Wednesday 17 March 2010

Travels With My Aunt

As far as I'm aware, until this month I had never read a book with the word 'Aunt' in the title - and now I find myself reading two of them. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, and Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse - both very funny. Perhaps Aunts are a source of untapped hilarity (also languishing on my shelf is Cordial Relations: The Maiden Aunt in Fact and Fiction by Katharine Moore, so more to discover there, too...)

My lovely book group has themed months, where the shortlist for voting must be suggested within a theme or idea. Next month, for example, is books set in Oxford (I'm holding out for Jill by Philip Larkin). Last month was books about geographical journeys - and I suggested Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, which was eventually victorious. I hadn't read it - indeed, I knew almost nothing about it - but has been told by one or two people that I should read some Greene. And I'm very glad that I did.

Henry has never met his Aunt Augusta before she turns up at his mother's funeral: "It's odd how we seem to meet only at religious ceremonies. The last time I saw you was at your baptism." His quiet life working in a bank, tending his dahlias, and generally not doing very much - it's all about to be wildly disrupted. His is not a spirit of adventure - 'The bank had taught me to be wary of whims. Whims so often end in bankruptcy." But Augusta is no-nonsense, fairly eccentric, and determined to change him. But I'll let Henry do the describing:

I wish I could reproduce more clearly the tones of her voice. She enjoyed talking, she enjoyed telling a story. She formed her sentences carefully like a slow writer who foresees ahead of him the next sentence and guides his pen towards it. Not for her the broken phrase, the lapse of continuity. There was something classically precise, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, old-world in her diction. The bizarre phrase, and occasionally, it must be agreed, a shocking one, gleamed all the more brightly from the odd setting. As I grew to know her better, I began to regard her as bronze rather than brazen, a bronze which has been smoothed and polished by touch, like the horse's knee in the lounge of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, which she once described to me, caressed by generations of gamblers.

For Aunt A is well-travelled. When she suggests a trip, Henry thinks Brighton would be a good destination, and it does offer an interesting excursion - little does he know that their travels will later include Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay... Truth be told, the destinations aren't hugely important in themselves (which rather relieved me, as I'm not usually a fan of travel literature, and was glad that the novel didn't turn into it) but rather act as settings for the illicit and extraordinary activities with which Augusta is involved. I don't want to spoil them for you, but safe to say the police get involved along the way.

Having written that, you might be surprised to learn that the character I was reminded of most, from the earliest chapters onwards, was Miss Hargreaves. In the unlikely event that you've missed me talking about Miss Hargreaves, probably by favourite novel, you can read my eulogies here. Miss H was written in 1939; Travels With My Aunt came out in 1969 - and Aunt Augusta is more or less what I'd expect Miss Hargreaves to be if she'd lived thirty years later, and been rather less respectable. I can't imagine Miss Hargreaves saying, for instance, "A brothel is after all a kind of school." But the characters have the same indomitable spirit, eccentric manner, and amusingly unpredictable speech. The success of Greene's novel, for me,
is through character - through Augusta and Henry's conversations, where two wholly different characters meet and travel together. The first half of the novel focuses upon character (broadly speaking) and the second half more on plot - which I found perhaps less interesting, though apparently it is more akin to Greene's literary thrillers.

I haven't read anything else by Greene, and I've been told that Travels With My Aunt is the unGreenelike Greene novel, but I was so charmed and amused by this spirited novel that I'll definitely be trying some others. Anybody got anything to suggest? I'm also keen to see Maggie Smith in the film, but (of course) it hasn't been released on DVD... (Oh, and for the thoughts of another member of the book group - I've just spotted Harriet's review!)


  1. This is the only Greene I've read, having been scared off most of his books, but I read this last summer and adored it. Unwisely, I started it while in a theatre, waiting for a film to start (I always carry at least one book for just this kind of emergency) and was quite resentful of the lights when they went down and made it impossible to continue reading.

    Cordial Relations sounds most intriguing. May I recommend Auntie Mame as another excellent Aunt-related book?

  2. I loved the two Greene books that I read: The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. I found them both to be tremendously moving, but they're both very serious sorts of books. Travels with My Aunt sounds just as appealing, but in a completely different way.

  3. hi there. I read the entire Graham Greene oeuvre on maternity leave about 6 years ago. I tend to be a bit like that once I get into a writer. I have a lovely Folio Society edition of Travels with my Aunt.

    Of his others I would recommend The End of the Affair, the Heart of the Matter and the Power and the Glory.

    If you are of Catholic background Greene is always interesting as some of his work has strong religious themes but aside from that he writes beautifully and concisely, his subjects are wide and varied and he gets to the core of what it is to be a human being and to feel emotions deeply.

    Oh the Third Man is pretty good too.

  4. I loved this book. Definitely different than his other work. Although "Our Man in Havana" does hav a sense of humour and is worth a read if you liked Travels.

  5. Nice review -- great that we both enjoyed it so much. Several people have recommended me to read Our Man in Havana, seemingly another Greene in the same kind of entertaining mode -- in fact I gather he didn't call these two books novels, but "entertainments".

  6. I would recommend "Brighton Rock", "Our Man in Havana" & "The Quiet American" but be prepared for some dark, serious reading :)

  7. I've been wanting to read this for some time. Your cover, by the way, is gorgeous. Anyway, on Miss Hargreaves, just want to say that I won a copy and am waiting for my book!! All thanks to you. I remember the passages you posted awhile back and I just loved them. Cannot wait.

  8. Darn, I'd hoped to be the first to bring up _Auntie Mame_! Even if the word Aunt hadn't been used in the title of this book, it would have still rung the same bell. The two women sound very much alike.

    The book sounds interesting - I'll check the local colleges/univ. catalogs for it.

  9. I have only actually read the End of the Affair although I have several other Greene titles glaring at me from the trb pile... this one sounds funny so maybe I will start with it!

    thanks indeed for sharing


  10. The only Greene I've read was Orient Express, which didn't thrill me. I have The Power and the Glory sitting on my TBR shelf, and it is the one that people consistently recommend to me.

  11. I have heard of Travels with my Aunt but never got my hands on it. Thank you for a wonderful review on all the books.

  12. I had to read the Power and the Glory for my A level at school years ago and, while a superb book, it was so grim and real that it put me right off Mr G. Then I saw the film of Travels with my Aunt (Maggie Smith - wonderful) and read the book and loved it to. However, it is not representative of most of his work which I have to admit, I find a bit too solid for me. Can't get to grips with it somehow...

  13. Do read Dr. Fischer of Geneva!

  14. Oh I do want to read this now, I was just saying on Harriets post that I always say that I must read more Greene and then dont... now I certainly shall, though I am not sure that I have this one.

  15. Hi
    My book club is discussing Travels with My Aunt next month and I have been charged with finding some questions for discussion. I noticed, via Google, that your book club read the book last year. Do you know if the book club found or made up some questions, and if so would you be able to send these to me? I would of course be happy to return the favour sometime if possible.

    Harun Musho'd

  16. Hi Harun,

    Thanks for your comment - I'm afraid we didn't have any specific questions, just kicked off with whether we liked it or not, and it built from there... did touch upon whether people found it a sad or happy story, because I was surprised that some people thought it was depressing.

  17. I think "Travels With My Aunt" is a great book! The film is also great. I hope they realles it on DVD soon!


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