Vivien Greene

Wife of Graham Greene and collector of doll's houses
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The Independent Online

Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, dolls' house collector: born 1 August 1905; married 1927 Graham Greene (died 1991; one son, one daughter); died Oxford 19 August 2003.

"Adulterous novelist's wife tells all." So ran an Oxford Mail hoarding across the city at the beginning of 2000 - something that could hardly have been predicted 75 years earlier, when Vivienne Dayrell-Browning made bold to write to the student Graham Greene and criticise his article in the Oxford Outlook which had asserted that "we either go to Church and 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 on art, on the cinematograph as well as on the stage".

The sex instinct, if not the reciting of limericks, would become a vexed part of the lives of Graham and Vivien Greene (she changed the spelling of her name from Vivienne to Vivien) - reflected in his novel The End of the Affair (1951), a film version of which in 1999 was the occasion of Vivien's revisiting those first 20, turbulent years of a marriage which technically ended only with Greene's death in 1991, although the Greenes had separated in 1948.

There can certainly have been no more unlikely cause of a meeting than her telling him, in 1925, that one does not worship the Virgin but venerates her, indeed that the correct term is "hyperdulia". In years to come, that was the sort of corrective letter from a member of the public that Greene would answer with a briskly dictated couple of sentences. Instinct, however, led him to reply apologetically, at some length, to Vivien for his article's antagonistic tone. He had been feeling fed up, his pen had taken over and, well, "I really am very sorry. Will you forgive me, and come and have tea with me as a sign of forgiveness?"

Greene described her to his mother as "some ardent Catholic in Blackwell's publishing firm" and, indeed, they had already met briefly, when he went there to Blackwell's to discuss the volume of poems - Babbling April - which he duly lamented ever having published. She was not to remember anything that he said that day in the office where she was a secretary, but he spoke of having "just seen an awfully pretty girl".

Tea, then, was perhaps not entirely intended as a matter of semantic discussions with this 20-year-old woman who, at 16, had been aghast to find that her mother had gathered and not only published her adolescent verse as The Little Wings, but cajoled G.K. Chesterton into writing a preface which extolled the work as "very beautiful and still more promising. The child who has still some touch of the fairies is not only more admirable, but really more terrible than the enfant terrible".

Vivien Dayrell-Browning was born in 1905 and had been brought up in Bristol, Liverpool, Antwerp and Munich. "No sooner had we arrived than it seemed to be time to move on again. I was miserable and grew to hate the impermanence of our life and to long above all for a settled home." A refuge was her grandparents' home above the Avon Gorge at Clifton.

To her mother's chagrin, but presumably to Chesterton's delight, Vivien became a Catholic at 17. Such was her faith that, later, Greene too would surrender his atheism. The complexity of Greene's psychology - and of any marriage - is such that many commentators, eager to nail down the matter and pass on to the next subject, have come up with some wild theories. If, however, one has to characterise Greene upon the yellowing thumbnail sported by many of his characters, it is to say that in him jostled a sense of determination to produce dozens of books and a craving for distraction from the task; one fuelled the other.

Towards the end of his Oxford years he was unsettled and it is fair to say that had Vivien been a Buddhist, he would have explored Buddhism. There is perhaps no need to trace at any length the 1,000-letter path by which he pursued her after initial rebuttal. Even for the recipient, gossip is more enduring than professions of love, for tittle-tattle offers greater variety than any ardent suitor can muster, especially if he chooses to write three times a day. None the less, Greene's willingness both to become a Catholic and to suggest that sex need not be a part of their union is as much part of a nature which was prone to extremes as was his almost taking a job with a tobacco company which would have duly sent him to China. He jettisoned that plan after falling out with a fellow-clerk.

So it was that Graham Greene took a tutorial job in a Midlands village, and then found work on a Nottingham newspaper while keeping The Times within his sights. He loathed Nottingham ("this town makes one want a mental and physical bath every quarter of an hour"). He left it after three months and was now a Catholic; at which, in London, he was promptly offered work on a Methodist weekly, from which dilemma he was rescued by a post at The Times.

He was determined to write, spurred by the prospect of marriage, however trepidatious that made him. They finally married in 1927, in Hampstead, where Vivien's now-separated mother was living. Afterwards, Greene opened a letter from Vivien's mother - and, without showing his bride, threw away its thoughts upon sexual technique.

