Henry Green: “Pack My Bag”

 

Henry Green: “Pack My Bag”, 2000, Vintage Penguin, UK, 159 pages. ISBN 9780099285076

Henry Green published nine novels between 1926 and 1952. They were new in the way he kept the author’s voice from getting in the way while the conversations of his characters tell the story. He explained: “We cannot tell what people in life are thinking and feeling. Writers should, therefore, restrict themselves to what their characters say out loud.”

However, his most curious piece of writing was an autobiography published in 1940. It was surprising because he wrote it in 1938-9 when he was only 33. ‘Pack My Bag’ seems a straightforward enough title until we recall that Henry Green was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. So when he told someone to pack his bag it was an order, one surely not directed at his wife and second cousin the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, like him a great-grandchild of the 1st Baron Leconfield. The order to pack would have been given to one of the countless servants who looked after him.

The picture ‘Pack My Bag’ gives us of English society from just before the First World War till the eve of the Second strikes us now as a view from a distant foreign land. We have had other views of the period such as those of Green’s friend and rival the novelist Evelyn Waugh. But ‘Decline and Fall’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ have a fairytale side, exotic and picturesque. Waugh was on the fringe of the upper class he romanticized. Green, or rather Henry Vincent Yorke, was at it opulent centre.

Green’s autobiographical-memoir confirms what Cyril Connolly, an Old Etonian, noted: “The experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.” The great public schools were the private and expensive institutions that “anyone who counted” attended. Green in his late thirties still explained to himself the workings of high society and even geopolitics using as a model the intrigues, snobbery, and viciousness that students at Eton submitted one another to under the indifferent eyes of their masters.

Green had another strong formative experience. His family lived in Forthampton Court the manor house the Yorke family owned since the seventeenth century. During the First World War, it hosted a military hospital where wounded soldiers convalesced until they were able to resume service. The boy had his first intimate knowledge of what Englishmen of other social classes
were like in his own stately home. The fact that the men were being patched up so they could return to die tormented him, coloring his thinking henceforth and stamped him indelibly as a between-the-wars person. In 1939 he tells us that he expected to perish in the war that was coming.

Green proceeded from Eton to Oxford where he hobnobbed with upper-class friends, learned hard drinking and never stopped complaining about the study of English. He said literature was not a subject to write essays about. After two years he left without a degree. It was 1926 the year of the General Strike and Green abruptly changed direction. His father was not only a wealthy landowner but proprietor of a factory in Birmingham. Green went to work there on the factory floor with ordinary workers. From then on he was a leisure-time writer who would one day be managing director of the firm.

Green approached his fellow countrymen like an anthropologist does an unknown tribe. He had to learn their language and their ways. So successful was he that ‘Living’, the book he wrote about them, has been acclaimed by some critics the best proletarian novel ever written.

Talleyrand said that anyone who hadn’t lived before the French Revolution “does not know what the pleasure of living means.” Green gives his own bittersweet comment on this sentiment in ‘Pack My Bag’:

“In the war [1914-18] people in our walk of life entertained all sorts and conditions of men with a view to self-preservation, to keep the privileges we set such store by, and which are illusory, after those to whom we were kind had won the war for us.”

He learned to love the class that would crowd out his own while loving just as much the life it would sweep away. The author of the proletarian novel ‘Living’ died in 1973 a Tory, lucid, but considerably roughed-up by history. He was right to compose his autobiography in 1939. That year a world ended whose foundations had been fatally undermined by the First World War.

Peter Byrne

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