Loving (1945), Henry Green’s fifth and best novel, is set on a sprawling estate in Ireland during WWII. It centers on the servants who keep the place running, especially Charley Raunce who, in the novel’s opening pages, ascends to the position of butler, and who uses his promotion to woo one of the housemaids. The war is far away, but it suffuses the text: the mostly English characters fear a German invasion, feel at once grateful and guilty that they are away from the Blitz, and fret endlessly about whether they should return home.
The following excerpt shows off many of the qualities that give Loving its odd and enduring charms: delight in dialogue and the rhythms of speech (“Holy Moses look at the clock… ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy”); arresting images and disorienting syntax (“Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives”); and a peculiar refusal to describe states of mind with certainty (“He appeared to be thinking”; “Apparently he could not leave it alone”). Above all it introduces a novel that is busy with life, bursting with small instances of pilfering, lying, and spying, but also of laughing, eating, and, of course, loving.
Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.
One name he uttered over and over, “Ellen.”
The pointed windows of Mr. Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.
Came a man’s laugh. Miss Burch jerked, then the voice broke out again. Charley Raunce, head footman, was talking outside to Bert his yellow pantry boy. She recognized the voice but could not catch what was said.
“. . . on with what I was on with,” he spoke, “you should clean your teeth before ever you have anything to do with a woman. That’s a matter of personal hygiene. Because I take an interest in you for which you should be thankful. I’m sayin’ you want to take it easy my lad, or you’ll be the death of yourself.”
The lad looked sick.
“A spot of john barley corn is what you are in need of,” Raunce went on, but the boy was not having any.
“Not in there,” he said in answer, quavering, “I couldn’t.”
“How’s that? You know where he keeps the decanter don’t you? Surely you must do.”
“Not out of that room I couldn’t.”
“Go ahead, don’t let a little thing worry your guts,” Raunce said. He was a pale individual, paler now. “The old man’s on with his Ellen, ’e won’t take notice.”
“But there’s Miss Burch.”
“Is that so? Then why didn’t you say in the first place? That’s different. Now you get stuck into my knives and forks. I’ll handle her.”
Raunce hesitated, then went in. The boy looked to listen as for a shriek. The door having been left ajar he could hear the way Raunce put it to her.
“This is my afternoon on in case they take it into their heads to punish the bell,” he told her. “If you like I’ll sit by him for a spell while you go get a breath of air.”
“Very good then,” she replied, “I might.”
“That’s the idea Miss Burch, you take yourself out for a stroll. It’ll fetch your mind off.”
“I shan’t be far. Not out of sight just round by the back. You’d call me, now, if he came in for a bad spell?”
Charley reassured her. She came away. Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives. That door hung wide once more. Then, almost before Miss Burch was far enough to miss it, was a noise of the drawer being closed. Raunce came back, a cut-glass decanter warm with whisky in his hands. The door stayed gaping open.
“Go ahead, listen,” he said to Bert, “it’s meat and drink at your age, I know, an old man dying but this stuff is more than grub or wine to me. That’s what. Let’s get us behind the old door.”
To do so had been ritual in Mr. Eldon’s day. There was cover between this other door, opened back, and a wall of the pantry. Here they poured Mrs. T.’s whisky. “Ellen,” came the voice again, “Ellen.”
At a rustle Raunce stuck his head out while Bert, farther in because he was smallest, could do no more than peek the other way along a back passage, his eyes on a level with one of the door hinges. Bert saw no one. But Charley eyed Edith, one of two under-housemaids.
She stood averted watching that first door which stayed swung back into Mr. Eldon’s room. Not until he had said, “hello there,” did she turn. Only then could he see that she had stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair. “What have you?” he asked pushing the decanter out to the front edge so much as to say, “look what I’ve found.”
In both hands she held a gauntlet glove by the wrist. He could tell that it was packed full of white unbroken eggs.
“Why you gave me a jump,” she said, not startled.
