green (short stories, essays, juvenilia, prose) 1992

Philip Toynbee (essay date May 1949)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novels of Henry Green," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVI, No. 5, May, 1949, pp. 487-97.

[Toynbee was an English novelist, journalist, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the "linguistic oddities" of Green's novels, finding them distracting but effective.]

A Golden Age in literature might be defined as a period in which there was no necessary struggle between a writer and his medium. In the first half of the seventeenth century English writers could say what they wanted to say in a language which was naturally both apt and beautiful. It is equally true that English politicians spoke with a natural eloquence which should be distressing to their modern counterparts. Whatever may be said about the English language in our own time, it is bitterly clear that it no longer offers itself as a willing bride but cowers coyly and unalluringly behind an armory of chastity belts. Jean Paulhan discovers the same intractability in modern French, and he has invented a useful term to describe one method of approaching the recalcitrant and unappetizing victim of our passion. The Terrorists are those writers who confront their language as a wrestler confronts his adversary, knowing that they must twist it and turn it, squeeze it into strange shapes and make it cry aloud, before they can finally bring it to the boards. An opposite view is provided by the few surviving dandies among us, and was perhaps most eloquently expressed by Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith. To them the present English vocabulary is like a box of delicious sweetmeats, which may be culled one by one in delicate fingers and exquisitely melted on the tongue. Yet another, and perhaps the predominant view among modern novelists, is that the language of contemporary speech must be directly transcribed into literature, since any deliberate avoidance or transmutation of it will lead inevitably to something either dead or at best unnatural. Finally there remain among us a tiny band of archaists who are so shocked by the present condition of their language that they prefer to ransack the past for words and word formations which seem to them more vivid and more accurate.

During the last fifteen years a majority of our respected novelists have belonged to the third of these categories.

He had only, he told himself, to find a girl; there must be hundreds waiting to be picked up on a Whitsun holiday, to be given a drink and taken to dance at Sherry's and presently home, drunk and affectionate, in the corridor carriage. That was the best way, to carry a witness round with him. It would be no good, even if his pride had allowed him, to go to the station now. They would be watching it for certain, and it was always easy to kill a lonely man on a railway station…. [Graham Greene, Brighton Rock]

Mrs. Barton Trafford had a grand time, but she did not get above herself. It was useless indeed to ask him to a party without her; he refused. And when she and Barton and Driffield were invited to a party together they came together and went together. She never let him out of her sight. Hostesses might rave; they could take it or leave it. Usually they took it. [Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale]

If Brenda had to go to London for a day's shopping, hair-cutting or bone-setting (a recreation she particularly enjoyed) she went on Wednesday because the tickets on that day were half the usual price. She left at eight in the morning and got home soon after ten at night. She traveled third class and the carriages were often full, because other wives on the line took advantage of the cheap fare. [Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust]

His hysterical fury infected me suddenly. Stopping back I flung the door to with a violent slam, hoping to catch his thrust-forward, screaming face on the point of the jaw. But there was no impact. His voice stopped like a gramophone from which the needle is lifted. Nor did he utter another sound. As I stood there, behind the closed door, my heart pounding with anger, I heard his light footsteps cross the landing and begin to descend the stairs. [Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Morris Changes Trains]

These four quotations are taken (as nearly at random as any critic ever takes a quotation) from four extremely well-known novels written by four of the most respected novelists of our time. Now it is obviously possible to make a distinction between these voices; they are about as distinct as the different voices of real people in a conversation. The first quotation is fluent and easy and direct; the second is ironic; the third is flat and rather tired, and the fourth is quick, violent and vivid. No one of them has been chosen for any obvious fault in the writing, and by our usual standards there is nothing particularly wrong with any of them. They seem to do their different jobs well enough; they carry the reader along without either offending or surprising or boring him. Yet, distinguishable though they may be, how intimately they share a lack of all distinction in the secondary and nobler sense of the word. They are the work of journeymen, smooth, yarning voices, telling a good story over the port.

There is no cause to write any further here about the two small categories of the Dandies and the Archaists. They have played a negligible role in the modern English and American novel. The real linguistic war is being fought between novelists of the kind I have quoted—whom we might not unfairly call the Men in the Street—and the smaller but formidable band of Terrorists. The Terrorists are, by their nature, a diverse and unwieldy category. All they have in common is that they have made a conscious assault on their linguistic medium. Some have been defeated by it, and their bloody corpses lie strewn by the roadside, derided and desecrated by antiterrorist critics and novelists. Undoubtedly an appalling risk is taken, for the defeat of a Terrorist is a gross and humiliating defeat. He can be justly accused of affectation, of pretentiousness and of exhibitionism, and several modern novelists have shied so desperately away from the pedestrianism of their contemporaries that they have tumbled headlong into all these vices. But the Arch-terrorist stands now like a monolith in the waste of contemporary prose, and we can clearly make out the uncoordinated but by no means disreputable platoon which is scattered in his wake. Such diverse writers as Thomas Wolfe and Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller and Henry Green, may be grouped in this context under the banner of James Joyce.

