Cover image for Romancing : the life and work of Henry Green
Romancing : the life and work of Henry Green
Treglown, Jeremy.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 331 pages, 4 unnumbered pages of plates ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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PR6013.R416 T75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Henry Green led a double life. As Henry Yorke, a descendant of the earl of Hardwicke and Baron Leconfield, he was a wealthy aristocrat, with a family fortune and an engineering plant in the British Midlands. As Henry Green (the pseudonym he settled on after trying out Henry Browne), he wrote nine of our century's most original novels, including Living, Party Going, Caught, and Loving all of which, with daringly experimental techniques, capture the psychological truths of ordinary life in dramatic, sometimes poignant, and often hilarious ways. Green also formed friendships and rivalries with many of his time's leading literary figures, including Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, Eudora Welty and Terry Southern. And he led an extravagantly messy personal life. Jeremy Treglown, the highly praised biographer of Roald Dahl, discusses Green's novels in close connection with his life his unusual camaraderie with factory workers, his sympathy for servants, his ambivalence about his peers, his drinking, and his extramarital affairs. Treglown also shows how Green's portrayal of everyday uncertainties mirrored his efforts to understand his weaknesses and the chaotic conduct of his life efforts whose literary results, John Updike has said, bring the rectangle of the printed page alive like little else in English fiction of this century.

Author Notes

Jeremy Treglown has published six books Formerly the editor of The Times Literary Supplement and a visiting fellow at Princeton, the California Institute of Technology, and All Souls College, Oxford, he is now professor of English and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick, England. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he is married and lives in London and Oxfordshire

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

When the enigmatic English novelist Henry Green (1905-1973) wrote his prewar partial autobiography, Pack My Bag, he approached his life with characteristic obliqueness, refusing to drop the names of his famous friends, such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, or even his real name, Henry Yorke. Treglown, professor of English at the University of Warwick and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, was at one time Green's official biographer. That position was later retracted, but he continued to receive a great deal of help from friends and family. Treglown takes a direct approach to the Green/Yorke identity split and how central it was to this profoundly divided man and his writing. Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Green was both a dutiful and disappointing son. He published his first novel while still at Oxford but failed to take his degree. He would later head the family engineering firm but first joined as a laborer in its Midlands foundry. Terrified of death, he spent the Blitz in London as a firefighter. His many novels include Party Going, Living, Loving and Nothing, which, Treglown shows, were notable for their stylized yet colloquial dialogue and their combination of High Modernism, like that of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, and social satire, like that of Waugh and Powell. While Treglown approaches Green with greater sympathy than he gave his prior biographical subject, Roald Dahl, he does not shy from his subject's serial extramarital romances with much younger women or his decline into alcoholism, which finally crippled both his business and literary careers. Terry Southern, a friend of Green's, called him "a writer's writer's writer," and Treglown does a fine job of establishing the previously blurred distinctions and connections between Green's personal and professional identity and his literature. Agent, Amanda Urban, ICM. (On-sale date: Mar. 20) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Romancing is a great title for a biography of a writer who gave his books participial titles like Loving, Concluding, and Doting, and who called "romancing over the bottle, to a good band" his favorite pastime. The biography's title is but one of the book's many virtues. Writing with balance, clarity, and depth, Treglown (Univ. of Warwick, UK) recounts the irksome tightness with money, the marital disloyalty, and the boozing of this "unignorable author" so admired by Eudora Welty and John Updike. The troubling first words of Green's autobiographical memoir Pack My Bag (1940)--"I was born a mouthbreaker with a silver spoon"--allude to the problems caused by the aristocratic birth of a snob who would write perhaps most insightfully about house servants and factory hands. Funny and disturbing, Green's novels mine his own confusion and pain, as is expressed by his having built three of them around men who were deaf (he was hard of hearing himself), blind, and one legged. Treglown's assured, perceptive readings of Green (1905-73) both justify the claim that he was the leading experimental novelist of his day in the UK and show that his condensed, elliptical books, with their continuing affirmations of commonsense, tenderness, and kindness, triumph at the human level. All collections. P. Wolfe University of Missouri--St. Louis

