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The majority of monographs published on Henry Green have tended to offer a single lens through which to read his work: Edward Stokes (1959) and Bruce Bassoff (1975) focus on the structuralist poetics of his writing; A. Kingsley Weatherhead (1961) and Oddvar Holmesland (1986) on themes of self-creation and montage; and, more recently, Patrick MacDermott (2009) has read Henry Green through the criticism of T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis. Though these individual readings have a value, there is a danger that such singular, direct approaches can be reductive or even misleading. Both Henry Yorke, the man, and Henry Green, the writer, fought hard to avoid being captured by a singular static lens. On the rare occasions that Green allowed himself to be photographed, for example, the concessions were partial and carefully staged: in the Cecil Beaton photographs his back is turned to the camera, whilst in a 1949 Time magazine article he covers his face with his hands. The reader is offered a rare view of the author, but the view is obfuscated, the angle offered wilfully obstructed and insufficient. According to Anthony Powell, one of Green’s longest-standing friends, there was a “terrific dichotomy in his make-up.”1 A dichotomy epitomized in the aristocrat, Henry Yorke, dropping out early from his undergraduate degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, to work on a Birmingham factory floor; in the married man with “his rota of ridiculously young girls,”2 and, to use Marius Hentea’s purposeful oxymoron, in the experimental realism of Green’s writing.
It is refreshing to find Marius Hentea’s new monograph, Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism, taking a less rigid or prescriptive route through Green’s oeuvre, and one more in line with the fluidity of approach taken in the best existing critical studies of Green by Rod Mengham (1982) and Michael North (1984). Hentea’s approach seeks to situate Green’s writing within (or at the limits of) a set of specific, albeit shifting, social, historical and literary contexts. In his introduction, Hentea sets out three main objectives for his study: “to overturn the prevalent reading of Green’s novels as abstract, pure art that do not engage with contemporary reality” (4); to allow “a deeper understanding of [Green’s] style, form and engagement with history and society” to [End Page 867] “further our own understanding of late modernism” (5); and, finally, to argue that Green’s “work shows the complex legacy of modernism, the continuing attraction of realism and the emergent forms of postmodern narration” (6). Hentea is a sensitive and perceptive reader of Green, and the study’s stated intention—to explore and examine the ways in which Green’s writing acts as a bridge between high modernism, late modernism, postwar realism and postmodernism—is laudable, enticing, and full of promise.
Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism is at its strongest when it investigates how the socio-economic backdrop of a particular moment in time might inform Green’s work. Some examples include: the publishers’ thirst for new young authors immediately following the First World War and the publication of Blindness in 1926, when Green was only twenty years old; the migration of workers (and footballers) to Birmingham as a city of great industrial growth in the 1920s; and the relationship of Living (1929) to other proletarian fiction of the period, such as Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933), or George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It is worth adding here that Green himself rated another “proletarian” author, James Hanley, who is hardly mentioned by Hentea. In a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, Green praises Hanley for having “a greater & more natural power in his use of words than anyone writing today.”3 In an earlier 1931 letter to Edward Garnett—a family friend, renowned literary editor and an early editor of Blindness—Green writes: “I have a genius here, a man called James Hanley. He was until...