The intention of this preamble is to prepare American readers of Henry Green for the shock which they are almost bound to feel at their first approach to him. He is the most self-conscious of modern English novelists, the most mannered, the least digestible. I believe that he is also—and I shall try to dissolve any paradox which may seem to be involved here—among the most natural of our novelists and conceivably the most important of them.

The linguistic oddities of Henry Green are not by any means his most important contribution to the novel, but to many readers they have proved the most important stumbling block to Henry Green. What is required from a new reader is, at first, no more than indulgence, and indulgence can perhaps be induced by occasional reperusal of the passages I have quoted above. Rather than write like this he has chosen to take risks with his medium. To put it more fairly, and with more dignity, I would say that Green has never doubted that his vision was a new one and that it needed a new kind of exposition. In his best books I believe that he has perfectly adjusted his medium to his vision, and that the result has been three or four of the most satisfactory English novels of our time. In his less successful books the language is often strained in a way which seems arbitrary. But Green has never written a book with the sole and deplorable purpose of exhibiting linguistic oddities. A sympathetic reading even of his worst novel reveals that his motive in writing it was that he had seen something and that he wished others to see it too. In this case he has failed to make his vision clear, but the reality and the freshness of his vision cannot be doubted.

Bridesly. Birmingham.

Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.

"What we want is go, push," said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret. "What I say to them is—let's get on with it, let's get the stuff out."

Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners.

This is the opening passage of Green's very early novel, Living. It is an intelligent and perceptive study of working class life, well documented (in private life Mr. Green is a Birmingham manufacturer), startlingly free of any preconceptions. It is at least arguable that in this book Mr. Green (an old Etonian as well as a capitalist) has written about the proletariat with more insight than has any contemporary writer of proletarian origin. There is no compassion in his vision, no indignation and certainly nothing patronizing. As in all this writer's novels, the characters appear at first to be moving in an odd and unfamiliar way; their motives and their conduct seem to be just out of focus, just to one side of center. They are not predictable, in the sense that they do not conform in their actions to the behavior of the fictional characters we know. Nor would it be true to say that this failure of conformity is due simply to the fact that the characters do conform, but that their conformity is to "life" rather than to fiction. Or at least this is only true in a highly complicated sense. At some point in this book a reader may find that the characters and the actions are suddenly in focus; that they have found their center. And in the same moment he will understand that it is not the characters and the actions which have shifted, but the focus and the center. In other words what has happened is that Green has succeeded in imposing his peculiar vision on his reader. We are seeing people from a position which we have never adopted before, and, by doing so, our stereoscopic vision has been startlingly clarified. So long as we are able to preserve Green's vision, superimposed on whatever our own one may have been, however simple or however complex it was, then our total apprehension of life has been immeasurably enriched.

Yet it remains none the less true that the beginning of the book is not inviting. We feel at once that an effect is being striven for, and, by the inevitable action of readers' resistance, we determine that the effect shall not be achieved. The assault has been too sudden. Even the great Terrorist himself began Ulysses in a prose which was familiar to his readers, and exercised considerable discretion in escorting them by devious paths to the guillotine. And in this case the eccentricities seem somehow trivial. This omission of the definite article irritates us by its self-consciousness, and seems to contribute nothing to the perfectly ordinary statements which are being made. Nor are we likely to be reassured as we read further. "Mr. Bridges went...

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Eudora Welty (essay date Autumn 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Green: A Novelist of Imagination," in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 3, Autumn, 1961, pp. 246-56.

[Welty was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist who is known for such works as The Kobben Bridegroom (1942) and The Golden Apples (1949). In the following laudatory essay, he analyzes the main components of Green's novelistic style, highlighting such elements as characterization, plot situations, and diction.]

Through the novels of Henry Green from Living on, a strong originality has poured in a stream at once pure and changing. Other good novelists in England who were brought up at the same time and in the same mold...

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James Hall (essay date 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paradoxes of Pleasure-and-Pain: Henry Green," in The Tragic Comedians: Seven Modern British Novelists, Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 66-81.

[In the following essay, Hall explores the role of what he calls "play-and-pain" in Green's novels, focusing especially on Loving and Concluding.]

