If Graham Greene had never published any novels he would surely be remembered as one of our century’s finest book reviewers, film critics, and occasional essayists. In 1953 he wrote a characteristically shrewd and witty review (originally published in The New Statesman and reprinted in Reflections) of the first volume of Leon Edel’s monumental life of Henry James. He observed:
It is a testing volume, for here the greater part of the material has been supplied with incomparable glamour and cunning by the subject himself, in A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. Mr. Edel, with great scholarship and freedom from undue reverence, works his way in and out of this luminous smokescreen: he never allows James to escape completely into the sense of glory.
One is inevitably reminded of the smoke screen behind which Graham Greene himself hid from inquisitive journalists and would-be biographers for most of his life, while allowing them just enough glimpses of personal trauma and wayward behavior—like the famous experiments with Russian roulette—to keep public interest in himself simmering. The review ended on a note that seems today even more pregnant with self-referential significance. Looking forward to future volumes of Edel’s life, Greene wonders how the biographer will cope with the middle years of Henry James, about which the novelist himself vouchsafed little information:
It was in these abandoned years behind the façade of the social figure…that the greater ambiguities stand like the shapes of furniture in a great house shrouded in dust sheets. Now the lights are about to go on, a hand will twitch at the sheets, and James himself, who nosed with such sensitive curiosity around the secret in The Sacred Fount, would surely be the last to complain of a detective of such gravity and honesty, even if he should have to come to deal with what Hanes might have considered the “all but unthinkable.”
Greene did not take so benign a view of such biographical detective work when, much later, it was focused on himself. By the early 1970s, however, he seems to have decided, or to have been persuaded by his family, that the best way to discourage intrusive investigators was to commission an authorized biography. Accordingly, he invited Norman Sherry, the author of two scholarly books about Joseph Conrad which Greene had read and admired, to he his official biographer. Sherry being at this time professor of English literature at Lancaster, one of Britain’s less fashionable new universities, this was the equivalent of a leading actor in some provincial repertory theater suddenly being offered the coveted starring role in a major Hollywood picture.
At the time it must have seemed like a miraculous blessing, but in the event it turned out to be more like a curse, or cross. Setting himself the herculean task of retracing his subject’s every journey (Greene was one of the century’s great literary travelers), Sherry suffered many trials and tribulations, experiencing temporary blindness, succumbing to dysentery in the same Mexican village as Greene himself, and nearly dying from some tropical disease that required the removal of part of his intestines. (One is reminded of the ominous remark of the colonial official in Heart of Darkness—“men who come out here should have no entrails.:) Sherry also surrendered the security of his tenured university chair without any compensation enrichment by way of royalties—according to a recent report in Publishers Weekly (February 27, 1995), he is £78,000 in debt to his publishers.
Greene, for his part, suffered frequent misgivings about the whole enterprise, and by Sherry’s own admission dreaded their occasional interviews. He vainly tried to set limits to Sherry’s freedom of investigation, and even on occasion tried to pretend that he had never intended him to write an exhaustive and thoroughly documented life at all. He made a somewhat chilling prophecy, two thirds of which has already been fulfilled, that he would live to read Sherry’s first volume, but not the second, and that Sherry himself would not live to read the third. At about the same time that he commissioned Sherry, Greene befriended a Spanish priest and university lecturer in English literature, Leopoldo Duran, who had written a doctoral dissertation on the religious element in his novels. Greene encouraged Duran to take notes on their occasional trips through Spain, perhaps hoping to make him into a Boswell whose admiring testimony would act as a counterbalance to Sherry’s “objective” biography.
Duran noted that Greene always became depressed when the topic of Sherry’s book was raised between them, and recorded that the novelist also warned him about “an unauthorized biographer by the name of Mockler.” When Anthony Mockler began serializing his biography in 1989 in an attempt to scoop Sherry’s first volume, Greene took legal action to silence him. The effort to control and curtail the uncovering of his private life was, however, doomed to be only temporarily successful. Little more than three years after Greene’s death, in April 1991, Mockler released the first volume of a revised version of his suppressed book, and Michael Shelden, an American academic and author of books on Cyril Connolly and George Orwell, published one of the most destructive literary biographies of recent times, bristling with “all but unspeakable” revelations and speculations.
