Today we're finally returning to some semblance of normality, although I'm a bit concerned cuz I'm not reading very far ahead anymore. The Old Wives' Tale is an exceptionally long book. But anyway this letter from the Hipster Book Club editor is again kind of relevant and brings up some more interesting points that I'm definitely interested in, and thought you guys might be, too. -M.R.
Year Published: 1945
First sentence: Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch.
Loving is a sort of fairytale about the English servants of some rich English people on an estate in Ireland during World War II. It also has an extremely lame title. Seriously. Loving?! (Henry Green, by the way, gets bonus points for having been an engineer as well as a novelist, which gives me a little hope for my own literary pursuits.)
Anyway, to elaborate, the book begins with the death of Eldon, the old butler, and the promotion of Charley Raunce. The residents of "the Castle" are Mrs. Tennant, her daughter-in-law Mrs. Jack (Tennant), and Mrs. Jack's two daughters, Moira and Evelyn. There are, in retrospect, a ton of characters in this book. Agatha Burch is the head housemaid, in charge of two other maids, Kate and Edith. Raunce is in charge of a boy called Albert. The staff is rounded out by a Mrs. Welch, Mary, and Jane in the kitchen; the Irishman O'Conor, lampman and peacock caretaker; Miss Swift the nanny; and Mrs. Welch's nephew Albert. Oh, and Michael the driver. It's hard to describe the plot with any brevity when there are this many people running around in it, but basically the servants' quarters are drama central. Raunce is stealing from Mrs. Tennant by cooking the books, Edith steals waterglass from the cook, Mrs. Jack is cheating on her husband and all the servants know, Kate is somehow involved with O'Conor, "Raunce's Albert" is in love with Edith, and so on.
For being so action-packed, Loving was actually just boring, such as I suppose these people's lives must've been.
Green's writing was both amazing and horrible. The narrative often failed to draw me in, and when it succeeded, it often kicked me right back out again, mainly because the man appears to despise commas (and I, as you know, am too fond of them). As I said, in retrospect there are lots of characters, but actually they're almost all very distinct personalities, despite Green's really minimalist treatment of them. Probably my favourite thing about the novel, though (except the last sentence, which was the most astonishing one since The Postman Always Rings Twice), was the way that descriptions of the Tennant's riches were randomly—but oh so deliberately—scattered throughout the narrative. Like, the story is just sauntering along as Edith cleans a grate, and then it suddenly zooms in on the rich brocade of the sofa, or whatever.
Finally, I have to say that I don't think I know enough about British accents (circa the 40s, even) to appreciate the significance of the dropped Hs here. There's probably some giant class commentary happening that I only caught the edges of because of that. I mean the commentary is obvious, but although I can see it I feel like maybe I'm not getting any of the jokes or something.
I'm not quite sure how to sum up except to say that I think this one does better as a study of writing technique than as an entertaining novel.
I have to admit that I cheated a little bit with this one and read the Wikipedia article about the book. It hardly says anything, but yielded this little gem regarding what Green told someone about his inspiration: "I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest time of his life. The butler replied, 'Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.'"
Rating: 2/3 (meh)