Henry Green published his first novel, Blindness, two years before Waugh's Decline and Fall. But, while Waugh was succeeding quickly, Green was working slowly toward the most important innovations in the comic novel since Joyce.

Most readers of Green like him for extraordinarily funny scenes like Edie's telling Kate she has found the...

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James Lees-Milne (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Yorke and Henry Green," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 387-92.

[Lees-Milne was an English novelist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer. In the following essay, he reminisces about his initial reactions to Green's novels.]

I got to know Henry Yorke in the early 1930s. Henry Green I never knew at all. Henry Yorke then lived with his beautiful and gentle wife, Dig, in a house in Rutland Gate. We had mutual friends, one of whom, Robert Byron, introduced me to them. Henry had been brought up in Worcestershire in a large, rambling, romantic, slightly spooky house which had been in the Yorke possession for two centuries....

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Barbara Brothers (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blindness: The Eye of Henry Green," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 403-21.

[In the following essay on Blindness, Brothers examines the themes of the work, concluding that the novel "is a dramatization of the individual's poignant, failed quest for meaning and understanding."]

Henry Green's first novel, Blindness, begun while he was a student at Eton and published at twenty-one while he was still a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, relates the story of a young man of seventeen, John Haye, who aspires to be a writer. On his way home from school John is blinded, his eyes pierced by glass from a window...

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Carey Wall (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Green's Enchantments: Passage and the Renewal of Life," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 430-46.

[In the following essay, Wall traces the development of the themes of passage and renewal in Green's novels, stating "Green's fiction locates a neglected area of adult experience in which we continue the kind of living we did as children, in which not ideas but symbols move us."]

Despite Henry Green's originality, he is a traditional writer. His tradition is the romance. That this has not been recognized is perhaps due to the low repute of the romance in the mainstreams of twentieth-century literary criticism. Its mode of...

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John Russell (essay date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Limbo States: The Short Stories of Henry Green," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 447-54.

[In the essay below, Russell assesses the short stories "A Rescue," "Mr. Jonas," and "The Lull" in terms of their evocation of a "limbo-like" state.]

The first two stories of the Blitz that Henry Green published, early in 1941, are about a rescue job he had to undertake and a more confusing rescue—lacking the other's ordonnance, queerly observed as though lighted up from the side—of which he was a witness. Because the storyteller in "A Rescue" is directly imperiled, its narrative has focus, "grip" as it were, of a lyric kind; whereas...

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Andrew Gibson (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Green as Experimental Novelist," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 197-214.

[In the following essay, Gibson examines Green's experiments with traditional conventions of the novel form in his fiction, comparing his novels to those of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka.]

The originality of Henry Green's experimental fiction has seldom been given its due. He has been deemed a modernist with little understanding of what his "modernism" actually involves, or what makes it peculiar to him. Critics like Stokes, Russell, and Tindall have called him (among other things) a "poetic" or a "symbolist" novelist. But terms like these...

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Monroe Engel (essay date Autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Green: Eros and Persistence," in Antaeus, No. 63, Autumn, 1989, pp. 97-109.

[Below, Engel relates the theme of love and "a hope for transformation" in Green's novels to questions of class and gender. He also speculates on why Green stopped writing.]

The case of a writer of great accomplishment who ceases to practice his calling while still apparently in full possession of his creative powers is tantalizing. E. M. Forster, for example, lived nearly half a century after the publication of Passage to India in 1924 without producing another novel. There are ways to think about Forster's career however that can mitigate regret. It seems entirely...

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Peter Parker (review date 7 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Ear for Anonymity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4636, February 7, 1992, pp. 17-18.

[In the following favorable review of Surviving: The Uncollected Writings, Parker claims "we need Henry Green to remind us what prose can do."]

Every so often, a Henry Green revival is announced. There is momentary excitement, his admirers cheer, and then, very quietly, the books slip out of print once more. The latest rescue package includes a uniform paperback edition of the novels, with introductions by Jeremy Treglown, an unhelpfully overpriced paperback edition of Pack My Bag, a volume of uncollected writings, and Trapped, a television...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Binding, Paul. "Always Alone." New Statesman & Society 5, No. 189 (14 February 1992): 40-1.

Reviews Surviving, noting that "the object of this book is to make us focus on one of the most distinguished bodies of work in English this century."

Brunetta, Leslie. "England's Finest Hour and Henry Green's Caught." The Sewanee Review C, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 112-23.

Discusses both the plot and the writing of Caught in the historical context of World War II London.

Carison, Susan L. "Readers Reading Green Reading...

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