Graham Greene was born in 1904 at this St. John’s boarding house in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, where his father was housemaster. Photo from Wikipedia

Graham Greene: a saint who would be sinner

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • February 3, 2021

The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene (W.W. Norton, 2021, 608 pages)

On fortuitous occasions, the right biographer finds the right subject at just the right time. 

Richard Greene (no relation to his subject), a professor of English at the University of Toronto, has been reading and pondering Graham Greene, the most consequential English novelist of the last half century, since he was a 15-year-old high school student. As for timing: 30 years ago an American academic named Norman Sherry wrote a huge, gelatinous, three-volume biography of Graham Greene that buried the reader in mountains of inconsequential detail. What was needed was a single volume — eloquent, brisk, yet substantive, and one that would consider the wealth of new information about the author that has recently come to light. This was Richard Greene’s task and he has carried it off superbly in The Unquiet Gentleman: A Life of Graham Greene.

Graham Greene was born Oct. 8, 1904 in Berkhamsted, north of London. His father was the headmaster of St. John’s School where young Graham was a student so disconsolate as to attempt suicide more than once. Forty years later, when he went back to St. John’s School to gather material for a projected novel, Greene found his memories so debilitating that he abandoned the project and went off instead to a leper colony in the Congo, the setting for The Heart of the Matter. It was his wretched school days that provided twin themes — betrayal and the hunted man — which would resonate through his later fiction. 

In the autumn of 1922 Greene went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a desultory student, a self-proclaimed atheist, a hard drinker and, briefly, a member of the Communist Party. His self-description: “a muddled adolescent who wanted to write but had not found his subject, who wanted to express his lust but was too scared to try, and who wanted to love but hadn’t found a real object.”

The latter condition changed in 1925 when he met a dark, vivacious, publisher’s assistant named Vivien Dayrell-Browning. She had written him a letter criticizing his understanding of the Virgin Mary, and he invited her to tea. Totally, unreservedly, he fell in love, as he would never do again. He showered her with letters, often several a day, before asking her to marry him. She refused because he was not a Roman Catholic, whereupon he converted, primarily for her sake but also for “something fine and hard and certain, however uncomfortable, to catch hold of in the general flux.” 

At his reception into the Church he chose the name Thomas, after the doubting disciple. Thus was an Oxford atheist transformed into a Catholic novelist by a woman who first set him right about the Virgin Mary. Truly God is not mocked!

Married in 1927, they had two children, before separating irrevocably 20 years later. Greene described himself as “a bad husband and a fickle lover.” Over the next decades, many women would discover the truth of this self-assessment. Even friends would occasionally discern at Greene’s core a sliver of ice.

Greene’s first novel The Man Within (1929) was successful in critical acclaim and sales. And so for the next half century, through a score of novels, mostly gritty, sordid accounts of weak men stretched but never quite broken on the wheel of fate, Greene created a unique landscape — some called it “Greeneland,” although he disliked the term. He probably deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature, but petty jealousies among members of the Swedish selection committee always precluded it.

Greene’s most acclaimed novels (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The Quiet American, The End of the Affair) all have a unifying theme — the ambiguity of good and evil. He once said: “The greatest saints have been men with more than a normal capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly evaded sanctity.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, a friend of Greene’s — both served in MI6 during the Second World War — said of him: “Spiritually, and even physically, Graham is one of nature’s displaced persons — a saint trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner.” This remark got back to Greene who was irked by it; nevertheless, it’s a shrewd insight. Muggeridge and Greene happened to be together in Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. As they walked by the Sea of Galilee one day, Greene said that his favourite biblical text was: “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

After a chaotic, dissolute, but productive life, on his 80th birthday, Greene was asked if he still felt “hounded” by God? “I hope so,” he replied. “I’m not very conscious of His presence, but I hope that He is still dogging my footsteps.”

Greene died on April 3, 1991, age 86, having just received the last rites. The face of the hunted man was finally set for home.

I hope that Richard Greene’s The Unquiet Englishman may introduce new generations of readers to the melancholic, dyspeptic, but often rewarding and always God-haunted novelist, Graham Greene.

(Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont.)

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