Booklist Review

Henry Green, once described by Eudora Welty as possessing "the most interesting and vital imagination in English fiction in our time," has become a footnote in literary history, another dead white male laid to rest at last. British critic Treglown offers a compelling reaffirmation of Green's stature in this first complete biography. A schoolmate and friend of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, Green came of age at Eton and Oxford in the 1920s but lived the literary life only at a distance; he was a businessman, running his family's engineering firm throughout his life while writing a series of experimental novels (Living, Loving, and Party Going are the best known) that, at one time, were considered to be fundamental expressions of modernism. Treglown perceptively shows us why, noting that many of Green's books, unlike Waugh's and Powell's, focused on the lower classes, offering a view of "how people really live: their hopes, but also their compromises and defeats and the way those defeats may not be so bad after all." Why not take a chance and suggest a Henry Green novel for your book-discussion group? --Bill Ott

Library Journal Review

"Henry Green" was the pen name of Henry Yorke, an upper-class British businessman who between 1926 and 1952 produced 13 of the most innovative novels of the century, among them Blindness and Party Going. Born in 1905, Green was educated at Eton and Oxford but periodically made unconventional job choices e.g., factory worker and then volunteer fireman in London during the Blitz. Although a well-known figure both in high society and avant-garde literary circles, he led almost a double life and became fanatically protective of his writing persona. Sadly, his later years were eclipsed by alcoholism, and it has only been since his death in 1973 that he has been considered "a writer's writer's writer." Treglown (English, Univ. of Warwick) is the first to integrate Green's life and writing, using extensive interviews, some family papers, and other archives not previously available. Lack of formal approval from Green's son makes this an unauthorized biography and might ultimately explain why Treglown doesn't quite explain this most elusive man. Nevertheless, this volume, as the first full-length biographical study, is an essential starting point for understanding Green's amazing creations. For general and specialized libraries. Shelley Cox, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Names The river Severn meanders around the Yorke estate in Gloucestershire, between Forthampton Court, the big old house where one member of the family still lives, and the abbey town of Tewkesbury. On sleepy summer evenings in the 1910s, Vincent and Maud Yorke?s youngest son, Henry, would sit in a boat fishing, a safe distance from his intimidatingly energetic and clever elder brothers and a few yards from workingmen who had cycled out from the town to fish from the meadow bank opposite. He imagined, as he later wrote, that between him and the men ?there was something conspiratorial . . . hunched over our floats as shadows began to stretch out long over the surface of the water.? The other thing he liked about the activity was the ?exciting connection with a remote element when there is only a hint of what is going on. . . . Not being able to see but only to feel.? In this memory, with its outsider?s attraction to the lives of other people and its relish for intuition rather than knowledge, suggestion rather than explicitness, lies the embryo of a unique novelist who, in the intervals of his job as a not very successful businessman, was to write at lunchtimes and in the evenings under the name Henry Green. Loving , Green?s 1945 novel about the servants in a big country house in neutral Ireland during the Second World War, includes a vivid scene centered on a game of blindman?s buff, in which you have to feel people in order to tell who they are. ?Not being able to see? was the subject of his first book, Blindness , begun when he was still in school and published before he left university. The romantic plight of the newly sightless central character, a thinly disguised version of the author, enables him to hear those around him better, giving him access to not only their words but also their thoughts. As the Southern American writer Eudora Welty was to put it, Henry Green turned what people say ?into the fantasy of what they are telling each other, at the same time calling up out of their mouths their vital spirit.? In the middle of the twentieth century, anyone in the literary world on either side of the Atlantic who was asked to list the most important living writers in the English language would have immediately thought of Henry Green. Today, almost fifty years after the publication of the last of his novels, Green should be ranked among the great modern novelists, those whom James Wood has called ?the last true magi of language.? Wood rightly claims that in England, Green is the greatest of them after D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. The most obvious difference between him and them, of course, is the blankness that comes over most people?s faces today when his name is mentioned. Yet he has never lacked articulate admirers. To John Updike he ?brings the rectangle of printed page alive like little else in English fiction of this century.? V. S. Pritchett wrote of him as ?a spirit of poetry, fantasy and often wild laughter, an original.? Eudora Welty said that his imagination was ?the most interesting and vital . . . in English fiction in our time,? and to the young John Ashbery he stood alone in