Travels with My Aunt (1969) is a novel written by English author Graham Greene.
The novel follows the travels of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, and his eccentric Aunt Augusta as they find their way across Europe, and eventually even further afield. Aunt Augusta pulls Henry away from his quiet suburban existence into a world of adventure, crime and the highly unconventional details of her past.
The novel begins when Henry Pulling, a conventional and uncharming bank manager who has taken early retirement, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over
50 years at his mother's funeral. Despite having little in common, they form a bond. On their first meeting, Augusta tells Henry that his mother was not truly his mother, and we learn that Henry's father has been dead for more than 40 years.
As they leave the funeral, Henry goes to Augusta's house and meets her lover Wordsworth – a man from Sierra Leone. Henry finds himself drawn into Aunt Augusta's world of travel, adventure, romance and absence of bigotry.
He travels first with her to Brighton, where he meets one of his aunt's old acquaintances, and gains an insight into one of her many past lives. Here a psychic foreshadows that he will have many travels in the near future. This prediction inevitably becomes true as Henry is pulled further and further into his aunt's lifestyle, and delves deeper into her past.
Their voyages take them from Paris to Istanbul on the Simplon Orient Express, and as the journey unfolds, so do the stories of Aunt Augusta, painting the picture of a woman for whom love has been the defining feature of her life.
Henry returns to his quiet retirement, but tending his garden no longer holds the same allure. When he receives a letter from his aunt, he finally gives up his old life to join her and the love of her life in South America, and to marry a girl decades younger than himself.
As his travels progress it becomes clear to Henry that the woman he had been raised to believe was his mother was in fact his aunt. His real mother is Augusta, and her re-connection with him at her sister's funeral marked the beginning of her reclamation of her child.
Henry Graham Greene OM CH (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991), better known by his pen name Graham Greene, was an English novelist regarded by many as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century. Combining literary acclaim with widespread popularity, Greene acquired a reputation early in his lifetime as a major writer, both of serious Catholic novels, and of thrillers (or "entertainments" as he termed them). He was shortlisted, in 1966 and 1967, for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through 67 years of writings, which included over 25 novels, he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Roman Catholic novelist, rather than as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair; which have been named "the gold standard" of the Catholic novel.Several works, such as The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor, and his screenplay for The Third Man, also show Greene's avid interest in the workings and intrigues of international politics and espionage.
"A journey from suburban London to Brighton to Istanbul to South America, it also explores recent history – with a compassionate overview of the sorrows of war, a hilarious send-up of
1960s counter culture, and surprising revelations about Henry himself. Graham Greene described his most enjoyably straightforward comedy as 'the only book I have written for the fun of it', and it's easy to reciprocate his pleasure."
Apologies for quoting myself again, but I mainly do so to admit to a fault. Now that we've got to the end of the month, and I've reread the book, I regret some of those words. If you'll allow some Greene-aping ambiguity, I wasn't quite wrong, but nor was I entirely right. Happily, I still agree with myself about the book being fun. So, too, do quite a few of the contributors to this month's reading group – a sentiment summed up by NoddieBankie who accurately described the novel as "a very quick and highly enjoyable read".
I blush, however, at the way I used Greene's statement that Travels with My Aunt was his most "straightforward comedy". It's possibly accurate – but that's only because his other books are so twisted. As we've seen, nothing is really straightforward when subjected to what a contributor called Drakula has described as Greene's machiavellian worldview.
I also worry about my extravagant praise for the book. This time around, I found faults. What, for instance, are we to make of Wordsworth, with his fondness for herb and his agrammatical English ("You wan me bring it down right away?")? "Anyone else find the depiction of Wordsworth a bit embarrassing/out of touch?" asked contributor Peter Beech, while Goodyorkshirelass said his "patronising characterisation had me squirming with embarrassment".
"I think on this occasion it's more an old-fashion[ed], innocent stereotyping, rather than anything more sinister. This is something I often have to wrestle with, with older books. Should we forgive discrimination due to the time of the book being written?" Not the easiest question to answer – but at least Greene goes a reasonable way to earning that forgiveness by making Wordsworth a human and humane character, and probably the most likable in the book, in spite of the absurd stereotypes.
On the subject of forgiveness, meanwhile, the other problem I couldn't ignore this time around was the bizarre way Roman Catholicism kept butting into the text. As Bloreheath noted: "Greene's insertion of [Catholicism] in his novels doesn't seem natural, more like special pleading, religious advertising – really quite unnecessary in the context of the kind of good story he was adept at narrating."
I did a search in my ebook edition and the word "Catholic" came up 17 times. That's more than twice a chapter – but I was actually surprised it wasn't more often, it had bugged me so much. The problem isn't how frequently Greene mentions his faith, but how much it stands out when he does. Do we even need to know that Aunt Augusta is a Catholic? We're told so right at the start, and regularly reminded, so it was clearly important to Greene. Perhaps it could be argued that it adds a dimension to her character. It also allows for a few good jokes: "I sometimes believe in a Higher Power, even though I am a Catholic." "Where is my father?" "As a half-believing Catholic," Aunt Augusta said, "I cannot answer that question with any certainty, but his body, what is left of it, lies in Boulogne." On the other hand, the Catholicism seemed rather foisted upon this promiscuous lady, with a healthy disregard for the institution of marriage, intelligent attitude towards contraception and abortion, and a marked dislike of authority. Perhaps it's just another of her many contradictions. But it's hard not to feel that Greene is scratching an itch in making her RC.
It's even harder to see why we're told about O'Toole's or Visconti's attitude towards Catholicism, although, the latter's is instructive. At one point he says: "There speaks a Protestant ... Any Catholic knows that a legend which is believed has the same value and effect as the truth. Look at the cult of the saints." As often when Greene describes Catholicism it seems like an exclusive club, membership brandished as absurdly and ostentatiously as an eggs and bacon MCC blazer. It kept distracting my eye. It also felt creepy. Maybe that fits Catholicism. Probably it suits Greene too. But it didn't sit easily in this otherwise compact, tightly written and cheerfully irreverent book.
Finally, after all that negativity, I should emphasise again that Travels with My Aunt is an enjoyable book – and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. Not least because we've now got
10 copies to give away. So if these discussions have made you want to read the book (or indeed get hold of a spare copy to pass on to friends), post an "I want" below the line. The first 10 will get them.
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