“Look what I’ve got us,” he answered, glancing at the decanter he held out. Then he turned his attention back where perhaps she expected, onto the feather in her hair.
“You take that off before they can set eyes on you,” he went on, “and what’s this? Eggs? What for?” he asked. Bert poked his head out under the decanter, putting on a kind of male child’s grin for girls. With no change in expression, without warning, she began to blush. The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets. “You won’t tell,” she pleaded and Charley was about to give back that it depended when a bell rang. The indicator board gave a chock. “Oh all right,” Raunce said, coming out to see which room had rung. Bert followed sheepish.
Charley put two wet glasses into a wooden tub in the sink, shut that decanter away in a pantry drawer. “Ellen,” the old man called faintly. This drew Edith’s eyes back towards the butler’s room. “Now lad,” Raunce said to Bert, “I’m relying on you mind to see Mrs. Welch won’t come out of her kitchen to knock the whisky off.” He did not get a laugh. Both younger ones must have been listening for Mr. Eldon. The bell rang a second time. “O.K.,” Raunce said, “I’m coming. And let me have that glove back,” he went on. “I’ll have to slap it on a salver to take in some time.”
“Yes Mr. Raunce,” she replied.
“Mister is it now,” he said, grinning as he put on his jacket. When he was gone she turned to Bert. She was short with him. She was no more than three months older, yet by the tone of voice she might have been his mother’s sister.
“Well he’ll be Mr. Raunce when it’s over,” she said.
“Will Mr. Eldon die?” Bert asked, then swallowed.
“Why surely,” says she giving a shocked giggle, then passing a hand along her cheek.
Meantime Charley entered as Mrs. Tennant yawned. She said to him,
“Oh yes I rang didn’t I, Arthur,” she said and he was called by that name as every footman from the first had been called, whose name had really been Arthur, all the Toms, Harrys, Percys, Victors one after the other, all called Arthur. “Have you seen a gardening glove of mine? One of a pair I brought back from London?”
“Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.”
“And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?”
“Much about the same I believe Madam.”
“Dear dear. Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.”
He went out, shutting the mahogany door without a sound. After twenty trained paces he closed a green baize door behind him. As it clicked he called out,
“Now me lad she wants that glove and don’t forget.”
“The old gardening glove Edith went birds’-nesting with,” Raunce replied. “Holy Moses look at the clock,” he went on, “ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy.” He whipped out the decanter while Bert provided those tumblers that had not yet been dried. “God rest his soul,” Raunce added in a different tone of voice then carried on,
“Wet glasses? Where was you brought up? No we’ll have two dry ones thank you,” he cried. “Get crackin’ now. Behind the old door.” Upon this came yet another double pitiful appeal to Ellen. “And there’s another thing, Mrs. T. she still calls me Arthur. But it will be Mr. Raunce to you d’you hear?”
“’E ain’t dead yet.”
“Nor he ain’t far to go before he will be. Oh dear. Yes and that reminds me. Did you ever notice where the old man kept that black book of his and the red one?”
“What d’you mean? I never touched ’em.”
“Don’t be daft. I never said you did did I? But he wouldn’t trouble to watch himself in front of you. Times out of mind you must have seen.”
“Not me I never.”
“We shan’t make anything out of you, that’s one thing certain,” Raunce stated. “There’s occasions I despair altogether.” He went on, “You mean to stand and tell me you’ve never so much as set eyes on ’em, not even to tell where they was kept.”
“What for Mr. Raunce?”
“Well you can’t help seeing when a thing’s before your nose, though I’m getting so’s I could believe any mortal idiotic stroke of yours, so help me.”
“So you never eh? You never what?” Raunce asked. “Don’t talk so sloppy. What I’m asking is can you call to mind his studying in a black or a red thrupenny notebook?”
“Study what?” Bert said, bolder by his tot now the glass he held was empty.
