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.
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.
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.
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."