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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Henry Green: The Glory


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Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1937): screenshot image by Gwen Gale, 2009

On Saturday parents brought daughters down to see their brothers and, as this was a fashionable school and many of these girls if they were old enough had their photos in the weekly papers, one knew them by sight before one was faced by what to me was beginning to be the glory of their flesh. It was time that I should begin to notice and, as I had had no contact, almost no conversation even with any but servants, and maids I did not seem to take for girls, I started at the extreme and put them on thrones, more particularly because I had been reading Keats. Nobody who has sisters can tell how remote they are to those who have none and, their appearance now being exactly what I admired, I went down the street finding angels dressed like crown princesses in every little judy visiting her brother.

When we knew someone had his sister in his room to tea we would tear down the corridor and burst into it as though we did not know he was entertaining. He would realize and so would she once the noise we made was heard; she did not have to be told any more than I do now when I go into a works where they employ female labour. He would be embarrassed and she would look up in that placid way they have which hides a curiosity hungrier than ours and, when we were inside and were apologizing before we dashed out, it was our turn to be shy at her knife-like shyness buttered over with an accommodating smile. When we were gone his mother might say what noisy friends but he would have to be older than we were at that time to tease his sister with the truth which she had known at once.

It was their skin got me which I had never touched except on hands and which I thought to be softer than I afterwards found, that skin down from the neck coming out of flowering summer dresses which sent me back to my room to read Spenser. It was their eyes I never looked into I was too modest and too modest by far to fall in love, their arms which I thought were cold and which I could not think they ever used to help them kiss, their lightness I did not know the weight of, the different way they moved and literally then it seemed as though they were walking in water up over their heads along the glaring street, all this bemused me although I had been reading Herrick. For I did not believe what was written in books and when I saw there how women enjoyed making love I could not, it was too much to believe.

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Heat in London Tube: photo by Pedro Figueiredo, 2006

For years they were so beautifully far with their kind of laughter and their way of talking that I thought the one approach was by conversation and from this I was debarred by the animal mystery they held of bearing life within them. It could as I had come to know be shared in part by men but not so far as I could think by myself. I had yet to learn anyone would look at the figure I cut then talking too fast as I had at my brother's elbow in the glory of his special clothes, pestering any girl I got to know later with excited chatter on an indifferent subject just because I was at her side. I was in love with love and could not bring this back to individuals so that when I thought of fornication it was of a marriage with sympathetic swans in an element like the air I could not fly in and was half stranger to.

As many of these girls were figures in the outside world, and, in consequence, were discussed by people who did not know them, we came to hear of their peculiarities. One sister who was often down to see her brother was fond, or so it was said, of kissing. When I saw her after I had heard this, I thought she was a prostitute, it seemed so horrible that she could like it. Some time later when I heard that they wore nothing under their evening dresses I almost fainted. Two mothers were talking and they agreed it was unfair on young men for their daughters to wear so little. I did not dare to disagree and besides I was so sure girls entirely ignored me I was profoundly grateful for any such evidence they were girls that I might have dancing, however shared. But this was much later and if I had been told at the time I should have been disgusted.

Indeed anything in too much detail was revolting, so much so that women bathing and coming out of the water in their wet suits seemed very far from those objects of delight we saw on calendars, chocolate boxes or the films. What we had read in England's Helicon was remote but closer to us that the breath of living which we knew as little of as those who, never travelling on the Tube, know of strap-hanging from what they can smell on top of the moving stairs. We lived in a confusion of desire like one who sees his cake but cannot have it and so were better off than boys at co-educational schools. What we most wanted at that time was someone in authority whose praise was worth working for and something to dream of in between. If we could not by accident have the praise nothing could keep us off the mystery of sex except a glut of girls about us which by good fortune, or wise choice, we escaped.

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Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) in The Conspirators (Jean Negulesco, 1944): cropped screenshot from trailer, image by Clcx, 2008

Henry Green: from Pack My Bag (1940)


Curtis Roberts said...

I remember perfectly the thrill of locating a copy of Pack My Bag (then out of print) when I was nearing the end of my original journey through Henry Green’s novels and first reading:

“I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the one which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.”

That, like the selection you’ve chosen, seemed so real and genuinely “edgy”, put you immediately in and on the map, Green’s map, and took your breath away.

The Glory brings to mind the passage in Pack My Bag that is the Henry Green I've heard quoted most often (although he's not quoted frequently enough):

“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.”

Thank you.

TC said...


