Henry Green’s novel Back is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later. The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.
The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.
The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.
The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.
Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.
Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:
“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”
“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”
“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?”
“I believe it’s the war Madam.”
She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”
If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:
“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.
“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.
“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”
There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:
“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”
Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books
Lisa’s review is here.