Sherry tells a story wonderfully evocative of the novelist’s perturbation at the prospect of all this posthumous raking through his private life. Greene was seeing Sherry off at a railway station after one of their interviews, and they were alone on the platform when Greene mentioned that he had heard that his wife, Vivien, intended to write a book about their marriage:
Once Greene had said that, his face took on a look of total dismay, and he opened his mouth and sang high-pitched from an old music-hall song: “Shovel the dust on the old man’s coffin and take up your pen and write.” He sang with such melancholy that I stood the entranced spectator of another’s mortal sadness.
Even in his own lifetime, when Sherry’s monumental first volume appeared in 1989, covering the years 1904–1939 in Greene’s life, the novelist must have wondered whether he had not damaged rather safeguarded his reputation by authorizing a biography and collaborating with the biographer. Two things stand out in one’s memory of that book, neither of them flattering to the subject. One is the source of Greene’s obsession with betrayal. He had, of course, himself written about his discovery of evil in the bullying to which he was subjected at Berkhamsted School, of which his father was headmaster, and the special stress he suffered as a result of belonging to both ‘sides’ in the inevitable and eternal war between teachers and taught in such as institution. But Sherry, with great pertinacity and investigative skill, uncovered the fact that Greene eventually broke the schoolboy code by naming his tormentor, a boy called Carter, who was consequently expelled. It is a type of betrayal which surfaced in Greene’s first novel, The Man Within (1928), and continued to haunt his imagination for the rest of his life.
The other memorable feature of Sherry’s first volume was its account, extensively documented by reference to Greene’s correspondence and diaries, of his extraordinary emotional and sexual life, especially his courtship of and marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning. The story is told in more condensed form, but with some new details, by Shelden and Mockler.
When he was an undergraduate at Oxford Greene became editor of The Oxford Outlook, and contributed to the issue for February 1925 and article on sex, religion, and the cinema which was to have fateful consequences. “We are most of us considerably oversexed,” it began. “We either go to Church to worship the Virgin Mary or to a public house and snigger over stories and limericks; and this exaggeration of the sex-instinct has had a bad effect of art, on the cinematograph as well as on the stage.” Greene had of course been brought up in the Church of England, but at this stage of his life was a non-believer. A young woman who had recently been converted to Roman Catholicism, and who worked for the Oxford publisher and bookseller Blackwells, wrote to reprimand the author of the article for using the word “worship,” instead of “venerate,” to describe Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. Greene invited Vivien Dayrell-Browning to tea, and subsequently took her to a movie starring Greta Garbo (probably, the knowledgeable editor of The Graham Greene Film Reader surmises, Joyless Street).
The ironies in this episode are almost too thickly clustered to disentangle. Greene himself suffered chronically from that dissociated sensibility in sexual matters which he rather priggishly diagnosed in his undergraduate article: the mixture of fascination and disgust with the sexual act, and the related tendency to stereotype women as either Madonna or whore. These motifs recur again and again in his fiction. He identified Vivien as a Madonna and fell in love with her in high romantic style. She was only nineteen, emotionally immature, a virgin who by her won admission found the idea of physical sex repugnant. She did not want to marry anybody. But he set himself to win her, and he succeeded by the sheer force of his will, exercised through a deluge of letters—he wrote some two thousand to her in a thirty-month period, sometimes three a day.
For her sake he undertook instruction in the Catholic faith, and was received into the Church. He even at one stage tried to allay her sexual timidity by proposing a celibate marriage. According to Mockler, Vivien made bizarre counterproposal: that her mother should adopt Greene so that they could live together as brother and sister. Greene squashed that idea, but in drawing and enticing picture of their honeymoon he implied that they would have separate bedrooms. Unable to resist such gallantry and ardor, Vivien capitulated and agreed to marry. Greene was happy and triumphant. However, within a year of the marriage, Sherry discovered, he was resorting to prostitutes in London. Mockler claims that he did so soon after Vivien agreed to marry him.
Prostitutes certainly fascinated Greene throughout his life. He had something like a real love affair with one called “Annette” in the mid-Thirties, and the heroine of one of his last novels, Clara in The Honorary Consul, is a member fo the oldest profession. He made a point of patronizing the brothels in every foreign country he visited, if only as a non-participating observer. But that he indulge this taste at the very outset of his marriage was hardly a good omen for its future. Although Greene certainly cared for Vivien, dedicated books to her, and sent her affectionate messages on many occasions, he spent much of his married life deliberately living away from her and their two children, often in the company of a mistress.
