Yes, this week has been Henry Green Week, started by Stu on Winston's Dad. I had meant to finish this, actually my fourth of HG's novels, much sooner but this is slipping in right at the end because it's been quite a week one way or another. And, to be honest, it took me a while to get a grip on this novel. Published in 1929, it is the earliest of the ones I've read so far (the others were Loving, Party Going and Concluding), and the most experimental in terms of its prose style. The opening sentences will show you what I mean:
Bridesley, Birmingham. Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets....Noise of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls.
And so it continues throughout the narrative -- the syntax pared down to a bare minimum, all articles, definite and indefinite ('the' and 'a') omitted. I found this really hard going at first, and thought it seemed rather pretentious. But -- and it's a big but -- I not only got used to it but also came to see that it is in fact a mode of writing that perfectly evokes the basic, pared down speech and indeed lives of many of the central characters.
In an interesting, and completely unplanned way, this novel paired perfectly with Hard Times, which I reviewed a few days ago. Hard Times is set in industrial Lancashire and Living in industrial Birmingham, and three-quarters of a century separates the two novels. You could set an essay title on the two of them (Compare and Contrast... -- just the kind of boring and reductive essay I really dislike) but if you did you'd be missing a huge amount. So I'm not going to go down that road except to say that, like Dickens, Green shows the lives of both the workers and their employers, although here the balance is reversed and the workers take centre stage.
Most of the action takes place in a Birmingham iron foundry, owned by old Mr Dupret who, however, has taken to his bed with an unspecified illness, leaving the running of the factory to his son Richard. Richard is completely out of his depth at the start, and amazes the works manager Mr Bridges (referred to be the workers as "Tis 'im") with his inappropriate observations:
Works manager said this was the iron foundry. Black sand made the floor. Men knelt in it. Young man passed by Mr Dupret and works manager.
"What a beautiful face".
"What? Eh, I don't know. He works for that moulder over there in the corner".
We never learn the identity of this young man and it doesn't matter at all who he is, but he may perhaps be Bert Jones, a lad from Liverpool who starts going out with Lily Gates. Lily, one of the novel's central characters, lives at home and is not permitted to work. She looks after her widowed father and old Mr Craigan, her adopted grandfather, both of them employed at the factory. But Lily longs desperately for escape:
And then in bed after, rigid, she cried in her, I, I am I.
I am I, why do I work in this house, unloved work, why but they cannot find other women to do this work.
Why may I not have children, feed them with my milk. Why may I not kiss their eyes, lick their skin, softness to softness, why not I? I have no man, my work is for others, not for mine.
As is typical of Henry Green's writing, the story swings seamlessly between a number of characters. There are the men who work in the factory, full of jealousies and anxieties and anger -- many of them are old men, skilled workers but slow, who feel increasingly threatened by the influx of youngsters who work faster but less accurately. Then there are the Duprets --old Mr Dupret, slowly losing interest in everything, and Mrs Dupret, who goes so far as to bring in a courtesan in a desperate attempt to perk him up, and young Richard, unsure and lost, and feeling like an alien in his circle of bright young things. And there's the Gates' household, where Lily slaves away and dreams her dreams.
This is a novel of remarkable depth and a wide range of themes. Of course it is a novel of social commentary and Green's perceptive take on the lives of the working classes is wonderful to read. But it's also about love, mostly unrequited. Richard loves Hannah Glossop, but Hannah loves Tom Tyler, who kisses her a lot and then gets bored with her and breaks her heart:
Leaving house, going into the garden 'he does not care' she said aloud.
She walked in misery. She tried not to think of him. But as sometimes, coming across the sea from a cold country to the tropics and the sky is dull and the sea is like any other sea, so as you are coming tropical birds of exquisite colours settle to rest on the deck, unexpected, infinitely beautiful, so things she remembered about him came one by one back to her mind. And as the ship beat by beat draws nearer to that warmth the birds come from, so her feeling was being encompassed then by the memory of him and it was so warm she sat down on the wet ground and cried.
Jim Dale, who lodges with the Gates, is in love with Lily and always assumed they would marry until she started going out with Bert Jones. Lily loves Bert, and Bert does love Lily in his way, but he is weak and unreliable and will end by breaking her heart. In fact most of the last part of the novel focuses on the elopment of these two and its aftermath. They have talked for a long time of going to Canada together, and finally set off for Liverpool where Bert's parents live. But, after a gruelling train journey, Bert proves not to have his parents' address and drags Lily through increasingly depressing streets before finally abandoning her with her suitcase to make her own way back home, where she breaks down mentally and physically and is nursed back to life by old Mr Craigan. And Mr Craigan loves Lily like a daughter, but being old and uncommunicative has never found a way to express this. I wish I could quote you the whole of the last thirty or so pages which had me absolutely riveted but I'll have to restrain myself. Here's what happens after Lily's return:
Mr Craigan sat by bed at their home in Birmingham in which was Miss Gates.
'Dear heart', he said, 'don't grieve so'.
Sobs tore her.
He put hand over her eyes, her eyes, tears would not come from them. Sobs seemed as though they would split her. 'Quiet, quiet', he said. Her troubles stood up in her feeling like plinths to her. Sobs in spasms retched through body. Tear ran down by his nose and then another, then from under his hand tears came from her eyes. Her body sank into the bed, down. Then she did not retch any more and tears came to her parched mouth and softened lips and she opened them and sucked tears in. Her tears came more freely and she turned face into the pillow and they made wet patch on this.
Then, as after rain so the sky shines and again birds rise up into the sky and turn there with still movements so her sorrow folded wings, so gently crying she sank deeper into the bed and was quieted. He still kept hand over her eyes, but she was quieted.
We don't know what will happen to any of these characters after the novel ends, though Richard has taken charge of the factory, most of the older men have been dismissed, and Lily has started to see some hope for a happier future.
I'm sure I've said it before but I am completely in love with Henry Green's writing, which I find absolutely magical. I don't like to call it poetic, because that always sound poncey and elitist, but reading him is like reading a poem because of the density, the unexpectedness and the wonderful originality of so much of the imagery. I am very happy to have read this so many thanks to Stu for having this great idea.