Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830
In 1938, at age thirty-three, fearing that the incipient world war would bring about his death, Henry Green felt the necessity to create a written record of his life. He could not see that he had the time left to use his material in the less personal and, to him, better form of the novel. So he wrote this autobiography, which takes him from his earliest memories at home through his education, culminating in two years at the University of Oxford. The autobiography concludes with a brief description of his work in 1927 as a laborer in his family’s foundry in Birmingham. As Henry Yorke, rather than the pseudonymous Henry Green, the author subsequently became managing director of the company. This book provides no account of the period between 1927 and 1938, during which the author was rising in the family business and publishing his second novel, Living (1929). He does write about the earlier composition and publication of his first novel. Blindness was published in 1926, while Green was still an undergraduate at Oxford.
Divided into seventeen unnumbered chapters, the autobiography is most heavily devoted to Green’s years in an unnamed boarding school in Kent and to his period in preparatory school at Eton College, which he also does not name as such. A chapter detailing his life before school opens the book, and the concluding three chapters concern his two years at Oxford and his work in Birmingham. The book begins with Green admitting that he was born into money. He is living on the family estate, called Forthampton, located in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. His earliest memories seem to be primarily about servants: Poole, the gardener, who spoke against the author’s mother but could not alter his love for her; a young maid with bad breath who played vigorous physical games with him; and Lydia, the last maid who could remember his great grandmother and whose retirement cottage he often visited. In contrast, he can remember only two contacts with his grandfather.
Green’s prose in this autobiography is as impressionistic as it is in his nine novels; thus, discerning the precise facts of his life is not easy. He rarely provides dates, identifying only five actual years precisely in the whole book. So, although he says that he started boarding school at age six, he does not reveal how long he was there or at what age he entered Eton. He declines to use the names of his friends because he expects his readers (clearly he was thinking primarily of British readers coming to the book soon after its publication) to draw their emotions from the book itself and not from “associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.” In short, Green aims to provide an impression of his life and not an account of it. Nor does he draw many conclusions about its meaning or significance, especially of the kind that readers of his novels might hope to discover as clues to interpretations of the fiction.
Green’s account of his youthful and adolescent years alternates between the rigors and loneliness of school terms and the much shorter, happier holidays between them. Green rarely makes the schools sound attractive. Writing of going to boarding school for the first time, he says that “nothing can ever so estrange a nursery boy from himself.” He calls the seventy-five-student school a fascist state and writes that the boys were all “taught to see things as our headmaster did and he saw them upside down.” Although he found greater personal liberty at Eton and had a room of his own, Green still characterizes the college as “an authoritarian state.” In fact, he proclaims his belief that Germany’s system of government at that time was founded on the system of the British public schools. Not surprisingly, then, young Green looked forward to each end of term, recalling that the boys marked off the days on calendars “as prisoners notch the walls.” In contrast, the day for returning to school went unmarked and always loomed so far ahead that a boy on holiday could almost forget it was coming.
Besides his schooling and holidays, Green deals in detail with three major events in his life. One is the death of an older brother Philip, from which he says he learned that the living cry in self-pity at the menace of death. About this same time, when Green was eleven or twelve, his home had been turned into a convalescent hospital for officers. His experiences there with men from lower social classes were important as his first real journeys outside his own class. Although Green writes little about his parents, a third major learning experience presented itself when he received an erroneous report that both parents had been killed in an accident in Mexico. He writes that when the housemaster read him the telegram, he “felt absolutely nothing at all. In my life I have had no similar experience.”
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44
North, Michael. Henry Green and the Writing of His Generation, 1984.
Odom, Keith C. Henry Green, 1978.
Russell, John. Henry Green: Nine Novels and an Unpacked Bag, 1960.
Ryf, Robert. Henry Green, 1967.
Stokes, Edward. The Novels of Henry Green, 1960.
Weatherhead, Andrew Kingsley. A Reading of Henry Green, 1961.
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