“All right. You’ve never seen those books then. That’s all I wanted. But I ask you look at the clock. I’m going to get the old head down, it’s me siesta. And don’t forget to give us a call sharp on four thirty. You can’t be trusted yet to lay the tea. Listen though. If that front door rings it will likely be the doctor. He’s expected. Show him straight in,” Raunce said, pointing with his thumb into the door agape. He made off.
“What about Miss Burch?” the boy called.
“Shall I call her?” he shouted, desperate.
Raunce must have heard, but he gave no answer. Left alone young Albert began to shake.
In the morning room two days later Raunce stood before Mrs. Tennant and showed part of his back to Violet her daughter-in-law.
“Might I speak to you for a moment Madam?”
“Yes Arthur what is it?”
“I’m sure I would not want to cause any inconvenience but I desire to give in my notice.”
She could not see Violet because he was in the way. So she glared at the last button but one of his waistcoat, on a level with her daughter-in-law’s head behind him. He had been standing with arms loose at his sides and now a hand came uncertainly to find if he was done up and having found dropped back.
“What Arthur?” she asked. She seemed exasperated. “Just when I’m like this when this has happened to Eldon?”
“The place won’t be the same without him Madam.”
“Surely that’s not a reason. Well never mind. I daresay not but I simply can’t run to another butler.”
“Things are not what they used to be you know. It’s the war. And then there’s taxation and everything. You must understand that.”
“I’m sure I have always tried to give every satisfaction Madam,” he replied.
At this she picked up a newspaper. She put it down again. She got to her feet. She walked over to one of six tall french windows with gothic arches. “Violet,” she said, “I can’t imagine what Michael thinks he is about with the grass court darling. Even from where I am I can see plantains like the tops of palm trees.”
Her daughter-in-law’s silence seemed to imply that all effort was to butt one’s head against wire netting. Charley stood firm. Mrs. T. turned. With her back to the light he could not see her mouth and nose.
“Very well then,” she announced, “I suppose we shall have to call you Raunce.”
“Thank you Madam.”
“Think it over will you?” She was smiling. “Mind I’ve said nothing about more wages.” She dropped her eyes and in so doing she deepened her forehead on which once each month a hundred miles away in Dublin her white hair was washed in blue and waved and curled. She moved over to another table. She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold. Then she added as though confidentially,
“I feel we should all hang together in these detestable times.”
“We’re really in enemy country here you know. We simply must keep things up. With my boy away at the war. Just go and think it over.”
“We know we can rely on you you know Arthur.”
“Thank you Madam.”
“Then don’t let me hear any more of this nonsense. Oh and I can’t find one of my gloves I use for gardening. I can’t find it anywhere.”
“I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.”
He shut the great door after. He almost swung his arms, he might have been said to step out for the thirty yards he had to go along that soft passage to the green baize door. Then he stopped. In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of gold naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet. He cut off the head with a pair of nail clippers. He carried this head away in cupped hand from above thick pile carpet in black and white squares through onto linoleum which was bordered with a purple key pattern on white until, when he had shut that green door to open his kingdom, he punted the daffodil ahead like a rugger ball. It fell limp on the oiled parquet a yard beyond his pointed shoes.
He was kicking this flower into his pantry not more than thirty inches at a time when Miss Burch with no warning opened and came out of Mr. Eldon’s death chamber. She was snuffling. He picked it up off the floor quick. He said friendly,
“The stink of flowers always makes my eyes run.”
“And when may daffodils have had a perfume,” she asked, tart through tears.
“I seem to recollect they had a smell once,” he said.
“You’re referring to musk, oh dear,” she answered making off, tearful. But apparently he could not leave it alone.
“Then what about hay fever?” he almost shouted. “That never comes with hay, or does it? There was a lady once at a place where I worked,” and then he stopped. Miss Burch had moved out of earshot. “Well if you won’t pay heed I can’t force you,” he said out loud. He shut Mr. Eldon’s door, then stood with his back to it. He spoke to Bert.
