There’s a lot that’s amazing about Henry Green’s novel Loving, which I continue to read in small doses. I pick it up infrequently enough that my grasp of many plot points is less than firm, but no matter. The draw is Green’s minute observation and inimitable style. Rendering the teeming emotional and social life below stairs on an Irish estate during the second world war, Green goes right to the verge of sensuous overload in his impressionistic descriptions but pulls back in his plainspoken, practical dialogue. In a way his characters’ talk functions itself as description or atmosphere–doggedly true to the way he heard people talk, it’s not meant to explain anything and in fact often serves to obfuscate the matter.
In this terribly moving small vignette from the novel, I’m interested in how colors run a little wild. To say they have symbolic weight is an understatement; more than symbolic, they’re active players in the miniature drama that plays out here, seeming to struggle with each other for supremacy over the mood of the scene and ergo its outcome.
Edith feared for Raunce’s neck. She said those draughts in the servant’s hall might harm him. Now coal was so short it was only a small peat fire she could lay each morning in the butler’s room, and she insisted that the grate Raunce had was too narrow for peat. This no doubt could be her excuse to get him to take his cup along with her to one of the living rooms where huge fires were kept stoked all day to condition the old masters.
So it came about next afternoon that Charley and Edith had drawn up deep leather armchairs of purple in the Red Library. A ledge of more purple leather on the fender supported Raunce’s heels next his you-and-me in a gold Worcester cup and saucer. Pointed french windows were open onto the lawn about which peacocks stood pat in the dry as though enchanted. A light summer air played in from over massed geraniums, toyed with Edith’s curls a trifle. Between the books the walls were covered cool in green silk. But she seemed to have no thought to the draught.
“You ever noticed that little place this side of the East Gate?” he was asking.
“Well can’t say I’ve looked over it if that’s what you’re after,” she replied. He hooked a finger into the bandage round his throat as though to ease himself.
“Next time you pass that way you have a look, see.”
“It’s empty that’s why.”
“It’s empty is it?” she echoed dull but with a sharp glance.
“The married butlers used to live there at one time,” he explained. Then he lied. “Yesterday mornin’,” he went on canny, “Michael stopped me as he came out of the kitchen. You’ll never guess what he was onto.”
“Not something for one of his family again?” she enquired.
“That’s right,” he said. “It was only he’s goin’ to ask Mrs. T. for it when she gets back, that’s all. The roof of their pig sty of a hovel ‘as gone an’ fallen on ‘is blessed sister-in-law’s head and’s crushed a finger of one of their kids.”
“The cheek,” she exclaimed.
“A horrid liar the man is,” Charley commented. “But it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed,” he added.
“You think she’ll credit such a tale?” Edith wanted to know.
“Now love,” he began then paused. He was dressed in black trousers and a stiff shirt with no jacket, the only colour being in his footman’s livery waistcoat of pink and white stripes. He wore no collar on account of his neck. Lying back he squinted into the blushing rose of that huge turf fire as it glowed, his bluer eye azure on which was a crescent rose reflection. “Love,” he went on toneless, “what about you an’ me getting married? There I’ve said it.”
“That’s want thinking over Charley,” she replied at once. Her eyes left his face and with what seemed a quadrupling in depth came following his to rest on those rectangles of warmth alive like blood. From this peat light her great eyes became invested with rose incandescence that was soft and soft and soft.
“There’s none of this love nonsense,” he began again appearing to strain so as not to look at her. “It’s logical dear that’s what. You see I thought to get my old mother over out of the bombers.”
“And quite right too,” she answered prompt.
“I’m glad you see it my way,” he took her up. “Oh honey you don’t know what that means.”
“I’ve always said a wife that can’t make a home for her man’s mother doesn’t merit a place of her own,” she announced gentle.
“Then you don’t say no?” he asked glancing her way at last. His white face was shot with green from the lawn.
“I haven’t said yes have I?” she countered and looked straight at him, her heart opening about her lips. Seated as she was back to the light he could see only a blinding space for her head framed in dark hair and inhabited by those great eyes on her, fathoms deep.
“No that’s right,” he murmured obviously lost.
In the introduction to my edition (which is the same one linked above), John Updike points to Green’s “love of work and laughter; his absolute empathy; his sense of splendour amid loss, of vitality within weakness” and points to a further contradiction: “with upper-class obliquity he champions the demotic in language and in everything.”