The Green Child

I was flicking through the titles printed by Capuchin Classics the other day – and by ‘flicking through’ I mean ‘scrolling down their website’; and by ‘the other day’ I mean ‘a couple of months ago’ – and spotted The Green Child (1935) by Herbert Read. My only encounter with him had been a book called Prose Style, or something like that, which I’d flicked through – unaware that he’d written novels. Or, in fact, one novel – for this is it. This part of the blurb had me hooked: Widely debated when it came out more than a generation ago, The Green Child is truly a masterpiece, a rare blend of fantasy and reality.And so I emailed off to see if the had a review copy to spare – which they did…

I said that Read had only written one novel, and in a way that’s true – but he certainly made up for it with The Green Child. Although under 200 pages in length, the three parts of the book are essentially three different novels. The same story runs through them, and the same central character of Olivero, but the feel and style differs so dramatically that it’s unlikely you’ll react the same way to each section.

We learn on the first page that Olivero, the President of a South American country, has faked his own death by assassination. As you do. His yearning to return to his roots, a little English village, has overcome his political ambitions (wise man) and he makes his way back to the countryside of his youth. As he wanders around, seeing what has changed and what has remained, he is struck by a change which seems unlikely: It was then that he noticed, or thought he noticed, an extraordinary fact. The stream as he remembered it – and he could remember the pressure of its current against his bare legs as he waded among its smooth, flat pebbles – ran in the direction of the station from which he had just come. But now, indubitably, it was flowing in the opposite direction, towards the church. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might say. And he follows the stream until he arrives at a mill… wherein he sees a ‘frail and pallid’ woman being kept captive by a man he had once been schoolmaster to; Kneeshaw. Yes, the perspicacious amongst you will have guessed correctly: this is the Green Child of the title. No sooner has Kneeshaw been vanquished, and the silent Green Child headed off with Olivero, but: With a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him, he raced forward, and hand in hand they sank below the surface of the pool.
And that’s the last we hear of them for a bit, because Part Two is all the back story of Olivero’s life. I’d wondered why they bothered making him an ex-President, and now I see why – we follow him through his political ascension and… well, to be honest, I skim-read quite a lot of this section. To be frank, I found it really dull. I don’t think novels should include huge chunks of ‘and this is what had happened beforehand’ (analepsis, is that?) because it’s difficult to be interested. And combine that with political stuff… well, if you’re interested in political novels, then this section might work for you – but I’d just got really interested in the first section, so was frustrated when we were diverted off track. It’s the diary section of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall all over again.

Fast forward ninety pages or so, and we’re onto Part Three: they’re in the underground world from whence the Green Child came, and they’re exploring. This section has most in common with utopia literature like Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis and, indeed, Thomas More’s Utopia. It would make really interesting reading alongside, especially the former. We’ve moved from fantasy-in-the-real-world to fantasy-in-a-fantasy-world where, for instance, there is no concept of time. I wonder what J.W. Dunne would have to say about that?

So there you go. One short novel; three genres. The first of them was my favourite, and I did rather wish that The Green Child had continued entirely in that vein. While the third section was interesting, it felt more like the set-up to a different novel. And, as mentioned before, the second section was very much not my cup of tea. And perhaps that’s the problem with the novel – I can’t imagine anybody loving each ‘genre’ equally? Surely you’ll want more politics and less fantasy, or vice versa, and so forth?

But someone who did approve is Mr. Graham Greene, who wrote the 1946 introduction included in this edition. The Green Child is definitely intriguing, and a very unusual novel, but I can’t agree with Greene in his unqualified enthusiasm – whilst I am not wholly unenthusiastic, there are a lot of qualifications.

Two People

Hurray for Capuchin Classics, reprinting an AA Milne novel – Two People, which was first published in 1931. A slightly less significant event in the Two People timeline is January 2003, when I first read it. This was back in the days when I could really blitz a single author, and read everything they’d written – by the time I read Two People (doing quick sums) I had read 29 books by AAM in the space of two years. Gosh. I’ve read only nine since, so I was pretty much getting to the end of the available AAMs.

With plays, sketches, essays, short stories, an autobiography, pacifist literature, poetry and, of course, children’s books to his name, his novels have always felt a little like an afterthought. Not quite the same joyously whimsical Milne of the early days, nor yet the serious Milne of the Second World War. And, for the most part, I have forgotten everything that happens in his novels. What really remains is a single image from the book – for Mr. Pim it is a pair of orange curtains; for Four Days’ Wonder it is a haystack; for Chloe Marr it is a woman looking into a mirror. For Two People I mainly remembered those two people standing by a pond… which turned out to be fairly insignificant.

