Loving by Henry Green
Loving is set in a castle in Ireland during the early days of World War II. The castle is owned by a British woman and is staffed almost exclusively by British servants. Though we are introduced to Mrs. Tennant and a few other upper-class characters, the focus of the novel is on the life "below stairs." Green's exploration of class distinctions is light, and he relies beautifully on comic moments to keep the book from becoming some sort of polemic. But the tension dwelling on the boundaries between these two groups does provide the reader with something to consider. And even within the lower class, the distinctions based on status and position make clear how difficult social mobility was at this time in these circles.
The plot basically follows Charley Raunce, who was a footman until the death of the butler allows him the opportunity for advancement. Charley (previously known as Arthur because all Mrs. T's footmen have been Arthur) seizes the opportunity and makes himself over into Mr. Raunce, THE man among men in the servant's quarters. We then track his efforts to woo one of the housemaids, Edith, and his difficulties and successes in managing the household, the other servants, and his personal affairs. There is adultery, theft, drunkenness, flirtation, and - oh yes - peacocks. It really is quite fascinating.
So, here I sit, two days past finishing it, already gushing over my next read (I can't wait to talk about this one!), and I still cannot get settled how I feel about this book and its inclusion as one of the Top-100 English-language books of the 20th century. I cannot feel it is a masterpiece, but I equally cannot dismiss it as overrated and unworthy of praise.
In trying to gain a little more insight into Mr. Green and his work, I stumbled across this: The Paris Review's interview with Green in 1958. This one is not collected in my 4-volume set, so it won't officially count in my upcoming TPR challenge (invitation post coming - really, I promise!). But it stands as another great teaser for that event and offers us this gem of an exchange:
I’ve heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?
Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here. A bit of child killing, of course, but no straight shootin’. After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: “I just ferment my food now.” Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—Goddamn!
And how about “subtle”?
I don’t follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband’s flaming pyre. I don’t want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won’t . . .
I’m sorry, you misheard me; I said, “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.
Oh, subtle. How dull!