combining prose-poetry with fidelity to everyday life, ?the Cordelia of modern novelists.? So why, outside professional literary circles, has he been almost unknown? In a famous interview for The Paris Review , the Beat novelist Terry Southern said that there are writers and writer?s writers, but that Henry Green was a writer?s writer?s writer. To the extent that this suggests that he isn?t a reader?s writer, it?s misleading; but like any serious artist, he needs a climate not only of respect but of broad understanding in which to be appreciated, and that has been missing. Part of the problem has been the lack of a biography ? the only popular form of literary history in Western culture. Another difficulty is Green?s individuality. There are ways in which he can be compared with his peers: not only with Lawrence and Woolf but with Kafka, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner. But what is most important about him is how unlike anyone else he is. Green?s is an intuitive, oblique, often wayward kind of art. In the 1920s, when his publisher wanted ?society? novels, Green wrote about industrial Birmingham. In the 1950s, when working-class topics became popular, he set his books in the exclusive, fast-fading milieu depicted by Ivy Compton-Burnett and No?l Coward. All of his novels are electric with sex, but he never comes near to describing the act. Green?s bright young things on an outing to France get no farther than Victoria Station; his Second World War firefighters are furtive, lustful slackers rather than heroes. He sees life in terms of bathos, at its most surprising and poetic when it is most mundane, and partly for this reason the novels are, among much else, exceptionally funny. And while they can make you laugh out loud when you least expect to, they also exhibit a gratuitous stylistic bravura, splashing on color as in fauvist paintings. The novels? refusal of congruity or appropriateness has a lot to do with instincts ? the instincts of characters and also Green?s writerly instincts about truth and about effect ? overriding any preconceived notions of what should happen in a novel, or in life. These qualities are among those that place Green?s books among the outstanding romantic (as well as modernist) novels of his century, though not in a way that easily fits the stereotypes of romance. Like Henry Green, Henry Yorke, too, was a romantic. He prized feeling much more than judgment and was always searching, though in more traditional ways than in the books, for other worlds of possibility. The fact, which he insisted on only half-jokingly, that he was an aristocrat has a bearing on his work, as does the fact that he was an industrialist. In being these and a major novelist, he was unique in English literary history. The complex personality of Henry Yorke and the connections both clear and missing between him and Henry Green are fascinating in themselves and also unusually revealing about the psychology of art ? not least because in a century of self-publicity, he himself was one of the causes of his neglect, through his extreme, though far from straightforward, reticence. In the almanac of the British establishment, Who?s Who , every person listed writes his or her own entry within a set format. Henry Green first appeared in the 1948 volume, when he was forty-three and had already published seven of his ten books. There was no reference to him under Yorke, ?family name of Earl of Hardwicke,? where details appear about Henry?s father, Vincent, a landowner and rich businessman; his uncle Ralph, who was a general; and his distant cousin Simon Yorke, the eccentric, reclusive owner of Erddig, in North Wales. Nor was there a cross-reference from Yorke to Henry Green, whose entry is for the most part painstakingly uninformative. He is described as the managing director of an unnamed engineering company in Birmingham. He has been educated at a public school, also unnamed, and at an unidentified college at Oxford. He reveals that he married in 1929 but doesn?t say who his wife is. The address given is that of his publisher, not his home. The titles of his books, on the other hand, are listed in full. And, as if to make up for his earlier secretiveness, under the optional category ?Recreation,? where his father conventionally recorded ?hunting and shooting? and many others chose to say nothing, Green suddenly confessed, ?romancing over the bottle, to a good band.? This item in Who?s Who remained unchanged, except for the addition of subsequent book titles, until Green?s death. In miniature, it typifies an important dimension of his approach to being a writer. Much of his fiction was in one way or another recognizably, deeply autobiographical ? ?true,? as he told his later editor, John Lehmann, about one of his short stories set in the Blitz.8 Yet he never wrote under his real name, would not let his publishers distribute biographical information about him, and disliked being photographed unless all that was seen, as in Magritte?s portrait of the surrealist Edward James, was the back of his head. He was inconsistent in these, as in most, matters: He gave a few interviews, allowed some conventional photographs. But it was as if, for him, a condition of telling the truth, however imaginatively, was the fantasy that the author could remain unknown, that his books would be read in the dark. He was at bottom a shy man, in some respects very low in self-esteem, and one face of his self-effacement was that he put others into the foreground, creating fictional people out of existing ones and giving them new names. Who people were mattered very much to his family, but the