Back in 2012 when Stu from Winston’s Dad decided to hold a Henry Green week I had never heard of this author and I was cross with myself for being too busy to join in. But I didn’t forget Green’s name, and when The Folio Society offered me a copy of Loving for review, I didn’t hesitate.
(And before I write a word of the review, I must comment on the pleasure of reading this book in the Folio edition. (The last time I enjoyed a similar reading experience was when my son gave me Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters, which I will always associate with the texture of the embossed letters on the dust-jacket under my fingers as I held it, and with the lovely papers and elegant type in the Pan Macmillan 1996 edition). We get so used to reading mass-produced paperbacks on cheap paper that we forget the sensual delight of turning expensive pages of wood-free and acid-free paper, in a book that is cloth bound properly with sewn bindings. And because the typography in the Folio edition is generous the book is so easy to read - not like those tightly squeezed, slightly blurry fonts which are sadly becoming a feature of reprints in particular. I know, I know, publishers do what they must to remain competitive and Folio editions are not cheap, but reading beautiful books should not just be for collectors, it’s a luxury we should all have every now and again if we can afford it. If you are interested, you can read more about how these beautiful books are constructed here, and while you are at it, have a look at the gorgeous quirky illustrations by Christopher Corr in Loving here.)
My only quibble with the Folio Society is that now I want to read all of Henry Green’s books in Folio editions, one each year for my Christmas present for the next ten years - but they only produce this one title by this author!
Anyway, back to Loving. Wikipedia tells me that Time magazine included Loving in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, and it is easy to see why: this gentle satire of life upstairs and downstairs is rich with meaning and very entertaining to read.
The story takes place in one of those Big Irish Houses so often depicted in William Trevor’s fiction. Loving was first published in 1945 during the war and one of the most interesting motifs is the way Green quietly contrasts the petty wartime discomforts of this all British household in neutral Ireland with mild allusions to the Blitz. Mrs Tennant complains to her butler about not being able to get writing paper to colour-coordinate in the Gold Bedroom, but Young Albert, evacuee nephew of the cook, is painfully thin when he arrives from London. Mrs Welch, vaguely wondering whether she should leave the safety of Kinalty Castle and go home and ‘do her bit’, tells Miss Burch
They’re starving over there my sister says in her letter she sent. If it wasn’t for that I’d go tomorrer, I would straight. He’s that thin. (p. 43)
Most of the house is closed up, but authorities are calling for blood donations, and Albert the apprentice footman steals peacock eggs to send to his mother in London. (Rationing limited eggs to one per household, and that was still in place when my sister was born in the late 1940s.) And when there are dark hints that the Germans might invade Ireland, Paddy the lampman sniggers at the pitiful weapons that the Home Guard has:
…Paddy started to mouth something. It was so seldom he spoke at meals that all listened.
‘What’s he say?’ Raunce asked when the lampman was done.
‘He reckons the IRA would see to the Jerries,’ Kate translated.
‘Holy smoke but he’ll be getting me annoyed in a minute. First he says there aren’t none then ‘e pretends they can sort out a panzer division. What with? Bows and arrows?
Paddy muttered a bit.
‘He says,’ and Kate gave a laugh, ‘they got more’n pikes like those Home Guard over at home.’ (p. 90)
Foreshadowing the end of country house life in this era, Green shows us that Mrs Tennant’s biggest problem is maintaining her staff. Subtly contrasting the British servants’ fear of a German invasion of Ireland with European loyalty in the face of much closer danger, Green sends Mrs T’s French maid home at the start of the war. But it’s just one sentence, one the reader might easily miss if not paying careful attention. It takes a while to tot up the number of staff Mrs T still has too: I tallied a nanny, a cook, three housemaids, two scullery maids, a gardener, a footman-butler, and his apprentice learning how to clean the silver. Only the lampman (who also looks after the 200-odd peacocks!) is Irish, because neither Mrs T nor her staff will have anyone Irish in the house, ostensibly because they might be IRA but really because of prejudice, as we can tell from insulting allusions to the Irish accent.
The story begins with the death of Old Mr Eldon the butler, which is an ‘inconvenience’ upstairs: Mr Jack Tennant has joined his regiment (though he seems to be in danger) and so Mrs T, his mother, and Mrs Jack, his wife Violet, must manage the transition themselves. The exigencies of ‘the servant problem’ mean that his successor must come from within the existing staff, and Charley Raunce is ambitious. He’s a man with his eye on the main chance and he wangles his way in as a most unsuitable replacement - because he’s sly, dishonest, and an opportunistic womaniser who can’t be trusted with the young housemaids.
But there is no replacement footman to take Charley’s place, so he must do both jobs, and there’s no increase in salary either. Why is it worth it to him?
For a number of reasons, not least the improvement in his status both above and below stairs. He gets his name back for a start. With breathtaking indifference to the people who serve her, Mrs T has always called her footmen Arthur to save herself the trouble of having to remember their names. Charley by his elevation to butler is re-humanised as Mr Raunce, and while there is a bit of a tussle over it with Miss Burch downstairs, the rest of the servants have to call him Mr Raunce now too.
Green shows us the significance of these petty status indicators in a superb set piece in the servants hall at dinner. Charley has wasted no time in securing his promotion and so old Mr Eldon’s chair at the head of the table is barely cold when Charley appropriates it. Miss Burch, however, has laid his place as usual down the table next to her. So he rises from his seat, collects cutlery from the drawer and sits down again. There is a pregnant silence as they all wait for the food to be brought in, because that’s the footman’s job and Charley is determined to relinquish this role even though upstairs he still holds both positions. Miss Burch makes acerbic remarks, but Charley triumphs … and goes on to make a complete mess of carving the roast.
Equally important to Charley is his appropriation of Mr Eldon’s notebooks, which scrupulously record personal details about guests who tip generously so that he can ingratiate himself with them, (handicapped by his risible ignorance about crucial matters such as the seasons for hunting.) Mr Eldon’s notes also explain other means by which an enterprising butler can enhance his salary…
Minor domestic intrigues such as a missing ring and a ‘waterglass’ that’s been tampered with offer further opportunities for Green to comment on the trivial preoccupations of this household, but it’s the ‘loving’ that’s the most fun. A long-standing female friendship is tested when both girls fancy Charley’s favours, and there’s an indiscretion upstairs that scandalises the younger staff.
This is a very clever book, only 200 pages long but it repays re-reading to catch the subtleties.
BTW: If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know how cross I get about introductions with spoilers. Trust me, it is safe to read Lorin Stein’s introduction: she offers an idea of recurring themes and style, and some author background, but she doesn’t ruin the story.
Author: Henry Green
Publisher: The Folio Society, 2013
ISBN: it doesn’t have one, and it doesn’t have a barcode to spoil the back cover either.
Source: Review copy courtesy of The Folio Society
This edition is only available direct from the Folio Society.
Penguin publish Loving (with a truly awful cover, what on earth were they thinking??) as a trilogy from Fishpond Loving; Living; Party Going - but speaking for myself I’d rather have an old 1950s hardback from a second-hand bookshop.