As Ann Thwaite points out in her short introduction, and is evident to any who has read her very excellent biography of AAM (in print, or available from a penny on Amazon), Two People is pretty autobiographical. Not only is the male half of those two people a writer, but the portrayed marriage between Reginald and Sylvia Wellard bears a striking resemblance to that between Alan Alexander and Daphne Milne. There are two novels in Two People – one about a naive rural novelist seeing his first book, ‘Bindweed’, become a success in London literary society; one about a man married to much younger, beautiful woman who is not his intellectual equal.

And that’s the crux. Sylvia is often wise, always kind, ludicrously good – but she doesn’t understand Reginald’s jokes, ignorantly assumes any obstacle will be simple for him, would be content to live a quiet, unassuming life in Westaways – a thinly disguised Cotchford Farm, the Milne’s Sussex residence. At first I though Sylvia’s astounding beauty was showing the prejudiced viewpoint of Reginald, but people all over the place stumble over themselves and exclaim involuntarily at her beauty – which is sweet but a little exaggerated and, it has to be said, no true depiction of Daphne Milne.

Ann Thwaite warns in her introduction that even those who ‘have an aversion to novels about writers’ will enjoy this. I didn’t know people had such aversions – I think novels about novelists are fascinatingly revealing about the author. But there is much more to Two People than that – I’d be astonished if anyone could finish the novel thinking Reginald wholly appealing (his views about laying on water for villagers are rather reprehensible, for example) but, much more importantly, it is an honest and true depiction of a marriage. Says I, who is not married, but certainly it seems to deal with the genuine, everyday issues that a marriage would face – with temperaments as catalysts, rather than adultery and murder and all those extremes.

Being Milne, the novel is also very funny. I recognise that AAM is an acquired taste – some find the whimsy a trifle sickening, whereas I find it delightful and clever. Two People isn’t the most representative of Milne’s work (I’d look towards The Sunny Side for an in-print example, from Snow Books) but I do encourage you to seek it out. Milne’s non-children’s work is seriously underrated, and I loved this novel upon re-reading it. Bright but also with a serious undertone – and possibly the nearest thing Milne wrote to an autobiography of his marriage, since his actual autobiography It’s Too Late Now rather skirted around it.

Here’s a scene which illustrates the perils-facing-a-writer strand, and the humour (they’re at a tennis party):

“Fella in the Sixtieth out in Inida with me wrote a book,” said Colonel Rudge suddenly.

“Oh?” said Reginald

“Fact,” said the Colonel. “Fella in the Sixtieth.”

Reginald waited for the rest of the story, but it seemd that that was all. The Colonel was simply noting the coincidence of somebody over here writing a book and somebody in India also writing a book.


“Tranter, that was the fella,” came from his right. “Expect you know him.”

Reginal awoke and said that he was afraid he didn’t. (Why ‘afraid’, he wondered. Afraid of what?)

“Well, he wrote a book,” said the Colonel stubbornly. “Forget what it was called.”


“What d’you say your book was called?” said the Colonel, evidently hoping that this would give a clue to the title of Tranter’s book.

“Bindweed,” grunted Reginald, feeling suddenly ashamed of it.


“Bindweed!” (What the devil does it matter, he thought angrily.)

“Ah!… No, that wasn’t it. Bindweed,” said Colonel Rudge, pulling at his moustache. “That’s the stuff that climbs up things, what? Gets all over the garden.”


“Thought so. […] Sort of gardening book, what?” said Colonel Rudge.

“What?… Oh… No.”

“It is the stuff I mean, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“The what-d’you-call-it.”

“Is what?”

“What I said. Climbs up things. Gets all over the garden?”

“Oh yes, yes. Always!”

“What d’you say it was called? This stuff?”


“Yes. And what d’you say your book was called?”


“That’s right,” said the Colonel fretfully. “That’s what I said.”

This, thought Reginald, is one of the interesting people brought down from London who want to talk to me about my book.