I find Green's reticence and habitual shying-away from that sort of public attention which authors are, it seems, meant to crave almost from birth -- he notoriously refused to be photographed -- to be of a piece with the remarkable individuality of his prose style. His reverence for Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta is an interesting clue, and at Cambridge (where I was at Doughty's college) it was said that book had been formative in guiding the development of Green's style, especially in his second novel, Living. Likewise the example of the Irish novelist James Hanley (Drift, Boy, Ebb and Flood, the Furys, The Secret Journey, & c.) has been noted but it seems Green's support of Hanley may be more to the point than any conceivable influence. I find traces of a common approach, at times, in the headlong sentences of Green's contemporary and early friend Nancy Mitford, who of course shared his social milieu. Still when all is said and done, the strange brilliance of Green's work seems to me pretty much a one-off. And not least due to his own efforts at effacing himself from the public eye, he remains, at least in this country, largely an undiscovered secret to this day (not to speak of isolated support from figures like Updike and Terry Southern).

There is such an odd mix of the high and the low in his life, with virtually nothing of the middling.

The "silver spoon" HG mentions in the passage you cite was more than just a figure of speech. He was born to the gentry, significantly landed and titled. His father's vast estate in Gloucestershire eventually went to an older brother, but HG himself -- and at this point it feels truer to refer to him by his real name, Henry Yorke -- was put in place, after dropping out of Oxford, as the manager of the Pontifex metal works, for two years at the great factory in Birmingham, then afterwards at the central office in London. And it is that area of the life, in the continual contact with the speech and world view of the common, that informs the work and viewpoint in a way that must be unique to writers and artists of his social class.

The Pontifex coppersmithing firm dated back to the 18th century and was bought by his father's father as a gift to his son. Coincidentally the firm had a special literary connection in its own right; Pontifex had manufactured the copper plates used in designing and engraving by William Blake.

Here alone I in books formd of metals
Have written the secrets of wisdom

-- Urizen, pl. 4, lines 69-70

You might be interested in having a look at the
Pontifex factory in Shoe Lane, London , as it appeared in 1842.

I suspect that when all is said and done Yorke/Green's fine-spun prose may turn out to possess a durability at least equal to that of the products of the family firm.

Curtis Roberts said...

I’ll start where I ended and will end again, by saying thank you – there’s so much you’ve given me here.

I first was incited to read Henry Green toward the end of college when I learned that John Ashbery had written his MA thesis about him. A friend in the class ahead of me whose father was a university English professor had a copy of Party Going on her bookshelf on E. 76th Street, which I asked to borrow, and we (Caroline and I) were both on our way. If you/once you catch the wave on the first page of Party Going (some people never do or will), it’s a “through line” to the rest of Green and a point of entry to any number of other adventures, including of course Thomas Doughty’s Arabia Deserta (which I confess, I started, enjoyed, but never finished). There’s so much to value in Green’s novels, but literary qualities aside, what I took from them, and from some of his remarks, to live with were basically an understanding of how people regularly miscommunicate, what it means to be put in a “false position”, and what modesty is and why it’s an admirable quality, even if it’s never “boffo”.

When the Jeremy Treglown biography was published, I was fascinated, found some of the stories shocking at first (otherwise, why include them?), but ultimately everything fit. It’s an oversimplication, obviously, but what kind of person flies at that level so consistently for so long?

Banging about on the internet researching other subjects over the years I’ve uncovered really bizarre stories about Gerald Yorke, Henry’s older middle brother who survived (did you know that he was Aleister Crowley’s literary executor?), but they fit also. The Pontifex information you’ve included, which I’ll absorb tomorrow (in a chilly beachfront location, staring at the Atlantic, I’m happy to say) and the Blake connection are new to me and great to learn. “Strange brilliance” and “one-off” talent allied with industrial durability are about the best qualities you can have either in this life or for the archeologist’s eventual benefit.

I love the Terry Southern Paris Review interview. And I started reading “Who Is Sylvia” today and am enjoying it quite a bit.

TC said...


Sorry to hear it's chilly at the shore. Quite unseasonably chilly here too, since forever it seems -- I can't recall not having numb typing fingers.

The brilliant bit in the Southern PR interview when Green deliberately misunderstands "subtle" into the so much more interesting (and entirely impossible) "suttee" represents, I think, maybe the best capsule portrait of the amazing writing-mind of Green. (And his disappointed following comment, when Southern attempts to "clarify" by repeating the word that Green was pretending to have mis-heard -- "how dull" -- merely puts a fine point on it.)