He called her "pussy" and she called him "tiger". All were struck by the affection they showed for each other, and by Vivien's collection of Victorian dolls. Fortune soon shone brightly with the success of Graham Greene's first published novel, The Man Within (1929), and dulled with the failure of the next two (never reprinted). He had by now made bold to leave The Times. Life was tough, made all the more so with the arrival of two children, and for a while they holed up in Chipping Camden, from which they moved, via Oxford, to a smart house on Clapham Common's North Side. This was the envy of writers without his diligence and his increasing flair for work as yet far from bestselling but - as with Stamboul Train - certainly the stuff of Hollywood options. A prolific journalist, he was often abroad, with notable trips around Mexico and Liberia.

Anybody who ever had any dealings with Greene found life heightened by a man forever seeking to alleviate ennui. One can only imagine, then, that marriage to him would never have dwindled into routine but, founded upon the Greene's distinctly different insecurities, their relationship inevitably became troubled. The situation was exacerbated and eased by Greene's penchant for prostitutes and a series of affairs; the dynamics of these were of a piece with a man whose view of the world was far from black-and-white. Vivien herself was possessed of keen intelligence, they had much in common, but she could only follow him so far

The war sundered many a marriage. After going with their children, Francis and Lucy (who later preferred the name Caroline), to stay with Graham's parents in Crowborough in Sussex, Vivien realised that it was an awkward situation, and they moved on to the vacated President's Lodgings at Trinity College, Oxford, then to a smart house which she found in Beaumont Street. There she duly learnt that the Clapham house had been destroyed by German bombs. Greene, meanwhile, was to work for SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service) in Sierra Leone, inspiration for his first international success, The Heart of the Matter (1947) although by now his reputation - if not huge sales - had been firmly established with Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940).

In contrast to Graham Greene's life in a sweaty hut, Vivien furnished the Oxford house by visiting auction sales with the historian A.J.P. Taylor. One day they were in Burford, and she was delighted by a doll's house. It was a Proustian moment. She lugged it home on the bus. "I needed a hobby, the wartime evenings in the black-out were long and dark, so I started to furnish the house, to make carpets and curtains for it."

Word spread. She was offered many a house caught on the flotsam of war's uncertainties and destructions. One can only boggle at Greene's return home. A man of broad interests, he none the less balked at this, a miniature version of that decorating for which he had little time and inclination (Jeffrey Bernard once likened his home in Antibes to a council flat).

It was well-nigh certain that the marriage would have been over, even if he had not fallen in love with so mercurial spirit as Catherine Walston, wife of Harry. It was a relationship which only the crass can presume to have been directly transposed into The End of the Affair. A work of great subtlety, it is as much built upon Greene's reading as upon any real-life scoffing of onions at Rule's.

This can have been of little consolation to Vivien, to whom he presented a signed copy ("with love") of the novel in 1951. There is no doubt that the distentangling of his marriage - neither, it seems, wanted a divorce - was an awkward business, something which haunted Vivien, who continued to sign herself as "Mrs Graham Greene" when writing to the local newspaper in Oxford to inveigh against such matters as the destruction of the Cornmarket.

Her interest in dolls' houses and her worldwide travels in search of them brought many a tale, including a distinctly Greenian one of a man who laboured upon them in a dank Brighton basement-flat. She became an authority, and wrote two books upon them: English Dolls' Houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries (1955) and Family Dolls' Houses (1977). These she duly sent to Graham, who kept them on his shelves: their pristine condition is in some contrast to the rest of a heavily-annotated library.

Vivien Greene was a pioneer in this branch of social history, and recognised that in miniature there can survive a record of what has so often been destroyed in full-size. The 18th and 19th centuries were a distinct era, between the end of toy-free Puritanism and the onset of jerry-built items themselves supplanted by the soulless use of plastic. Vivien Greene was often called upon to catalogue items, such as one at West Dean House in Sussex.

Her fluent, effortlessly scholarly style suggests that she was certainly astute enough to be able to comment upon her husband's work. Her first book prompted so many requests to visit that she was inspired to build a large, elegant Rotunda - subsidised by Graham - on the side of her home at Grove House, Iffley Turn. A catalogue of the doll's house collection appeared in 1995. Such is the inevitable tendency of chroniclers to dwell upon her husband that many forget that, more than a solace, this all enabled her most happily "to combine having a loved permanent home and indulging, in miniature, my enjoyment of all kinds and periods of English domestic architecture and decoration". To her, "collecting is not acquiring. It is more like planning a delightful small party, where everyone will find a friend and feel at home".

A well-known figure in Oxford, Vivien Greene continued to welcome visitors and to make forays around Britain; even when almost blind, she travelled to Estonia.

Realist enough, however reluctantly, to know long before their separation that Graham Greene had no longer been in love with her but continued to love her, she had spent two decades at the centre of an emotional turbulence which she could have never expected when making bold to drop a letter in the mail to the Oxford Outlook.

Christopher Hawtree

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