Party Going, 1939
Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait, 1940
Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, 1992 (Matthew Yorke, editor)
Henry Green, the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke, a wealthy industrialist from Birmingham, England, is often referred to as one of the most notable English novelists of the 1930’s. His name was often mentioned along with that of George Orwell in a discussion of pre-World War II realistic fiction writers. Known for his characteristic foreshortened and elliptical style, as well as for his focus on everyday life and people, Green gives readers the fascinations of surface life while hinting at the depth of subterranean struggles. Green’s novels center on ordinary things and have universal themes: boy meets girl, friend loses track of friends, characters grow up and grow old. His characters are often unremarkable and live in easily recognizable settings; for them life is a series not of heroic actions but rather of scattered yet oddly unified happenings. These, taken together, create a vivid sense of real life. Green’s seemingly inconsequential anecdotes, reminiscences, observations, and tangential dialogue have, when viewed in retrospect, a luminescence that indicates artistic power.
Through his realistic writing Green was able to re-create the sensation of life. His use and buildup of detail should place him in the category of a Depression-era experimentalist, yet his work resists such placement. In a strange way, what Green wrote was orthodox–his novels were replete with realistic settings and recognizable characters–but he experimented with the way people talk and communicate with one another. His people do not communicate the way the characters of a novel by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen do; rather, they fall back on such nonverbal mannerisms as facial expression and the cadence of speech to convey their meaning. When they do actually speak to one another, it is in a terse manner in which meanings are implied rather than directly delivered. Yet Green is not to be confused with social reformers such as George Orwell and H. G. Wells. He does not write to effect social changes but to portray life in the twentieth century by presenting the most ordinary situations imaginable. He makes no pronouncements about society’s evils, neither condemning nor praising.
Green’s earliest novel, Blindness, was a product of impressions assimilated at his public school, Eton College, where he lived the sheltered life of a member of the middle class. In this work he created a placid externalized tale that actually revealed much about English school life, the times, and the condition of society. In the next novel, Living, Green used common people as the subjects, to the consternation of some critics who felt them to be inappropriate central figures. He treated their speech carefully, eliminating anything that would be termed irrelevant and inessential, truncating it, making it difficult for readers accustomed to traditional dialogue to discern its meaning. Yet the unusual dialogue was meant to capture the true way in which people communicate, not the exact way they phrase things. Creating real dialogue spoken by real men and women became Green’s obsession. In dropping all “nonessential” words he limited his reading public, but those who could adapt to the dialogue found that by doing so they were able to discover what he had to say about life in drab industrial centers and outlying towns during the early twentieth century.
Ten years after Living Green published his third novel, Party Going, a work about rather carefree, upper-class English people involved in the search for distractions from their usual round of pursuits. This work found immediate and wide appreciation for its conveying of real life and its accurate portrayals of Great Britain in an uneasy era. Unpretentiously told, Green’s Pack My Bag is the autobiography of a novelist who chose the isolated and vexatious path of an artist; in this work Green takes himself far from seriously, ascribing much of any success he enjoyed to his allowing his writer’s inclinations voice. His experiences are at once ordinary and extraordinary: Many could have been the exploits of others who had had similar advantages in life, yet certain experiences were his alone. Here are tales of schoolboys’ pursuits, the memories of his childhood home and parents, the impact of friends, and the burgeoning of the artist within him.
Following Pack My Bag came Green’s other notable novels, in which he continued his stylistic experimentation: Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, and Doting. Comfortably established as a Birmingham businessman of considerable wealth, Green remained apart from literary enclaves and literary practitioners alike, choosing to work solitarily. His isolation from fellow writers and intellectuals meant that Green also allowed his vision to narrow to the point where his once adventurous style became less and less interesting to readers. With the waning of interest in realistic fiction, Green’s work, so thoroughly appreciated by such writers as Evelyn Waugh, came to be identified with the literature of the Depression era. Most scholars believe that, although he achieved much, he was not a major literary figure. Green’s value as a novelist lies in the way he dealt with everyday life and gave it an importance far beyond the banality of its surface. He chose not to plumb the depths, but to hint at their existence and allow the reader’s imagination to discover them.