Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2023

Doting (1952), by Henry Green

NothingDoting, by British author Henry Green (1905-1973) is another of his comedy of manners novels, but because it’s written almost entirely in dialogue between a tangled cast of characters, it takes reading between the lines to work out what Green was ‘on about’ in this, his last novel.  It was first published in 1952, two decades before he died.  Wikipedia tells me that…

In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive.

Despite its sparkling wit, perhaps this last novel is a hint of the depression that may have beset him in the last years of his life.

While it’s not true to say I made heavy weather of Doting, I found myself increasingly puzzled by it. The dialogue often seems inconclusive.  Characters talk past each other, sentences aren’t finished, and there are cultural allusions that are, for an Australian reader in the C21st century, just out of sight. The characters know what the other is thinking, but we don’t.  Or not quite.

So the novel seems lightweight, as the blurb at Goodreads implies:

Written almost completely in dialogue, Henry Green’s final novel is a biting comedy of manners that exposes the deceptive difference between those who love and those who “dote.” Arthur Middleton is a middle-aged member of the upper-middle class living in post-World War II London with his wife. Stuck in a passionless marriage, Arthur becomes infatuated with Annabel, a much younger woman. Their relationship sets into motion a series of intertwining affairs between five close friends less concerned with love than with their attempts to keep the other lovers apart.

The introduction in my edition by literary critic D J Taylor has little to say about it so perhaps he was puzzled too.

It was not until I came to an exchange between the young flirt Annabel and her older admirer, the widower Charles Addinsell, that I joined the dots…

Annabel is flirting with a purpose.  She’s looking for a husband because she comes of the class where it’s expected that she marry, and marry well.  Charles tells her that he’s not up for marriage because he lost his wife Penelope in childbirth:

‘Then why not marry a second time?’ Ann asked in a bewildered voice.  ‘Another mother for your child.’

‘Might die again,’ the man replied, with obvious distaste.

‘Oh no!’ she cried.

‘Not much use for poor little Joe if she did, after all?’

‘I suppose not, Charles.  Yet there’s no reason she should, is there?’

‘Oh none,’he appeared to agree.  ‘Still, that’s all a part of what life has in store for one.’ (p.262)

[Notice the way Green universalises Charles.  It’s ‘the man’ who replies; it’s what life has in store for ‘one’.]

He goes on to say that what he has against ‘living’, is the dirty tricks fate has in store. 

…No good blinking facts.  Do better to realise, they probably will be coming for you.  I couldn’t stand a second kick in the pants of the kind.’

‘But if you’ve already had one really terrible misfortune, aren’t the chances against another, Charles? [LH: see how this sentence drifts off without an ending?]

‘Same as with roulette,’ he answered. ‘When you’re at the tables, identical numbers will keep cropping up!’ (p.263)

In a novel which skewers the generation gap, this exchange reveals the gulf between them.  This is the difference between loving, and doting. As Arthur Middleton explains to Ann:

Love must include adoration of course, but if you just dote on a girl you don’t necessarily go so far as to love her. Loving goes deeper. (p.203)

Arthur Middleton and his wife love each other, enough to withstand their respective infatuations and indiscretions.  But Charles, through loss, has learned that loving can be painful and that doting is perhaps wiser. Ann, with all her life before her in a world that seems full of possibility, remains hopeful and idealistic despite her scatty behaviour.

Having read about Henry Green’s war in his novel Caught (1943) and in Lara Feigel’s The Love-Charms of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War  (2013), I recognised further nuance in this exchange in which Ann protests that he surely isn’t warning women not to love their own children…

…’would you really warn a woman against looking forward to her own children?’

‘They can always die, too.’

‘In a bomb explosion, you mean?’

‘Not necessarily,’ he said.

‘Oh but fifty years ago they died like flies, quite naturally!’ Ann exploded.  ‘Doctors have changed all that! I don’t suppose any number of bombs nowadays could kill the millions of people that used to go just from disease.’ (p.265)

Green’s readers in 1952 would have been alert to the resonances of these words.  They had fresh memories of the Blitz and everyone was suffering the loss of loved ones in the war — fathers and mothers; brothers and sisters; husbands, wives and lovers; sons and daughters; friends, neighbours and colleagues. As Lara Feigel shows, no one escaped bereavement, and though Ann is blissfully unaware of the irony, the prospect of sudden death from ‘any number of bombs’ is certainly not over.  The American use of weapons of mass destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing nuclear arms race meant that there was the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation.  (And there still is, though the cheerleaders for war seem oblivious to that.)

PS Apropos of the light-hearted way Annabel flirts with assorted men, Green tackles an issue that apparently some men still don’t understand:

…she let him kiss her, freely.

He got quite out of breath in the end.

‘Oh, let’s go next door!’ the man murmured, at last.