There is some evidence that their sexual relationship was not helped by Catholic teaching on birth control. Greene fully shared Cyril Connolly’s belief that “the pram in the hall was the enemy of good art,” but Vivien would have been a dutiful daughter of the Church in this respect. According to Mockler, the bedroom of their first flat was divided into two sections by a curtain to assist sexual abstinence. In his conversations with Leopoldo Duran, Greene criticized the Catholic prohibition on artiful contraception with almost monotonous regularity, and I happen to know that he sent my own novel The British Museum is Falling Down to Cardinal Heenan of England, in the forlorn hope that he might find its satirical treatment of this subject instructive.
But sex was not the only point of incompatibility between the Greenes. Graham was a man driven by strange demonic energies, brilliant, moody and self-obsessed, often on the edge of suicidal depression. Vivien in contrast was shy, passive, conventional, “nice” in a quintessentially English way. As Mockler rather obviously but justly observes, “Two such different people, one feels, should never even have considered getting married.” Marriage brought them both more misery than happiness, but whereas Greene’s imagination thrived on pain and guilt, for Vivien it was just ordinary, unproductive unhappiness. Yet she seems to have been as incapable, or as unwilling, as Greene to make a clean break until long after the marriage had irremediably broken down.
Further uncomfortable light is thrown on the tormented marriage in Sherry’s second volume. According to Vivien, it ended sexually just before the beginning of World War II, but they continued to cohabit intermittently, apparently sharing the same bed, until 1947, though Greene was more often absent from than present in the matrimonial home. From 1935 till the outbreak of war, this was a Queen Anne house on he north side of Clapham Common. At this time Greene was making a precarious living as a free-lance writer, supplementing his modest royalties from fiction with literary journalism, travel writing, film-reviewing, and writing screenplays. He worked with manic and reckless energy, driven partly by financial anxiety, but more, one suspects, to escape from the frustrations and conflicts of his personal life. Probably, too, the encroaching shadow of the war, which he, like so many others, thought inevitable, made him feel he had a limited time in which to make his mark on English literature. For a period in 1939 he worked on two books simultaneously, the “Entertainment” The Confidential Agent (completed in six weeks) in the mornings and The Power and the Glory in the afternoons, using Benzedrine to keep going. Finding it impossible to work at home, he had rented a room in Bloomsbury for this purpose. His landlady’s daughter, living in the same house, was Dorothy Glover, a former stage dancer turned book illustrator, and by or before the outbreak of war she had become Greene’s mistress.
Readers of The Confidential Agent may recall that at one particularly exciting part of the story the hero, know as D., fleeing from enemies intent on murdering him, breaks into an unoccupied flat with the name “Glover” beside the doorbell. The interior and its contents “spoke to him of an unmarried aging woman with few interests.” It was a private joke of a kind that Greene frequently inserted into his fiction—a joke between himself and Dorothy but rather cruelly excluding Vivien, who must have read this passage years before she had any idea of Greene’s relationship with a woman called Glover. War broke out, Vivien was dispatched with the children to live more safely, but uncomfortably, first with Greene’s parents, and then with friends in Oxford.
Greene himself remained in London, nominally residing in the Clapham house, but in fact spending most of his time with Dorothy. Adultery probably saved his life, because one night when Greene was in Bloomsbury, the Clapham house was destroyed by a German bomb (an ironic escape which found its way in displaced form into The End of the Affair). For Greene is was as if the shackles of bourgeois domesticity had been struck from his limbs. Malcolm Muggeridge said that he would “never forget the expression of utter glee that came across Graham’s face when he told me that his family home had been destroyed.” Vivien for her part was devastated by the loss, and henceforward dedicated herself to collecting period dolls’ houses. At times the Greene marriage resembled a psychodrama written in collaboration by Strindberg and Ibsen. But Vivien’s descriptiom of ther frist encounter with Dorothy Glover, when she dropped in at Graham’s London flat unexpectedly one day after the war, reads more like something by Noël Coward:
I don’t think we went much further than the hall, and we were just chatting. He was a bit uneasy and presently a small stoutish woman in blue glasses, like a character in a Victorian novel, make up the stairs. She was quite small and roly-poly, and she came up and was taken aback and said, “Oh! Graham, I came to ask if I could borrow your telelphone—I wanted to telephone my furrier.” At once I thought, “Fancy climbing three flights of stairs to borrow a telephone and then to telephone your furrier at about 6.45.” He introduced us, and I made a getaway. He was taking her out to dinner obviously, and this ridiculous story about a furrier.
