Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 808

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Henry Green, despite his publishing nine novels from 1926 through 1952, is the least-known English novelist of high artistic quality of that period. He was a part-time novelist, spending most of his time in business, writing his novels seemingly as a diversion. He tended to avoid promoting himself as a writer. There is also the matter of the technical oddity of his work. In Loving, for example, he emulates some of the satirical insights of Evelyn Waugh (with whom he associated at Oxford), but in addition there is a kind of bizarre whimsy that goes beyond Waugh. Often, there is a strange lyric quality in Green’s prose that is unsettling because it seems to appear from nowhere, in a way that is reminiscent of the work of Ford Madox Ford. Green’s fiction sometimes bothers readers because it never quite settles down, in terms of its tone, into a clearly identifiable point of view. Readers are left unsure of how to respond to the work, morally and emotionally.

Green’s rather stubborn determination to record conversations in the rawest natural form adds to the confusion. It is not simply that his working-class characters use a slangy, demotic language that is full of eccentricities and unfamiliar figures of speech; the same occurs with his upper-class characters. He is determined not to compromise the veracity of regional, occupational, or class language. Most writers, even when they are re-creating the peculiarities of spoken language, tend to edit carefully in order to avoid confusing readers, but Green seems not to care if everything is clearly understood. The conversations are often made more difficult by the maddeningly furtive intimacies, offhand asides, and associations of ideas often indulged in by people who know each other well and are living in close, constant contact. Green’s characters are talking, in a sense, to themselves; they have no idea that they are in a novel and ought to make things a bit clearer for the reader.

Green, in this sense, is an innovator. He adds to this experimental style by using punctuation sparingly and by refusing to separate changes of time, place, and subject. A kind of “run-on” consciousness brings an improvisational, seemingly unliterary informality to a novel that is, in fact, a very clever, mannered performance.

Loving is probably Green’s best work, and it manifests much of his skill as a writer. What looks like an obvious tale of eccentric English behavior accumulates density not so much out of complicated plot or characterization as out of charming aimlessness. An upper-class English household, servants and all, is found in a great country house in the Republic of Ireland during World War II. The situation is ripe with the possibility for minor comedy or for tragedy, depending upon the loosely manic manner in which the household conducts itself under worries about the war, staff jealousies, love affairs, and an exaggerated fear of the Irish Republican Army, which is supposed to be lurking somewhere.

The young maids have some sense, but many of the servants take the least reasonable conclusion for granted. The infidelity of Captain Jack’s young wife, missing jewelry, a throttled peacock, and unfounded rumors surrounding the war being fought far from provincial Ireland make for madness. The book is, ultimately, a comedy—the butler runs off with one of the maids, to live, as the last line announces tersely, “happily ever after”—but what gives it aesthetic texture is the way in which Green makes a dreamworld of it. This is partly the result of Green’s ability to make characters out of caricatures. Raunce is the typically dishonest butler, but Green manages to give this sometimes cocky middle-aged man credibility in his odd love affair with Edith, in his worrying concern for his duties, in his sense of the social hierarchy of the house, in his strange, enfeebling illness, and in his paranoia. There is a fragility and tenderness in him that shows itself not only in his courtship of Edith but also in his concern for his mother, who is back in England facing the bombs.

What makes Loving more than simply a joke of modest proportion is, in the first instance, its strangely uncommitted tone, which makes it difficult for readers to decide if they are to take the work lightly or if disaster is going to strike. Second, the novel rises above modest accomplishment in the dreamlike language used in descriptions of landscape and of the house and its architectural extravagances. The descriptions makes this lonely haven from the war seem a fairy-tale world in which anything can happen. The joke is that ultimately very little does, but the enchantment is so complete that one hardly cares. The novel is masterful in its sharp but elegiac insights into a fading world of class hierarchy that will hardly survive the war.