- Graham Greene's Catholic Conversion:The Early Writings (1923–29) and The Man Within
An author may be allowed one sentimental gesture towards his own past, the period of ambition and hope.Author's note to The Man Within, explaining its reprinting
For almost sixty years Graham Greene was systematic in his attempts to obscure from his later readership most of his early career as a published writer. His earliest published volume, a collection of youthful poems titled Babbling April (1925), of which only three hundred copies were printed, proved embarrassing enough for him in later years to buy up and destroy copies whenever he found them. Of his first three novels—The Man Within (1929), The Name of Action (1930), and Rumour at Nightfall (1931)—he absolutely refused any reprinting of the latter two, ensuring that they have now become elusive and expensive items for only keen bibliophiles and rare book libraries.1 But Greene seems to have regarded his first published novel, The Man Within, very differently despite it offering an unlikely plot and a wavering prose style, blending memorable passages of expressionistic imagery with mannered poetic effects [End Page 134] and wooden characterization.2 It tells the melodramatic story of a group of smugglers in the early 1800s, led by the charismatic Captain Carlyon, who are unexpectedly betrayed by one of their own company. This Judas figure is the young Francis Andrews who had only been allowed to sail with them because his fearless and brutal father, now deceased, had once been their hero figure. Desperate to escape from this perilous lifestyle, he secretly alerts the English customs officers as to the exact time and location when a contraband cargo of spirits from France will be unloaded. A confrontation results in which a revenue man is killed; Andrews then escapes and is sheltered by a virtuous young woman called Elizabeth. Through her influence he agrees to testify against six of the captured smugglers, although ever-wavering in his courage, he ultimately appears in court mainly at the behest of a promiscuous woman called Lucy. She agrees to have sex with Andrews to ensure that he will testify (and thereby please her lover, the aged Sir Henry Merriman, the prosecuting council for the Crown at the assizes who greatly desires a successful case). But the smugglers are unexpectedly acquitted and, after a final encounter with Elizabeth at her cottage, Andrews flees in panic when he realises that Carlyon and some of his gang have come to the cottage to find him. Elizabeth, however, commits suicide with Andrews's knife before they can force her to inform on him. The novel ends with Andrews in custody just as he is about to snatch the same knife from one of the arresting revenue officers to enact his own suicide.
Published in mid-1929 to considerable acclaim and with remarkably high sales by Heinemann in England and by Doubleday Doran in the United States, the novel provided Greene with an immediate and intoxicating entrée into London literary life.3 In later life, he readily admitted that this melodramatic tale of early-nineteenth-century smugglers, Judas-like betrayal, and doomed love was the work of a youthful and inexperienced writer, but he was still happy for it to be printed in paperback for the first time in 1971 and to be included in the collected Bodley Head edition of his works brought [End Page 135] out by Heinemann in 1976, since when it has remained readily available in print. It is perhaps understandable that the older and internationally renowned writer would have retained some sort of sentimental attachment to his first published novel, especially one that had generated such an unexpected level of success and effectively provided a springboard for his burgeoning career as a writer during the 1930s. Although modern critics have found little to admire in Greene's earliest published attempt at novel writing, this article proposes that The Man Within continued to hold a deeper and more lasting significance to the author, who converted to Catholicism in 1926, primarily as the first published work in which his new-found faith, along with some...