Dorothy was in her fifties by that time, but even when she was younger her attraction for Greene was something of a mystery to his friends. She was short, stocky, and, to judge by the only photograph of her in the Sherry volume, had a face like a frog. But she was loyal, discreet, and plucky. Greene particularly admired her cool courage in the London Blitz, when he was working in Central London by day and acting as a firewatcher by night, fitting in dalliance with Dorothy in his off-duty hours. (An official was once scandalized to see them necking in the corner of an air-raid shelter. “But this is Mr. Greene,” said the chief warden, “one of our best wardens, and his nice wife.”)
It was something of a commonplace that many young men of Greene’s generation and class, brought up on the heroic, imperialistic adventure stories of Kipling, Henty, and Rider Haggard, and educated in the patriotic ethos of the British public schools, felt to some extent cheated or guilty because they were just too young to fight in the Great War, and sought to compensate for this and “prove themselves” by adventurous foreign travel and/or participation in the Spanish Civil War, Greene’s dangerous and uncomfortable journeys through Liberia and Mexico, recorded in Journey without Maps and The Lawless Roads respectively, conform to the pattern. If he didn’t (after a halfhearted and abortive attempt to contact the Basques) get involved in the Spanish was it was because he was ideologically divided about it. Most Catholics at the time sided with Franco because he was defending the Church against Republican persecution, but Greene disliked fascist dictatorships. His novels and Entertainments of the Thirties express a sympathy for the exploited and underprivileged that was thoroughly compatible with the left-wing political views fashionable in literary and intellectual circles at the time, but he was not a socialist. As he wrote in Journey with out Maps, “I find myself always torn between two beliefs: the belief that life should be better than it is, and the belief that when it appears better it is really worse.” He was one of the very few writers of note who delined to answer the famous questionnaire Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War (1937).
Given this background , it might have been expected that Greene, like his fellow Catholic convert and friend, Evelyn Waugh, would eagerly seek active service in World War Two, especially after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when (in the words of Waugh’s Guy Crouchback) “the enemy at last was plain in view” (i.e., the double-headed monster of fascist and Communist tyranny). Greene records in Ways of Escape that he did indeed volunteer for the infantry, and was accepted, but asked for six months’ deferment to finish The Power and the Glory. However, as Sherry and Mockler observe, the dates don’t fit: Greene had already finished his novel before his interview with the recruiting board. Sherry charitably supposes he wanted more time to accumulate literary earnings for his family, but it seems more likely that, while enjoying the Henty-like gesture of volunteering for the infantry, Greene had a pretty good idea of how irksome regimental life and military discipline would be to such an anarchic character as himself (something Waugh had to discover from painful experience), and postponed his induction in the hope that something more exciting and less restrictive would turn up.
He tried to interest the authorities in a scheme to appoint “official writers to the Forces”—on the lines of the well-established War Artists program. That would have suited him perfectly: and opportunity to experience combat at first hand, while retaining the personal liberty of a free-lance writer (much later he was to establish such a role fro himself in South-East Asia). But he had no success with his idea, and his experience of action was confined to the Home Front in the London Blitz—which, to speak the truth was more exciting and dangerous than anything experienced by most regular soldiers at the time. Greene enjoyed waking to the sound of broken glass being swept up in the streets, realizing one had survived another night of dicing with death, and even took a kind of dark satisfaction in the destruction of the city’s fabric, which he saw at the nemesis of a rotten civilization.