Return! A plethora of books

I am back from a week in Northern Ireland and a weekend in Warwickshire, and hope some of you are still around – will try and pop into most of the blogs tomorrow to say hello and catch up, but too late to do that tonight. Instead, will give a round-up of three books I’ve read recently… that’s right, leave me alone for a week and I have to burst with bookish things. None of these three books would make my top ten of the year, but each was worth writing about – and that might be where the connections end. We’ll see if any more come up as I write…

Capuchin Classics kindly sent me another of their reprinted novels – Tom Stacey’s The Man Who Knew Everything, which was published as Deadline in 1988. If you’re thinking ‘Oh, wasn’t that a film with John Hurt and Imogen Stubbs?’ then I’ll stop you there – Stacey’s foreword to this slim novel makes it clear that he has no wish to be associated with that film. Despite talented actors, ‘the director and editor went to ground for three months to emerge inexplicably with an edited version, not readily intelligible, which re-shaped the story as a tragedy of love’. So, if it is not a tragedy of love, what is it? Granville Jones is an aging newspaper correspondent in the 1950s Gulf, writing occasional dispatches and mostly idling towards the end of his life, reflecting on the two women who have played significant roles therein. He is there when a coup threatens the island’s leader, also a personal friend, and must report on it – and must meet the journalistic deadline before anyone else gets there.

In some ways it’s a pity Stacey had to lose the title, as it lends the narrative an urgency which can’t always be felt by those who, like me, haven’t lived the journalist’s life. It doesn’t help that Granville isn’t a particularly likeable character (I felt more than a little sympathy for his abandoned family) but he does come into his own when in conversation with the island’s leader, the Emir. ‘We have grown old together, Jonas. You and I are too old to fear to die.’ All in all, an interesting novel with some touching moments, but requires a mind with a greater political bent than mine possesses.

Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant was also a reprint, but my copy is a 1928 reprint of the 1870 original. Victorian literature forms too large a gap in my reading, which I decided to rectify with the shortest Victorian novel I owned. Piccadilly is described as a satire on London politics of the 1870s – well, I’m not particularly clued up on the political scene of that era, or indeed any era. No matter, I continued regardless. The hero, Frank Vanecourt, decides to launch himself on a life of selfless charity, and to write a book:

‘I shall tell of my aspirations and my failures – of my hopes and fears, of my friends and my enemies. I shall not shrink from alluding to the state of my affections; and if the still unfulfilled story of my life becomes involved with the destiny of others, and entangles itself in an inextricable manner, that is no concern of mine’.

It might not astonish you to learn that the story of his life does become involved with the destiny of others – specifically his noble (and quite lovable) friend Grandon; the woman Grandon loves, Lady Ursula; and Ursula’s mercenary mother Lady Broadhem. What unravels is a complex and often amusing plot of secrecy and blackmail and love and much introspection and expostulation from Vanecourt – presumably mocking a vogue for novels of this ilk. Some rather unsavoury, but perhaps inevitable, racism occasionally spoils what is quite a witty work, but I can’t help feel I’d appreciate Piccadilly more if I’d read any of the sort of novels which it mimicks.

Finally, a collection of short stories by Mathias B. Freese, Down to a Sunless Sea, which I was sent to review. Full marks on the title – I do like quotations in titles, as I might have mentioned before. Vulpes Libris are kicking off a week on short stories over on their blog, and very interesting I’m sure it will prove to be – whilst they’re at it, perhaps someone could answer a query. Why does the short story so often attract the macabre? I thought (and wrote!) quite a lot about the Victorian short story for a dissertation at university, but the macabre didn’t pop up nearly so often… Freese’s collection has large doses of it, and wasn’t always my cup of tea, shall we say. I did want to mention one story, though, which seemed head and shoulders above the rest – ‘Young Man’. It’s a little like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in style, but communicates some sort of mental illness, in an atemporal confusion. If I could remember Genette’s Narrative Discourse, then all sorts of terms would be appropriate. This is part of it:

One day his daughter asked him, “What’s on TV for children tonight, Daddy?”
One day his wife said, “Someday it will be all right.”
One day he asked himself, “Is this it?”
Again his daughter asked him, “What’s on TV for children tonight, Daddy?”
“Watch me, instead,” he replied

A Couple of Capuchins

Well, hasn’t it heated up? Anything above polar leaves me manically fanning myself and drinking gallons of water, so I welcome the cool evenings. My computer is also heating me up, in as much as it is slower than me in a marathon at the moment… if you’re reading this post, then the unlikely has occurred, and I have battled my way to posting it….!