“What time’s the interment?” he asked. “And how long to go before dinner?” not waiting for answers. “See here my lad I’ve got something that needs must be attended to you know where.” He jangled keys in his pocket. Then instead of entering Mr. Eldon’s room he walked away to dispose of the daffodil in a bucket. He coughed. He came back again. “All right,” he said, “give us a whistle if one of ’em shows up.”
He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe. He closed the door so that Bert could not see. Within all was immeasurable stillness with the mass of daffodils on the bed. He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk. He held his breath. He had the top left-hand drawer open. He breathed again. And then Bert whistled.
Raunce snatched at those red and black notebooks. He had them. He put them away in a hip pocket. They fitted. “Close that drawer,” he said aloud. He did this. He fairly scrambled out again. He shut the door after, leaving all immeasurably still within. He stood with his back to it, taking out a handkerchief, and looked about.
He saw Edith. She was just inside the pantry where Bert watched him open mouthed. Raunce eyed her very sharp. He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water. He stayed absolutely quiet. At last she said quite calm,
“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”
“My dinner,” he cried obviously putting on an act, “holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going,” he said to Bert, “look sharp.” The boy rushed out. “God forgive me,” he remarked, “but there’s times I want to liquidate ’im. Come to father beautiful,” he said.
“Not me,” she replied amused.
“Well if you don’t want I’m not one to insist. But did nobody never tell you about yourself?”
“Aren’t you just awful,” she said apparently delighted.
“That’s as may be,” he answered, “but it’s you we’re speaking of. With those eyes you ought to be in pictures.”
“Come on,” he said, “if we’re going to be lucky with our dinner we’d best be going for it.”
“No, you don’t,” she said slipping before him. And they came out through this pantry into the long high stone passage with a vaulted ceiling which led to the kitchen and their servants’ hall.
“Now steady,” he said, as he caught up with her. “What will Miss Burch say if she finds us chasing one after the other?” When they were walking side by side he asked.
“What made you come through my way to dinner?”
“Why you do need to know a lot,” she said.
“I know all I can my girl and that’s never done me harm. I got other things to think to besides love and kisses, did you know?”
“No I didn’t, not from the way you go on I didn’t.”
“The trouble with you girls is you take everything so solemn. Now all I was asking was why you looked in on us while you came down to dinner?”
“Thinkin’ I came to see you I suppose,” she said. She turned to look at him. What she saw made her giggle mouth open and almost soundless. Then she slapped a hand across her teeth and ran on ahead. He took no notice. With a swirl of the coloured skirt of her uniform she turned a corner in front along this high endless corridor. The tap of her shoes faded. He walked on. He appeared to be thinking. He went so soft he might have been a ghost without a head. But as he made his way he repeated to himself, over and over,
“This time I’ll take his old chair. I must.”
He arrived to find the household seated at table waiting, except for Mrs. Welch and her two girls who ate in the kitchen and for Bert who was late. There was his place laid for Raunce next Miss Burch. Kate and Edith were drawn up ready. They sat with hands folded on laps before their knives, spoons and forks. At the head, empty, was the large chair from which Mr. Eldon had been accustomed to preside. At the last and apart sat Paddy the lampman. For this huge house, which was almost entirely shut up, had no electric light.
Charley went straight over to a red mahogany sideboard that was decorated with a swan at either end to support the top on each long curved neck. In the centre three ferns were niggardly growing in gold Worcester vases. He took out a knife, a spoon and a fork. He sat down in Mr. Eldon’s chair, the one with arms. Seated, he laid his own place. They all stared at him.
“What are we waiting for?” he said into the silence. He took out a handkerchief again. Then he blew his nose as though nervous.
“Would you be in a draught?” Miss Burch enquired at last.
“Why no thank you,” he replied. The silence was pregnant.
“I thought perhaps you might be,” she said and sniffed.
At that he turned to see whether he had forgotten to close the door. It was shut all right. The way he looked made Kate choke.
