Thursday, June 28, 2012

Modern Fiction: Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

In novels, aunts rarely do things by half. They can be as different in character as Bertie Wooster's aunts Dahlia and Agatha – the former, "my good and kindly aunt", the latter, "the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young". Yet they will nearly always be domineering. They will have, as Wooster puts it, "a carrying voice". Also, to quote Wodehouse one more delightful time, they're tough: "It isn't often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them."

Literary aunts are, in short, formidable. Alongside Wodehouse's battleaxes, there's the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. There are Just William's scolding, scowling aging relatives. There's Aunt Ada Doom, the witness of the woodshed in Cold Comfort Farm. There are the horrific and cruel aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach. Best of all there's Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield, who electrifies every scene she enters. This is the woman who will rage at David for making the mistake of being born a boy instead of a girl, who will terrify anyone foolish enough to bring a donkey anywhere near her garden, but who still may be finest person ever to have appeared in the pages of a novel: "Never," said my aunt, "be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you."When we meet Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt, all the signs are that Graham Greene is giving us a classic of the breed. Even her name is mighty. Her first words, meanwhile, are as striking as they come: "I was once present at a premature cremation." Within three short pages of making that memorable statement, she implies to Henry that his recently deceased mother was a virgin, that his father was anything but and also invites him round to her gaff for a stiff drink. This is not someone who is backward in coming forward.
So, Augusta initially shapes up to be an especially clear expression of the thesis that aunts are popular with novelists because they provide maternal warmth and love, without the complexities associated with mothers. They allow younger characters space to breathe, to grow and to bust out of the confines of home, without ever smothering them (the latter being exactly what Henry Pulling's recently cremated mother did to him for his first 50 years on earth). Under her influence he stayed at home, worked dutifully in a dull job at a local bank, missed out on love and avoided adventure. Soon after meeting his Aunt Augusta, he has had a run-in with the police, smoked weed on the Orient Express, smuggled money and been offered sex in a brothel in Paris. His aunt has opened up a world of possibility – and the book appears to be following a fairly standard pattern.

Except, this being Greene, doubt has been planted. There are plenty of clues that Augusta isn't such a simple aunt, after all. The author has consciously made her appear a stock character in order to raise certain expectations – and then pull away the scaffolding. By the end, Aunt Augusta seems far more human, fallible and delicate than the average literary aunt – but also rather naughtier. I didn't quite know what to make of her.

On the one hand, she is wonderful. She helped run a profitable church for dogs, with a minister calling himself "Revered" rather than "Reverend" to avoid trouble with the police. She can still make men fall in love with her at the age of 75 – and still do "jig-jig". She is funny. "I have never planned anything illegal in my life," she says. "How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?" When an aeroplane steward questions her drinks order on the grounds that they are just about to land, she replies: "The more reason for you to hurry, young man." She is fine entertainment for Pulling – and for us, too.

On the other hand, she's bad, isn't she? Step away from the manic narrative, where it's so easy to be caught up in her one-woman-whirlwind, and it's possible to view her in a different light. It isn't just that she's a criminal – it's that many of her activities are reprehensible. Her friends can be seedy and shady. She behaves dreadfully to Henry's father's former lover – and also, later on, to her own paramour, Wordsworth. She is often selfish and even cruel. She turns out to be far more complicated than the average literary aunt – right down to the fact (as Greene hints early on) that she isn't an aunt at all.

Greene even leads us to question Augusta's influence on Pulling. There's no doubt that life becomes a lot more interesting for Henry as he begins to understand his true nature and inheritance, but it also becomes a lot less savoury. By the end (look away now, if you haven't got there yet), he's arranged to marry an underage girl, he's a smuggler working for a war criminal in a highly dubious South American dictatorship, and he's a witness to murder. A straightforward reading of the book could view all that as a good thing; it beats tending dahlias, after all. But Greene doesn't quite let us get away with that. The letters poor old Miss Keene sends Henry, practically begging him to rescue her from apartheid-era South Africa and take her back home to Southwood, tug at the conscience. She sounds dull, but she hasn't done anything wrong – and Henry's newfound happiness comes at her expense. Perhaps that's fair enough: as Aunt Augusta points out, if they'd married and stayed in Southwold, it would have been a disaster. But it's also possible to think that the the biggest lesson Henry has taken from Augusta is how to be mean. Betsey Trotwood wouldn't like that at all.

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