Off the Shelf: Trailing baroque clouds of glory: Geoffrey Wheatcroft ponders Herbert Read's entrancing novel, The Green Child

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:53

NOT many people will have noticed that last weekend was the hundredth anniversary of Sir Herbert Read's birth. He was born on 4 December 1893 near Kirbymoorside, deep in the heart of the North Riding, a countryside which stayed with him all his life and coloured his imagination. That is clear from his autobiographical fragment The Innocent Eye, from his written-for- radio poem Moon's Farm, and from his entrancing novel, the only one he wrote, The Green Child.

Herbert Read was a bank clerk before 1914 and went on to become an assistant keeper at the Victoria and Albert museum, a professor of art at Edinburgh, and one of the most influential writers on art and literature of his generation. He was a man of contradictions. He shocked his friends on the left when he was knighted in 1953, but for a self-proclaimed anarchist to accept a knighthood was so absurd as to be positively endearing.

He also called himself a pacifist, but only after the Great War. In that war he served as an officer in the Green Howards and won the DSO and MC. Doing it that way round is at any rate more attractive than the 'chickenhawk' who avoids military service when of an age for it, and only later becomes a fire-eating armchair warrior.

Not many of Read's books are in print today, and he is remembered less as poet or novelist than as a radical critic of art and society. Even there he may have been a little unlucky in the choice of artists he promoted. His books Art Now and Art and Society are still read and still worth reading. But who now reveres Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth?

If I had to recommend one book by Read, it would be that solitary novel. On its evidence, Read may not have been a great novelist. But The Green Child is the kind of book to write if you are going to leave just the one novel behind: singular, odd, completely original. It is a fantasy, and an allegory. The book begins arrestingly: 'The assassination of President Olivero, which took place in the autumn of 1861, was for the world at large one of those innumerable incidents of a violent nature which characterise the politics of the South American continent.'

In fact Olivero has faked his own death so as to return home, which is England and a village clearly in Yorkshire. There Olivero (born Oliver) finds a stream running backwards which takes him to a mill, clearly the mill where Read grew up. The brutish millowner is married to a mysterious girl, mute and with translucent green skin. She leads Oliver to the source of the millstream and thence into her unknown underground world.

Flashbacks describe Oliver's career as ruler of the utopian republic of Roncador. Under his dictatorship the country had enjoyed a golden age of peace and ease, but he had found that 'try as I would I could not solve my personal problems in social terms'. It needs the Green Child to lead him to her version of glory, through complete surrender of self.

In 1928, seven years before the novel, Read had published English Prose Style. It had praised the virtues of literary simplicity and even flatness, as long as the style was honest. But he did not practise what he preached. The Green Child is written limpidly, but vividly and sometimes baroquely. Manner fits matter; magical unrealism, perhaps. It is a lovely book.

Read died in 1968. Shortly before his death I met him couple of times at his home in the North Riding, his fine features disfigured by the facial cancer which killed him. Like his hero, he had returned close to his birthplace and is now buried there, amid the landscape which inspired him.

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