“I heard no one venture a pleasantry,” Miss Burch announced at this girl.
“I thought I caught Paddy crack one of his jokes,” Raunce added with a sort of violence. A grin spread over this man’s face as it always did when his name was mentioned. He was uncouth, in shirtsleeves, barely coming up over the table he was so short. With a thick dark neck and face he had a thatch of hair which also sprouted grey from the nostrils. His eyes were light blue as was one of Charley’s, for Raunce had different coloured eyes, one dark one light which was arresting.
The girls looked down to their laps.
“Or maybe she swallowed the wrong way although there’s nothing on the table and it’s all growing cold in the kitchen,” Raunce continued. He got no reply.
“Well what are we waiting on?” he asked.
“Why for your precious lad to fetch in our joint,” Miss Burch replied.
“I shouldn’t wonder if the nursery hasn’t detained him,” was Charley’s answer.
“Then Kate had better bring it,” Miss Burch said. And they sat without a word while she was gone. Twice Agatha made as though to speak, seated as he was for the first time in Mr. Eldon’s place, but she did not seem able to bring it to words. Her eyes, which before now had been dull, each sported a ripple of light from tears. Until, after Kate had returned laden Raunce cast a calculated look at Miss Burch as he stood to carve, saying,
“Nor I won’t go. Not even if it is to be Church of England I don’t aim to watch them lower that coffin in the soil.”
At this Miss Burch pushed the plate away from in front of her to sit with closed eyes. He paused. Then as he handed a portion to Edith he went on,
“I don’t reckon on that as the last I shall see of the man. It’s nothing but superstition all that part.”
“And the wicked shall flourish even as a green bay tree,” Miss Burch announced in a loud voice as though something had her by the throat. Once more there was a pause. Then Raunce began again as he served Paddy. Because he had taken a roast potato into his mouth with the carving fork he spoke uneasy.
“Why will Mrs. Welch have it that she must carve for the kitchen? Don’t call her cook she don’t like the name. There’s not much I can do the way this joint’s been started.”
The girls were busy with their food. O’Conor was noisy with the portion before him. Raunce settled down to his plate. Agatha still sat back.
“And how many months would it be since you went out?” she asked like vinegar.
“Let me think now. The last occasion must have been when I had to see Paddy here to the Park Gates that time he was ‘dronk’ at Christmas.”
This man grinned although his mouth was watering in volume so that he had to swallow constantly.
“Careful now,” said Raunce.
Kate and Edith stopped eating to watch the Irishman open eyed. This man was their sport and to one of them he was even more than that. In spite of Miss Burch he looked so ludicrous that they had suddenly to choke back tremors of giggling.
“It was nearly my lot,” Raunce added.
“It couldn’t hurt no one to show respect to the dead,” Miss Burch tremulously said. Charley answered in downright tones,
“Begging your pardon Miss Burch my feelings are my own and I daresay there’s no one here but yourself misses him more than me. Only this morning I went to Mrs. T., asked leave and told her,” but he did not at once continue. The silence in which he was received seemed to daunt him. With a clumsy manner he turned it off, saying,
“Yes, I remember when I came for my first interview she said I can’t call you Charles, no she says ‘I’ll call you Arthur. All the first footmen have been called Arthur ever since Arthur Weavell, a real jewel that man was,’ she said.”
He looked at Miss Burch to find that she had flushed.
“And now I make no doubt you are counting on her addressing you as Raunce,” Miss Burch said in real anger. “With Mr. Eldon not yet in the ground. But I’ll tell you one thing,” she continued, her voice rising, “you’ll never get a Mr. out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.”
“What’s the war got to do with it?” he asked, and he winked at Kate. “Never mind let it go. Anyway I know now don’t I.”
“No,” she said, having the last word, “men like you never will appreciate or realize.”
Copyright © 1945 by the estate of Henry Green
Henry Green (1905 – 1973) was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke. He was the author of nine novels, most notably Loving, Party Going, and Living.