Henry Green’s novel are remarkable because every one is notably different in style and thematically (with the possible exception of Nothing and Doting) yet they couldn’t have possibly been written by anyone else other than Henry Green. Green’s seventh novel Concluding, published in 1948 is no exception.
Set in the near future, the events are confided to a single day at an institute (a former country house) for the training of young girls, whose names all alliterate, Mary, Merode, Marion, Maisy, Moira, Muriel, Melissa etc, to become functionaries and official in a bureaucratic and mildly totalitarian state. One of the girls, Mary, has gone missing. Has she ran away from the repressive spinster teachers? Or gone to visit her sick sister? Or is she at the bottom of the lake?
Despite this mystery and its potential for tragedy, Concluding is in fact Green at his most whimsical. Most of the book takes place outdoors and is literally flooded with light:
At this instant, like a woman letting down her mass of hair from a white towel in which she had bound it, the sun came through for a moment, and lit the azaleas on either side before fog, re-descending, blanketted these off again…
It was Green’s own favourite, and he toyed with the idea of turning it into a ballet.
The last two of Green’s novels Nothing and Doting, published in 1950 and 1952 respectively, are both sharp comedy of manners dealing with the romantic entanglements of two generations of upper class Londoners. They are among the most technically accomplished of Green’s novels, composed mainly in dialogue with prolonged, stunning set pieces. Critics have often questioned whether there is anything going besides the pointed, barbed wit, however as L.P Hartley commented on Nothing, “is ‘nothing’ a trifle, a bagatelle, or is it the void, le neant?…I for one found it all too easy to slip through the glittering surface of the comedy into icy and terrifying depths.”
As Doting was his last published novel it is particularly tempting to look for clues to the enigma that was Henry Green/Henry Yorke, and how he viewed writing. At the beginning there is a scene that certainly seems to have a symbolic significance outside of the context of the novel:
The man started with three billiard balls. He flung one up and caught it. He flung it up again then sent a second ball to chase the first. In no time he had three, fountaining from out his hands. And he did not stop at that. He introduced, he insinuated one at a time, one more after another and threw the exact inches higher each time to give six, seven balls room until, to no applause he had a dozen chasing themselves up then down into his two lazy-seeming hands, each ball so precisely placed that it could be thought to follow grooves in violet air.
The next quote could apply to everything Green ever wrote:
“D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters?”
“Oh Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens.”
After the publication of Doting Green attempted to write, after he was only 47, but it was beyond him. His last great affair with the much younger Kitty Freud, the estranged wife of the artist Lucian Freud, had ended up as they all did, with the woman marrying another man and becoming friends with both Henry and Dig. His drinking had become a major problem and was affecting his job as Managing Director of Pontifex and Sons. He had always been a diligent industrialist, though he lacked financial acumen. However when it was discovered at a board meeting that, instead of water in his glass it was neat gin, Henry Yorke was sent on holiday and removed as managing director. His older, very eccentric brother Gerald Yorke (a fascinating character in his own right, incredibly academically gifted, a keen sportsman who had done the hippy trail 40 years before the 1960’s, army major and occultist who spent part of every year living in a cave in Wales) was put in charge for an interim period, however as he had no interest in the business, control was passed down to Henry’s 25 year old son, Sebastian.
In Jeremy Treglown’s excellent Romancing, the only biography of Henry Green, the last chapter is entitled Degringolade (Rapid Deterioration) and covers in the last 15 years of his life in 10 pages. Henry Green became increasingly reclusive and eccentric. He also drank a lot, every day from waking at 10 or 11 (if he woke up) until he went to bed or passed out. Perhaps the best indication of his state of mind can be found in his last piece to be published, a short letter in The Spectator in 1963.
…Green tells me he doesn’t believe in anything at all. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Love your wife, love your cat and stay perfectly quiet, if possible not to leave the house. Because on the street if you are sixty danger threatens.
…So the whole thing is really not to go out. If one can afford it, the best thing is to stay in one place, which might be bed. Not sex, for sleep.
Henry Yorke died in 1973, a very old 68.