Henry Green's Loving is an honest, hard to classify, tale about the relativity of privilege, set among a group of British servants in the middle of WWII. In keeping her Irish castle open and staffed, Mrs. Tennant does her part to preserve an endangered lifestyle. When her old butler Eldon dies the rascally footman, Charley Raunce, takes over. While Raunce lacks the solicitude and discretion to be a worthy successor to Eldon, the war has left Mrs. Tennant with a poverty of choice. When not chasing the pretty maids, Kate and Edith, around, Raunce is busy working out ways to nickel-and-dime the accounts. Raunce is objectionable enough to be banned from both nursery and kitchen by nanny and cook, Mrs. Swift and Mrs. Welch, respectively. Unfortunately, the head housekeeper, Mrs. Burch, doesn't have her own domain to ban him from, and so her life is one long sigh of endurance. Not that Raunce is bothered by any of this. The less he has to do with the elder women, the better; they confirm what he's always suspected – women sour like milk. Especially unmarried ones. And amid much ado about aristocratic infidelities, imminent invasion, and a missing sapphire ring, the plot centers around the coupling off of the still-marriageable Edith and Kate.
Green has been called a writer's writer's writer; whatever that means, it seems to imply undue difficulty, but I loved his style. Green's prose, while not exactly crisp, is concentrated, even cold, and his point-of-view almost objective. That is, he rarely delves into the minds of his characters, never allows them interior monologue. That his characters live and breathe is a testament to Green's wonderful gift for dialogue.
At its best, Loving falls the way of a farce. From the servants' paranoia that Mrs. Tennant has fled Ireland abandoning them on the cusp of invasion, to the lisping insurance agent who visits the house, to Raunce's ridiculous treatment of him, to the even more ridiculous way he handles the whole business when Mrs. Tennant finally comes home: it's all just absurd enough to be hilarious.
But, for all the laughing and loving, Green has avoided romanticising his servant class by endowing them with a realistic perspective of their own. Romanticism is a luxury of the aristocracy. It's for the rich to exclaim over the beauty of daffodils (while Raunce kicks one down a passage in the servant's hall), to guild animal heads as fixtures, to furnish a drawing room like a cow byre, walls draped with silk, the furniture painted gold. Saved from industrial servitude and the assembly line, spared the certain death of war, these aren't the Romantic's idealized peasants, spiritually rich and at one with the land. Rather, they're just as engrossed as their employers with affairs of the wallet and heart.
Positioned in an wealthy house, eating meat and milk while others starve, with a supply of silk stockings and scarves, the servants are too privileged for the peasant's peace without a classical education to compensate. In other words, they've given up the natural nobility of the peasant, without gaining the cultural nobility of the gentry. For them, the nature is neither spiritual nor guilded. It's just another aspect of the world to contend with or exploit. While the Tennants bring jewelled representations of nature inside, the chef's little nephew, Arthur, knows the truth worth of an eggshell in a field is as a hiding place for the missing sapphire cluster. In one of my favourite scenes, the nanny, Mrs. Swift, tells the Tennant girls a fairy tale about birds while in the dovecote in front of them (as little Arthur points out) real doves fornicate and murder.
However, petty and ridiculous, one can't help but sympathesize with the servants, just as one can't help but feel for Mrs. Tennant by the end of the book; in her own way, she's just as appealing as Edith, and perhaps more so than Raunce. And whether the ending is actually happy or sad – for it is startlingly ambiguous – Mrs. Tennant will suffer. I couldn't help but feel bad about that. But perhaps that's just my sentimental longing for a Romantic world.