Some two months before he was due to be called up into the army, Greene accepted (or sought—some wisps of smoke screen still hang about this episode) a post in the Ministry of Information. As Sherry observes, this was a somewhat surprising move, because it was not long since he had jeered at Stephen Spender for accepting just such a sage bureaucratic job. The inconsistency did not inhibit Greene from satirizing the Ministry of Information in his story “Men at Work,” but there is perhaps an element of self-accusation in this little gem of understated irony, which Mockler rightly singles out for praise. As the Battle of Britain rages, and Europe is flattened under the Nazi jackboot, the central character, Skate, has to chair a Book Committee meeting, the agenda for which reads:
1. Arising from the Minutes.
2. Pamphlet in Welsh on German labour conditions.
3. Facilities for Milkinson to visit A.T.S.
4. Objections to proposed Bone pamphlet.
5. Suggestions for a leaflet from Meat Marketing Board.
6. The problem of India.
Someone comes in with news of the latest German air raids.
“We must really get Bone’s pamphlet out,” Hill said.
Skate suddenly, “That’ll show them,” and then sat down in humble collapse as though he had been caught out in treachery.
Later, when the committee has dispersed, Skate goes to the window.
Far up in the pale enournous sky little white lines, like the phosphorescent spoor of snails, showed where men were going home after work.
It is good to be reminded, as the dust sheets are twitched from Greene’s sometimes discreditable private life, that there wree few modern writers who could construct a sentence as precise and beautifully weighted as that. And it is interesting, though not surprising, to learn from Leopoldo Duran that is was Greene’s habit to read aloud his work in progress, because “he attaché great importance to the cadence ofa sentence.”
Greene was sacked, uncomplainingly fro the Ministry of Information in some bureaucratic pruge after sercing for about six months. Shortly afterward he became literary editor of The Spectator, but this was hardly a significant contribution to the war effort. So far, Greene had not had a distinguished war. Then, in 1941, he was recruited for the British Secret Service by his younger sister Elisabeth.
“By nature he was the perfect spy,” Sherry observed. Shelden says: “It is impossible to make sense of Greene’s life until one acknowledges the extent of his devotion to spying.” Spying indeed ran in the family. Greene’s uncle, Sir William Graham Greene, was one of the chief architects of the Naval Intelligence department of the Admirality; his older brother Herbert, the black sheep of the family, spied for the Hanpanese in England, and for unidentified clients in Spain; Elisabeth, as well as working for M16 married one of its most senior officers, Rodney Dennys.
Shelden claims, on the basis of memoirs by Graham Greene’s contemporaries at Berkhamsted School, that his father encouraged the boys to spy on each other and to report irregular behavior, especially anything pertaining to masturbation and homosexuality. While still and undergraduate, Greene obtained a free trip from the German embassy in return for writing newspaper articles sympathetic to German protests against French occupation of parts of the Ruhr, while at the same time offering to purvey information to the French government. Shelden plausibly suggests that it can hardly have been coincidental that Greene took a “holiday” in Estonia in 1934., just as a political coup occurred in neighboring Latvia, where he changed planes. And it seems certain that his trip to Liberia, which he presented in The Lawless Roadsas a quixotic, metaphysically motivated journey into the heart of darkenss, was sponsored by the Anti-slavery Society, which was anxious to gather evidence against the Liberian government and its ruthless military commander, Colonel T. Elwood Davis. Greene’s recruitment to the British SIS was in a sense a call he had been waiting for all his life.
His initial experience in this role was, however, bathetic. His training was a farce—he was hopeless at drill, and dept falling off the motorbike he was taught to ride. And his first posting, to Sierra Leone, West Africa, was in one of the least important theaters of war. His only duty of any practical consequence was the tedious and rather demeaning one of searching neutral ships for contraband. His own enterprising and entirely characteristic scheme to elicit information from Vichy officers in neighboring Senegal by setting up mobile brothels staffed by prostitute-agents was not implemented (though it received surprisingly serious consideration in London).
In Freetown Greene lived alone in an uncomfortable, badly situated bungalow, regarded with equal suspicion by the colonial ex-pats and his African neighbors (who called him in their own language “the bad man”). Nevertheless he developed a deep affection for West Africa, which he called “the soupsweet land.” Perhaps it was, in the memorable works of The Heart of the Matter, “the loyalty we all have to unhappiness, the feeling that this is where we really belong.” Sierra Leone, and Freetown in particular, were of course to provide the setting for that novel, which make him internationally famous, and Sherry’s meticulous research reveals that there was a real-life source for practically every character and incident in it. That, however, was all in the future. The book he actually wrote in Freetown was The Ministry of Fear, one of his best Entertainents, set in wartime London.
