Writing is all just words, isn’t it? After all, differences in language notwithstanding, each writer uses essentially the same building blocks. Well, there’s nothing like reading a book where an author writes about a relatively unremarkable situation in an apparently ordinary way – yet still produces something utterly distinctive – to demonstrate that there’s so much more at play than only words. Henry Green’s Loving concerns the lives of the servants and masters of an Irish country house during World War Two, is told largely through dialogue – on the surface, nothing too unusual; but the way Green approaches his material turns it into something more.
Reading the dialogue of Green’s characters is rather like eavesdropping on them: sometimes we join them ‘in the middle’ of a discussion, and there’s often a sense of details remaining unsaid, as of course happens in real conversation. Come to that, there’s a naturalistic feel in general to the structures and rhythms of Green’s dialogue; that, and other techniques such as shifting between separate conversations without a scene-break, encourage a slow, concentrated approach to reading, which suits a book that reveals its details gradually and obliquely.
What emerges within the pages of Loving is a portrait ofKinaltyCastle as a building of contested space: the different servants have their own areas, and for one to enter another’s domain has political meaning. Charley Raunce, the head footman, seizes the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy when the old butler dies; but his wish for one of the maids (rather than his own pantry boy) to bring his tea in the morning becomes a bone of contention because of the shift in power it would represent. Even the manner in which one addresses another is important for the relationship it indicates; Agatha Burch, the head housemaid, tells Raunce: ‘you’ll never get a Mr out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.’
Loving begins with ‘Once upon a day…’ and ends with ‘…happily ever after’, though it’s clear enough that conventional fairytale happiness will not be easy for the characters to achieve. Yet there is something of the fantastical edifice about Kinalty: its inhabitants are so isolated from the war and the outside that the castle effectively becomes a threshold between worlds; the vivid imagery Green often uses to describe Kinalty only adds to the atmosphere of intrigue.
Then, as the novel’s title suggests, there is love. From the complex dance of attraction between Raunce and the maid Edith, to Violet Tennant’s (daughter-in-law of the household) dealing with the absence of her soldier husband Jack – and beyond – love manifests itself in various ways as part of the novel’s web. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel quite like Loving before, and would certainly be intrigued to read Green again.
Thanks to Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog for hosting Henry Green Week, which was what led me to read this book.