I’ve had a little pile of Capuchin Classics to review for a while (click here for an interview that Emma, who runs Capuchin, did for Stuck-in-a-Book). First two out of the starting blocks are The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, and An Error of Judgement by Pamela Hansford Johnson…

The Green Hat first. I hadn’t heard of 1920s vogue novelist Michael Arlen (real name Dikran Konyoumdjian) but was swept in by the opening sentence: “What kind of hat was it?” And, more importantly, whom the wearer. In this Green Hat, Iris Storm makes her entrance – watched by the novel’s narrator – as she visits the recalcitrant Gerald March. What a simple way this novel begins, and yet what a whirl it takes one through – from simple domestic beginnings, we are whisked off over the country, through Europe, through philosophy about marriage; pondering on purity; the drama of near-death illness and the wit of the self-reflective. It’s impossible to describe succinctly the plot of The Green Hat, so I shall instead try to tempt you with its style. It’s the sort of novel we are assured that the 1920s are full of, and yet which I have never before read. It is the sort of novel which demonstrates how wrong those ‘writing experts’ are when they say never to use a metaphor where the truth will suffice; never to use five words where three will do, and preferably cut the whole chapter. Arlen luxuriates in his loquacity, and would not be ashamed to say so in words of comparable length.

There are sparks of humour, hyperbolic quips, which make you think he is of the Wodehouse school – then, twisted with a sardonic aftertaste, which brings Wilde instead to mind – and finally he will take the line into an entirely unexpected emotion or thought, which leaves you certain that this could only be described as ‘Arlen’. It is brilliant, and only occasionally wearying – like reading witty treacle.

Of course, all that warrants an example, and I can find nothing to fit – but I noted down this:

‘I said to the taxi-driver: “Hell can know no torment like the agony of an innocent in a cage,” and when he had carefully examined his tip he agreed with me.’

The characters are studies in fashionable absurdity; sincere caricatures. Arlen introduces these figures in a dramatic and unique manner – for example:

Hilary was a man who had convinced himself and everyone else that he had neither use nor time for the flibberty-gibberties of life. He collected postage-stamps and had sat as Liberal Member for an Essex constituency for fifteen years. To be a Liberal was against every one of his prejudices, but to be a Conservative was against all his convictions. He thought of democracy as a drain-pipe through which the world must crawl for its health. He did not think the health of the world would ever be good. When travelling he looked porters sternly in the face and over-tipped them. His eyes were grey and gentle, and they were suspicious of being amused. I think that Hilary treasured a belief that his eyes were cold and ironic, as also that his face was of a stern cast. His face was long, and the features somehow muddled. It was a kind face.

Some will say this is all show, and it probably is. People say true art conceals art, but the 1920s disagree – for a lavish, luxurious, and often hilarious read, but one which holds the emotional and painful experience of Iris, a character with depth behind the decadence – you can do little better than The Green Hat.

Onto An Error of Judgement. Pamela Hansford Johnson is one of those names which has been skirting around my consciousness forever, though never enough to actively seek out one of her novels. Written in 1962, An Error of Judgement is an odd mixture – on one hand it is a slanted comedy of manners, a depiction of an ailing marriage – but at the centre of the novel is a gruesome and senseless murder (described, thankfully, in a brief manner). The narrator, Victor, has a fairly average marriage to Jenny – as the novel opens, he has been to see a Harley Street doctor, Setter, and discovered that nothing is wrong with him: he imagines returning with this news – ‘I saw Jenny running toward me, her face alight with hope and fear. I saw her transformed into Maenad joy when she heard my good news, clutching at me, clawing at me, in the force of her delight nealy spilling us on the linoleum.’ In actuality:…

I put my key in the lock. Jenny came walking towards me.
“Darling,” I cried, “I’m all right! I’m all right!”
“I never thought you were anything else,” she said, replacing my constant image of her by the equally constant reality, “And what did all that cost us?”

Alongside the dynamics of this middle-class relationship, Setter is quite a grotesque character. He confesses to becoming a doctor because of his love of pain – both preventing and inflicting it. The latter temptation he scrupulously avoids, but thinks he might have found justification when a macabre murder takes place, and he believes he knows who did it.

These two strands work alongside each other, in a portrait of moral decisions and human foibles. Varying in scale, they are nonetheless compatible storylines – though perhaps neither are dealt with quite satisfactorily. I finished the novel uncertain what Pamela Hansford Johnson had been trying to achieve, or whether or not it had been achieved. Certainly a thinker, as they say.

Well, this post has taken longer than I’d have thought humanly possible, and my laptop has made every effort to prevent it… so I shall take myself to bed.