In 1943 he was recalled to London and assigned to the Portuguese desk in Section V of M16. (“It did not seem to matter,” Shelden laconically comments, “that he know practically nothing about the country and could neither read nor speak the language.”) His superior was a man who had been recruited to the secret service at the same time as Greene. His name was Kim Philby. The two men became friends.
Portugal was a place of critical importance to Allied intelligence operations, for much of the misinformation with which they confused German speculation about the planned invasion of France passed through this neutral country (in particular through a spy code-named Garbo, whose inventive lies later inspired the character of Wormold in Our Man in Havana. Another stream of information that passed through Portugal in the opposite direction concerned the German resistance to Hitler, and its leaders’ tentative sounding of allied governments about the prospects for a negotiated peace, should Hitler be assassinated. This would have been of particular interest to Greene because his cousin Barbara, who had improbably accompanied him on his safari through Liberia (and who wrote her own book about the trip), was living in Germany, married to a Catholic aristocrat sympathetic to the resistance. They were extremely fortunate to survive the ruthless purge that followed the July 1944 plot.
It is know that Philby discouraged contacts with the anti-Hitler party in Germany, because a negotiated peace would be against Soviet interest in a postwar European settlement. He was also at this time probably passing to the Russians the highly secret intelligence gathered through Ultra., the code-breaking operation at Bletchley, though this was expressly forbidden for fear that the Nazis would be alerted to the existence of Ultra in this way. As Mockler usefully explains, other members of M16 besides Philby were unhappy about withholding vital, life-saving information from an ally, and at least one also defied the rules. How much did Greene know about these matters? Both Sherry and Shelden agree that his surprising resignation from M16 in May 1944 suggests that he at least suspected something about Philby’s activities as a double agent. This was just about the most exciting time of the entire war for the Secret Service, with the opening of a second Front in Europe imminent, and growing evidence of resistance to Hitler in Germany. Why did Greene choose to leave at this crucial moment, and to take instead a footling job, in something called the Political Warfare Executive, of exactly the kind he had satirized in “Men at Work”? (His first duty was to edit a literary magazine to be distributed by parachute in Occupied France to bring the French up to date on world literature.)
Greene’s own party was that he had perceived that Philby was maneuvering for promotion in M16, and that this would entail his own appointment as Philby’s successor over the head of a more deserving colleague, and that he wante to part of such office intrigues. But again the dates don’t quite fit. It wasn’t until six months later that Philby obtained the job he coveted: head of counterintelligence operations against Soviet Russia. There was no reason for Greene to have acted so precipitately on such grounds. Both Sherry and Sheldon believe that Greene must have realized that Philby was a Soviet mole, and decided to get out before (to use E. M. Forster’s celebrated formula) he was obliged to choose between betraying his friend and betraying his country. Greene never admitted to this motive, but when Sherry asked him what he would have one if he had known Philby was a traitor, he answered that he “might” have allowed [him] 24 hours to flee as a friend, then reported him.”
This was far from being the end of Greene’s connections with the Secret Service or with Philby. At the time, however, Greene seemed ina hurry to return to civilian life and concerns. He rather surprisingly became a publisher, accepting a directorship with the well-established firm of Eyre and Spottiswoode. He seems to have felt that he was played out as a creative writer (he had written nothing in 1943-1944) and was looking for a congenial alternative with financial security. By all accounts he was an effective and businesslike publisher, who invigorated the Eyre and Spottiswoode list by acquiring foreign writers be admired, like Mauriac and Narayan; but in the end his temperament proved too mercurial for the job. Colleagues could just about tolerate his penchant for practical jokes and hoaxes (e.g., inventing a missing manuscript and impersonating the indignant author in letters and phone calls), but when he lost Anthony Powell from the list by constantly delaying the publication of Powell’s biography of John Aubrey, and describing it to the author’s face as “a bloody boring book,” he was obliged to resign. The details of this affair are disputed, but the outcome was fortunate for English letters, for Greene then entered on what was to be one of the most creative periods of his life, in the course of which produced the novels The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, the films The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, and the stage play The Living Room.