taxonomy it employed was the traditional one of class, kin, and ancestry. Henry Yorke countered these obsessions by turning them into various aspects of their reverse: affectionate satire on upper-class life, for example, combined with a modernist passion for the present day and for the lives of apparently insignificant people. Yet some of the roots of his fiction inevitably lie deep in his family background ? a fact that may have come home to him when the completion of Blindness in 1925 coincided with the publication of a biography of an eighteenth-century ancestress, Isabelle de Charri?re (?Belle de Zuylen?). She was the daughter of Baron van Tuyll van Seeroskerken, head of a Dutch family celebrated for, among other things, its sense of its own importance. Under the disguises of pseudonymous narrators and letter writers, most famously Z?lide in The Portrait of Z?lide, Mme. de Charri?re freed herself to satirize her world and its constraints derived from gender and class. To her young descendant, pseudonyms and anonymity were in themselves imaginatively important. When he began to publish stories at school, he called himself Henry Michaels. On the original typescript of Blindness he became Henry Browne. Finally, to the regret of his friend Harold Acton, he settled for Green. (Acton saw the pseudonym as little more revealing than outright anonymity: ?There are Greens of so many shades writing novels that one wishes he had selected another colour.?)But however conventional and superficial-seeming such dissimulations have been for many writers, in Green?s case they were unusually pervasive. In his interim memoir, Pack My Bag, he says: ?Names distract, nicknames are too easy and if leaving both out . . . makes a book look blind then that to my mind is no disadvantage.? What would it mean for a book to be blind? That it couldn?t read you, perhaps, and in Henry Green more than in most writers there was a deep argument going on between self-revelation and secrecy. At one level, he simply feared the disapproval of his crushingly grand relations. A century after Isabelle?s time, another van Tuyll married John Reginald Yorke, a prosperous Gloucestershire landowner and member of Parliament. In 1899, their brilliant, rather austere elder son, Vincent, married the vivacious Maud Wyndham, whose father was the second Baron Leconfield ? among the richest members of the British aristocracy and owner of one of the most magnificent houses in England: Petworth, in Sussex. During Henry?s childhood, Petworth was a kind of reserve not only for its famous collections but for almost any relic of traditional values. Even after the First World War, male guests there were always expected to wear white tie and tails at dinner. When, as sometimes happened, one of them had to apologize for having brought nothing more formal than a dinner jacket, their host would advise, ?You should sack your man,? as if valets were not becoming rarer than tailcoats. Henry?s mother, Maud, was no less imperious. One of the stories told most often about her is that she offended her gardener, Poole, by making him bowl turnips out the French windows and down a grass slope, so that she could shoot at them. According to the legend, she called Poole ?Gardener? ? ?Gardener, gardener, I?m going to shoot!? ? but in Pack My Bag , Henry defensively insists that she used his surname. If one part of his feeling about names came from shyness, another, related part had to do with asserting the identities of others: naming the supposedly anonymous. The opening of his second book, Living , published when Green was in his mid-twenties and based on his experiences of his family?s Birmingham foundry, introduces by name twenty-six workingmen and -women in as many pages. In Party Going , the comically shifting relationships between the rich socialites at the center of the story are set in an ironic context by the attention the narrative pays to their numerous long-suffering servants, most of whom are identified scrupulously. There is a natural progression from this to Loving , where the servants in a big country house take over the story at the expense (literally) of their grand employers. The origins of these concerns can be traced back to Henry?s watchful childhood observation of servants and other staff and how they were treated. In a protoabsurdist vignette about life at Petworth, probably written during a school holiday there, he fantasizes about how his mother?s family might behave if a giant appeared on the grounds. The first step taken by Maud?s brother Charles, the third Lord Leconfield, is to send the butler, Wickham, to tell the intruder to go away. The giant throws the butler into the lake, whereupon Charles delivers the perfunctory encomium, ?Wickham was a good servant.? It soon becomes clear, however, that since Wickham was carrying the keys to the cellar, one of the family?s escape routes has been lost, at which Charles?s piety quickly gives way to irritation about the impossibility, however often you tell them, of persuading servants to leave keys on an accessible hook. Excerpted from Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green by Jeremy Treglown All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsp. ix
1. Namesp. 3
2. Society of Artsp. 26
3. Drinking Through a Strawp. 43
4. Worksp. 65
5. The Bright Young Yorkesp. 88
6. Dying with Henryp. 114
7. To mary to Mary to Maryp. 140
8. Taxesp. 163
9. Mr. Yongep. 188
10. Last Lovep. 209
11. Young Fellows with Flashing Heelsp. 226
12. Degringoladep. 248
Abbreviations and Referencesp. 259
Notesp. 263
Select Bibliographyp. 311
Further Acknowledgmentsp. 317
Indexp. 319