‘No, Arthur,’ she said, in a different voice.

‘D’yyou mean that?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ Miss Paynton answered, and slewed her mouth away from his.

‘How can one tell when girls mean no?’ he whispered, kissing the lobe of an ear.

By believing them, dearest, she told the man.  He seemed to credit this, for, after a moment, he drew away and began to fiddle with his tie. (p.283, underlining mine.)

Introduced to Henry Green by Henry Green Week at Winston’s Dad, I’ve read Nothing (1950);  Loving (1945); and Caught (1943). (Links go to my reviews).  The other title in this compilation still to read is Blindness. 

Author: Henry Green
Title: Nothing, Doting, Blindness
Introduction by D J Taylor
Publisher: Vintage Classics 2008, first published 1950
ISBN: 9780099481485
Source: Personal library, purchased from the London Review Bookshop.


  1. I read Loving, Living, Party Going in a 3-volume set years ago, and remember how strange they were. The language is deceptively simple, but meaning is elusive- just like life. Must go back to him – your post reminded me of his unique tone.


    • You’re right, it is just like life…


  2. I’ve yet to get going with Green, though I do have an omnibus of a few his books. He sounds- intriguing…


    • I’ll be interested to see if you like him. He intrigues me, but he’s difficult in his own inimitable way because he’s so indirect.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have read BACK and LOVING. How do the Greens rank in your opinion?


    • I like him. I think he is a close observer of human frailty, but there’s always something of the Big Picture in his work as well, though you have to be on the alert for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know this author at all and his style does sound quite puzzling. You’ve encouraged me to give him a try though Lisa!


    • Well, it’s thanks to Stu that I’ve read him, because I’d never heard of him either until he hosted Henry Green Week.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve not read Green but I’m aware of him mainly through Stu’s blog championing his work. Is there a good one to start with, do you think?


    • For me, it would be a tossup between Loving and Caught.


      • Thanks. I see Loving is in Boxall’s 1001 Books … along with three others!


        • Indeed they are. But Caught is interesting because it’s based on his wartime experience as a firewatcher… and I find novels that were actually written during the war, when no one knew how it would turn out, fascinating.


  6. Thanks, Lisa. I was aware of Green, from my reading of others of the era, such as Waugh, Greene (the other one), Orwell, and so on.
    Re: “The light-hearted way Annabel flirts with assorted men, Green tackles an issue that apparently some men still don’t understand, …”, I suspect that cuts both ways.

    He let her kiss him, freely.
    She got quite out of breath in the end.
    ‘Oh, let’s go next door!’ the woman murmured, at last.
    ‘No, Alice,’ he said, in a different voice.
    ‘D’yyou mean that?’
    ‘I’m afraid so,’ Mr Paynton answered, and slewed his mouth away from hers.
    ‘How can one tell when men mean no?’ she whispered, kissing the lobe of an ear.
    ‘By believing them, dearest, he told the woman. She seemed to credit this, for, after a moment, she drew away and began to fiddle with her necklace.


    • *chuckle*
      I suspect that a lot of problems would never arise if people stayed sober and both treated each other with respect…


      • Of course, Lisa, you are right. Respect and consent are crucial.
        But there ought to be kissing, at least, sometimes, with respect and consent.
        In the old days (that I knew as a young man, late 1960s), one or other (man or woman) would simply attempt to kiss, and see what happened. Kiss (or whatever) accepted or rejected. This is what happens in “Doting”, and the key thing is that although the kissing is OK, anything else is rejected, and accepted, with understandable questions.
        I wrote a short story for modern times where the boy asks if he may hold a girl’s hand. Her reply is that he may, on condition that he kiss her, as well. (The story explains they have known each other for a long time as friends, so holding hands is just a first step to expressing or offering indications of deeper feelings for the other person. Not just a casual escalation towards an otherwise meaningless one-night-stand, or, in the current jargon, a hook-up. What the hook is, and how it hooks up is never explained.)
        e.e. cummings wrote a cute poem about this mid-Twentieth century:
        Lots of problems with negotiated personal relationships, always confusable with flirting, which is always confusable.


        • I am (seriously) very glad that I am not now not needing to negotiate (and not needing to educate The Offspring about) what’s ok and what’s not, now. It is a minefield where any kind of advice, or even expression of opinion, is fraught…


  7. Reading the final exchange in your post resonated even more strongly after just hearing about the results from the lastest National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey(NCAS) that shows how little attitudes about the nature of domestic violence have changed. In fact, some have gone backwards in four years. Depressing really.


    • Last week a friend of mine was telling me about a train journey to the CBD for the IWD march where a group of young tradies (all in high vis) were making very loud, very derogatory and hostile remarks about women for the edification of the other passengers. And really, you do wonder how people get to be like that…


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