By the early 1950s he was arguably the most famous and highly esteemed living English novelist, with a huge following in other countries all around the world. It was also a period of intense emotional and sexual turmoil, dominated by the great love of his life, Catherine Walston. It has been known for some time that she was the “C” to whom The End of the Affair was dedicated, and the model for its heroine, Sarah. But the extraordinary story of the real affair, as told by Sherry and Shelden, would seem hardly credible in a work of fiction.
When Catherine Walston entered Greene’s life, in September 1946, he was still involved in a cooling relationship with Dorothy Glover in London., while maintaining and occasionally visiting Vivien and his children in the house he had bought in Oxford. Vivien know about Dorothy by now, and about other, more casual, relationships, but stifled her resentment, perhaps for the sake of the children, perhaps because she hoped the marriage might yet be saved. Greene for his part seems to have been unable to make a clean break with either of these women. Scobie’s misery and guilt in The Heart of the Matter, torn between the claims of his unhappy wife, Louise, and the pathetic young war widow, Helen, who becomes his mistress, pretty clearly reflected Greene’s sense of his won plight at this time. Perhaps that was why he could never bear to retread this novel in later life, and always expressed dislike for it. He was two thirds of the way through writing it when he met Catherine Walston.
She was half-English by birth, American by nationality and upbringing, the wife of a rich English landowner, Harry Walston, who later became a Labour peer. She had the looks of a film star and was given to willful and eccentric behavior. Theirs was an “open marriage,” and she had had several affairs, apparently condoned by Walston, before she met Greene. He, however, know nothing about her when he received a letter from her saying that she had decided to become a Catholic as a result of reading his books. Shortly afterward, she rang up Vivien and asked if Greene would act as her sponsor or godfather on her reception into the Church. This must count as the most original seduction gambit in the history of reader-author relations. Greene was amused, and sent the ever-willing Vivien to attend the ceremony in his stead.
An extraordinary photograph of this occasion survives, and is reproduced by Sherry, in which a rather dowdy Vivien is looking askance at the poised and glamorous Catherine with an expression that mingles puzzlement with dislike, as if already trying to estimate the trouble this woman was going to cause her. When Greene gathered from Vivien what a remarkable person his new godchild was, he arranged to give her lunch in London. After the meal she insisted on showing him her statly home in East Anglia, and when he demurred because of the difficulty of returning to Oxford the same day, nonchalantly offered to fly him home in a hired plane—which she did. Such a combination of wealth, impulsiveness, and beauty was irresistible to Greene He fell in love with Catherine, and they commenced on a great affair in which agony and ecstasy were fairly evenly balanced. Vivien confided to Sherry many years later what it felt like from her point of view. “I think she was out to get him and got him. I think it was a quite straightforward grab….It was just as if you got into a railway carriage with somebody and know very well and they got the tickets and sat down to read and presently they got up and simply opened the door of the carriage and heaved you out.”
A strikingly paradoxical feature of the affair was that the religious faith the lovers shared, and which had brought them together, condemned adultery as a very grave sin. Both Greene and Catherine seemed to be able to live with this contradiction, and even to derive a strange spiritual exaltation from it. In his letters to Catherine, Greene often mentioned that he had been a much more fervent Catholic, and far more regular in attendance at mass, since meeting her than he was before. “I’m a much better Catholic in mortal sin! Or a least I’m more aware of it.” This spiritual balancing act was achieved by dint of a rather magical attitude toward confession and a rather liberal interpretation of the “firm purpose of amendment,” which moral theologians deem necessary for the sacrament of penance to be valid.
The point is vividly illustrated in a story Vivien told Sherry (and Shelden, with some slight variation of details) about returning to her house in Oxford one evening in April 1947 to find Greene there with Catherine. They were on their way back to London from a stay in Catherine’s cottage on Achill island, off the West Coast of Ireland; and Vivien guessed then, if she had not guessed before, that they were lovers. Greene explained that Catherine had a bad back and suggested that she should stay the night in Oxford.
And I said for something to say, I see it is your name day tomorrow. I am going to Mass anyway, it’s only just round the corner.” She said, Oh, I’ll come with you” and she came and she had Communion next to me. Some later time, I brought this up…and he said…”Oh we both went to confession before we came here.” But they went straight on to London to live together and that was sort sickening.