Absolutely agree about this:

" much to value in Green’s novels, but literary qualities aside, what I took from them, and from some of his remarks, to live with were basically an understanding of how people regularly miscommunicate, what it means to be put in a 'false position', and what modesty is and why it’s an admirable quality, even if it’s never 'boffo'."

Of course it's this quality of modesty makes Green's work, as they say, "not everyone's cup of tea".

(And so much the better, of course.)

Treglown appears to relate Green's chaste and apologetic shyness about authorhood with the old aristocratic position on this subject (i.e. proper disdain), and there is some sense in that; though I suspect that the complexities of the "class attitude" in this regard are only one, if indeed one very real, aspect of the complexity of Green's extremely odd-bird disposition altogether re. the issues of being a writer and "author".

In any case, would that there were more such odd-birds in the forest.

(The only other one of modern vintage I would see batting about in the same aviary, albeit from a somewhat lower if not in the end also perhaps slightly more stable psychological perch, to give her credit, would be Nancy M.)

(Rather rare species any more, threatened certainly if not by now actually extinct.)

Curtis Roberts said...

I’ve always thought that Green’s modesty was not only an intrinsic part of his good and generous character, which I like to think is an “artistic” quality , but that it’s also directly related to his clear vision of art’s possibilities and its limits. In some ways, his journey toward virtual artistic silence reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s, who shared Green’s economy of vanity. They both travelled in the art-as-life direction (one by developing novels of almost pure dialogue and the other in his journey out of the picture frame and into real time and space) and reached the edge of something. Having that focus and achieving that clarity is sobering enough to be frightening, and definitely confronts you with “what’s next?” and “what’s it all for?” questions, which can be difficult to reconcile with living a happy life. I’d like to think that Henry Yorke had more happy than sad moments. He did have a long marriage to a person who seems to have loved him deeply, as well as a son who has written affectionately about him, and there are a lot of anecdotes about the great man enjoying himself in the company of friends and fellow artists.

TC said...


This is beautifully said, and right on the mark, I think.

Whatever objects and motives artists may set before themselves in order to cause them to do their work, I can't help but think that, in the end, to have done work that would earn this sort of tribute would (almost!) justify any amount of trouble that had been gone to along the way.

Curtis Roberts said...

Thanks for your kind words. As you probably have guessed, Henry Green is an artist who "changed my life". Duchamp also. Greetings from Avalon, New Jersey (on the border of Stone Harbor) where things are just beautiful before the start of the "season". We spotted a new bird on the beach yesterday (smallish, black, with a red bill) that we haven't been able to identify yet and it's driving us crazy. It makes a piping sound, so we thought it was some sort of piping plover relative, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I intend to clear up the mystery before lunchtime.

TC said...


Could it have looked just a bit like this, then? (Come to find out there are about 5000 of them -- approx. half the extant population -- located in or near the Jersey shore.)

Curtis Roberts said...

It's my birthday (hence, the beach weekend) and I'm deeply, deeply moved by this wonderful poem, which is the very best birthday present I could hope for.

Amazingly, serendipitously, the identity riddle of yesterday’s bird did get solved before lunchtime. Visiting the Cape May County Zoo this morning (a terrific place, publicly supported, with an utterly non-corporate vibe and very large spaces for animals to roam), we made a final stop before heading back to the car and the chilly beach at the indoor bird house. The birds we saw yesterday were there. They’re green (alternatively, emerald) wood hoopoes, also known as red-billed hoopoes. We researched this and they are African (sub-Saharan) birds and we surmise that the nesting pair we found on the beach were “escapes”, the likelihood being that they departed the zoo during the severe late winter storms, which caused damage to various parts of the facility. As pleasant as it is here, I doubt they made the trans-Atlantic journey on their own to arrive here in time for the "season".

We’ve been visiting Avalon and the southern New Jersey shore for a long time and are quite familiar with the local bird population. These guys were definitely newcomers. That being said, they fit in quite well with the other beach denizens and are a marvelous addition to the gulls, plovers and geese. We looked for them today but didn’t see them, but will try again tomorrow.

Caroline, Jane and I send our very best wishes to you and your family.

TC said...


Your (and Caroline's and Jane's) beachcombing and birding sound splendid if a bit frigid.

Belated but nonetheless sincere best birthday wishes to you, my friend.

(One's thirty-ninth year, as we were always hearing from Jack Benny, is so good it's always worth repeating... over... and over...)