As far as I’m aware, until this month I had never read a book with the word ‘Aunt’ in the title – and now I find myself reading two of them. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, and Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse – both very funny. Perhaps Aunts are a source of untapped hilarity (also languishing on my shelf is Cordial Relations: The Maiden Aunt in Fact and Fiction by Katharine Moore, so more to discover there, too…)
My lovely book group has themed months, where the shortlist for voting must be suggested within a theme or idea. Next month, for example, is books set in Oxford (I’m holding out for Jill by Philip Larkin). Last month was books about geographical journeys – and I suggested Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, which was eventually victorious. I hadn’t read it – indeed, I knew almost nothing about it – but has been told by one or two people that I should read some Greene. And I’m very glad that I did.
Henry has never met his Aunt Augusta before she turns up at his mother’s funeral: “It’s odd how we seem to meet only at religious ceremonies. The last time I saw you was at your baptism.” His quiet life working in a bank, tending his dahlias, and generally not doing very much – it’s all about to be wildly disrupted. His is not a spirit of adventure – ‘The bank had taught me to be wary of whims. Whims so often end in bankruptcy.” But Augusta is no-nonsense, fairly eccentric, and determined to change him. But I’ll let Henry do the describing:
I wish I could reproduce more clearly the tones of her voice. She enjoyed talking, she enjoyed telling a story. She formed her sentences carefully like a slow writer who foresees ahead of him the next sentence and guides his pen towards it. Not for her the broken phrase, the lapse of continuity. There was something classically precise, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, old-world in her diction. The bizarre phrase, and occasionally, it must be agreed, a shocking one, gleamed all the more brightly from the odd setting. As I grew to know her better, I began to regard her as bronze rather than brazen, a bronze which has been smoothed and polished by touch, like the horse’s knee in the lounge of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, which she once described to me, caressed by generations of gamblers.
For Aunt A is well-travelled. When she suggests a trip, Henry thinks Brighton would be a good destination, and it does offer an interesting excursion – little does he know that their travels will later include Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay… Truth be told, the destinations aren’t hugely important in themselves (which rather relieved me, as I’m not usually a fan of travel literature, and was glad that the novel didn’t turn into it) but rather act as settings for the illicit and extraordinary activities with which Augusta is involved. I don’t want to spoil them for you, but safe to say the police get involved along the way.
Having written that, you might be surprised to learn that the character I was reminded of most, from the earliest chapters onwards, was Miss Hargreaves. In the unlikely event that you’ve missed me talking about Miss Hargreaves, probably by favourite novel, you can read my eulogies here. Miss H was written in 1939; Travels With My Aunt came out in 1969 – and Aunt Augusta is more or less what I’d expect Miss Hargreaves to be if she’d lived thirty years later, and been rather less respectable. I can’t imagine Miss Hargreaves saying, for instance, “A brothel is after all a kind of school.” But the characters have the same indomitable spirit, eccentric manner, and amusingly unpredictable speech. The success of Greene’s novel, for me, is through character – through Augusta and Henry’s conversations, where two wholly different characters meet and travel together. The first half of the novel focuses upon character (broadly speaking) and the second half more on plot – which I found perhaps less interesting, though apparently it is more akin to Greene’s literary thrillers.
I haven’t read anything else by Greene, and I’ve been told that Travels With My Aunt is the unGreenelike Greene novel, but I was so charmed and amused by this spirited novel that I’ll definitely be trying some others. Anybody got anything to suggest? I’m also keen to see Maggie Smith in the film, but (of course) it hasn’t been released on DVD… (Oh, and for the thoughts of another member of the book group – I’ve just spotted Harriet’s review!)