Sherry notes that Vivien was wrong in this last particular: at this time Greene was still living with Dorothy Glover during the week.
Vivien’s self-restraint finally gave way when she read a love letter from Greene to Catherine which had been wrongly addressed and returned to the Oxford house. It must have reminded her poignantly of his two thousand love letters to herself in years gone by. She had a showdown with Greene, as a result of which he left her. She remembered the date because it was the wedding day of the future Queen Elizabeth II.
Greene, however, had still to make the break with Dorothy. As if determined to wring the maximum amount of pain out of it, he planned to take her on holiday in Marrakesh, and there to give her a letter explaining that he was in love with somebody else and that they must part (it is not clear whether he intended to watch her read the letter or creep away into the desert at that point). Dorothy, however, discovered the affair independently in the spring of 1948 just before the predicted vacation. Bizarrely, they went ahead with the trip and, as might have been predicted, had a thoroughly miserable time. Only then, in May 1948, did Greene finally move out of the flat he shared with Dorothy in Gordon Square. In the same month The Heart of the Matter, with its epigraph from Péguy, “Le pécheur est au coeur meme de chrétienté…” (“The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity”, was published and made Greene famous.
Greene’s affair with Catherine was a rich, decadent mixture of sex and spirituality. He wrote to her once that he wanted to lie in bed with her, reading Saint John of the Cross. In another letter he expressed in transparent code a wish to bugger her and in another there is a suggestion of experiment in sadomasochism: “My dear, the important cigarette burn has completely gone. It must be renewed.” The relationship inspired the most erotically explicit and intensely religious of Greene’s novels (also the most formally perfect), The End of the Affair (1951). Greene referred to it familiarly in his correspondence with Catherine as “as the great sex novel.” Evidently it was even more explicit in the early drafts. “A few ‘narrow loin’ cuts do make and enormous difference,” he wrote to Catherine in November 1950. (The allusion , which Sherry does not identify, is to a much derided passage in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “now on the rough water, as I was made free of her narrow loins….”)
The publication of The End of the Affair was to have a considerable impact on the real-life affair. Up to that time, Harry Walston seemed to be a complaisant husband, and to tolerate his wife’s frequent absences from home in Greene’s company. But when the novel was published he was pained to find himself very obviously portrayed as the cuckolded civil servant, thought with typical playfulness, Greene gave the character his own baptismal first name, Henry. Walston now demanded that the relationship must end. There followed much heart-searching, big emotional scenes, rows and reconciliations and more rows. Harry was heard sobbing in his room all one night. Greene himself frequently claimed in his letters to Catherine to be weeping over their separation—though they continued to meet occasionally in various parts of the world. He was always begging her to leave her husband, and forever trying to square the theological circle in which they were trapped: as practicing Catholics they could neither divorce their respective spouses and marry again, nor cohabit without being married. For example:
Whenever we settled for any length of time, we would have two rooms available, so that at any time without ceasing to live together & love each other, you could go to Communion (we would break down again & again, but that’s neither here nor there).
When Catherine made the counter-proposal that they should continue as platonic lovers (and ironic reprise of Greene’s courtship of Vivien), Greene rejected it with a quotation from his favorite poet, Browning: “Better sin the whole sin sure that God observes.”
Greene destroyed all Catherine’s letters to himself, so we get a rather one-sided picture of their relationship, but a letter from her to her sister, quoted by Sherry, gives us an idea of her view of him:
Graham’s misery is as real as an illness…He has no work, no family, no friends whom he has any responsibility for, and every hour of the day he has nothing to plan for or no one to consider but himself, and for a melancholic by nature, his is a terrible breeding ground, and all I do, really, is to make things worse in the long run by my own fears of abandoning him.
Eventually the affair petered out, rather than ended in any decisive or dramatic way, in the early Sixties, as Greene realized that Catherine was never going to leave her husband and family and devote herself exclusively to him. By 1966 he had taken another mistress, Yvonne Cloetta, who was to remain his companion for the rest of his life. The remainder of Catherine’s was rather melancholy. Drink and illness ravaged her beauty and she refused to let Greene see her when she was dying of cancer in 1978. After her death Greene and Walston became good friends again, an outcome eerily anticipated in The End of the Affair.
(This is the first of two articles on Graham Greene.)
June 8, 1995