Tuesday, 2 October 2001

Henry Green: Party Going (1939)

Edition: Harvill Press, 1996
Review number: 951

The setup for Party Going resembles that of a classic murder mystery. A group of rich young socialites is heading for the south of France for a party, but fog means that there are no trains from a station which seems to be Charing Cross. They take refuge in the station hotel and are there as isolated as they would be at the kind of remote location beloved of crime writers, despite the huge mass of people barricaded outside.

Of course, Party Going is not a murder mystery. It is a drama about the relationships between the young people (accompanied by their servants and, rather bizarrely to modern readers, in some cases by their nannies). These relationships centre around the host of the party, Max Adey, whose ideas about hospitality are based partly on the Aga Khan, whose son was a friend of Henry Yorke in real life.

Reading Party Going, I was bizarrely reminded of Zuleika Dobson, though Green's novel lacks the fantasy elements which play so large a part in Beerbohm's. The reason for this is really that both novels portray much the same kind of upper class existence, frivolous and hardly connected to the real world. Though most of the foundations of this lifestyle were swept away by the First World War, it survived until after the second, and the eventual virtual decline of service as a career.

Party Going is given a sense of depth by the unexplained symbols created at intervals and then ignored - they include the death of a station pigeon, falling at the feet of one of the characters at the beginning of the novel, or the paintings in one of the hotel rooms including a depiction of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The enduring image from the book is the feeling that the privileged few in the hotel are under siege from the vast crowd of ordinary people in the station outside. It is a powerful picture of the end of the old fashioned upper classes.

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