The novels of Henry Green are among the most important in modernist literature. W. H. Auden described him as ‘the best English novelist alive’ while to V. S. Pritchett he was ‘the most gifted prose writer of his generation.’ Loving, with a place on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels, is one of his most admired works. Set in Ireland during the Second World War, it describes life above and below stairs in Kinalty Castle, an isolated ‘gothic pile’. Green surveys this cosseted world with humour and unsentimental affection. Downstairs, the servants’ boredom is relieved by shifting rivalries, alliances and desires – not to mention a missing sapphire ring, the unfortunate demise of a peacock and the discovery of an illicit affair. Meanwhile ‘upstairs’, Lady Tennant laments the burden of untrustworthy staff as her daughter-in-law Violet guards a guilty secret. All the while war rumbles in the distance, and although the inhabitants of Kinalty are relatively safe, there are rumours of a German invasion, fears for relatives in England and the sudden departure of a young servant …
Green parodies the country-house novel, gently mocking both the mansion with its gilt salmon doorknobs, and the preoccupations of its inhabitants, from the slippery butler Charley Raunce to Lady Tennant with her pampered take on suffering. But Loving is also elegiac, recording a way of life about to vanish. There are lyrical moments, sparingly and beautifully evoked. When two young maids forget their work, waltzing together through a room decked in dustsheets beneath forgotten chandeliers, they are ‘two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass’.
Christopher Corr’s vibrant paintings reflect the comedy and underlying warmth in Green’s writing. Lorin Stein, Editor of the Paris Review, has written a thoughtful introduction on Green’s life and the appeal of his best-loved work, affirming that ‘no English novel of the 1940s has better stood the test of time’.