Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

57 thoughts on “Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

    • Thank you! 🙂 I thought about watching the film after I’d read the book, but looking at the reviews kinda put me off. Apart from anything else they seem to have changed the plot completely. The book is fun, but pretty dated – it’s an approach-with-caution one really

  1. I really like the sound of this – I see myself as something of an Aunt Augusta in the non-too-distant future 😉 It’s always interesting to see how ‘foreign’ characters are portrayed in books of a certain age. I am sure Greene meant no offence but it is awkward reading those horribly dated stereotypes. In The Wake, there are numerous references to homosexuality that are pretty repugnant in these times. I have chosen to ignore them for my posts as they are not that relevant, but it still irks me somewhat.

    • Yes, it’s funny – I actually have less problem with the outright racist portrayals in Victorian literature than I do with the period when people were trying to be all liberal but getting it horribly patronisingly wrong. Though I’m sure I’d have thought it was fine if I’d read it at the time. I’m afraid all kinds of prejudices are one of the pitfalls of reading older books – though in the case of The Wake, perhaps not the biggest pitfall… 😉

      • If nothing else, it makes us realise how far we have come as a society. Although, we used to wear more hats back then so in many ways we have regressed 😉
        Yeah – it’s probably one of the more minor pitfalls, to he honest 😀

        • I know – that’s partly what’s so horrifying actually, that it’s so recent that these attitudes and stereotypes were considered quite positive! I cringe when I think of some of the TV shows of my youth… though tragically, I enjoyed them at the time. Haha! Yes, it was when we gave up wearing hats that everything began to go so horribly wrong… 😉

          • I saw an episode of The Sweeney fairly recently but it had been so heavily edited I hadn’t got a clue what was going on! When Dennis Waterman approached the hostage takers wearing nothing but his pants and carrying a bottle of champagne I switched off…
            I believe that the lack of decent headgear has sent our morals tumbling 😉

            • I’ve taken to avoiding series I used to love – I tried re-watching Cagney and Lacey a couple of years back and totally can’t understand why I loved it so much… but I did! I think your theory is excellent – I am knitting large bunnets for Donald and Boris as we speak… ones that have complete face coverage as well as sorting out their hair issues. I’m debating whether to include air holes…

  2. Interesting, FictionFan, that you’d mention the stereotyping. I think that’s one of the challenges of reading books from other times, actually. Authors are products of their eras, and that comes out in their writing. It’s hard (or, at least, it is to me at times) to put that sort of thing in perspective when I read a book from a long time ago. Still, as you say, Greene’s writing is excellent, and I think you’re spot on in calling his descriptions impressionistic. A great review, as ever!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, and I find the supposedly liberal positive stereotypes from the 60s and 70s (in the UK) harder to take sometimes than the outright racist portrayals of the Victorian empire era. I admire the attempt but the result makes me cringe a bit – partly in truth because I know these are probably the attitudes I would have held myself back then had I been just a decade or two older… and I’d have thought I was so progressive and liberal!

  3. I’m not a huge Greene fan, so I only read this one once, and that was a long time ago, but I remember being uneasy even then at the depiction of an adult African as a sort of over-grown child. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that Greene isn’t much read nowadays – I think a lot of what caused his characters to agonise just seems silly to young people now.

    • I don’t know – I’ve seen a good few reviews of his stuff over the time I’ve been blogging, some from younger people finding him for the first time, and mostly appreciative. Not a huge seller I’d imagine but holding up. And in his more serious stuff, his major themes are generally love and faith – I agree in the UK faith might not be as big an attraction as it once was, but I suspect we’re out of step with the rest of the world on that one.

    • Thanks, Jacqui! 😀 Yes, It’s been a long, long time since I last read it, and unlike some of his other stuff, it definitely is very much of its time…

  4. It’s been a long time since I read this but I do remember enjoying it enormously. It’s a perfect holiday read.
    However, I’m not sure though that it’s best to start with Greene’s darker stuff. Some of it, like Brighton Rock, is pretty unreadable and others, like Scobie’s crisis of faith in The Heart of the Matter, simply preposterous.
    Personally, I have a soft spot for the lighter books like Travels with My Aunt, that he always called his ‘entertainments’. I think the best introduction to his work is ‘Our Man in Havana’, which has everything: Greene’s sly humour, the exotic setting, the ever-present threat of a dangerous state espionage network and of course, that wonderful elegant prose.

    • Haha! I couldn’t disagree with you more! I think The Heart of the Matter is a brilliant book – one of my top favourites of all time. I haven’t read Brighton Rock, but in general I love his serious fiction much more than either his entertainments (which I don’t think much of) or his spy novels (which I do enjoy). But for me, the best are the standards – The Power and the Glory, The Comedians etc etc, which all have characters who become unforgettable. I guess between us we might just have proved that he was a varied enough writer to appeal to almost everyone with one or other of his books… 😉

  5. Haven’t read this one, but I do enjoy your review, FF. This sounds like something I might have to be in the right mood to enjoy, though. The premise seems solid; it’s the execution that puzzles me, Oh, well, I’ve enough on my TBR right now anyway!!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 🙂 Yes, my recommendation for this one is a bit half-hearted, I must admit. It’s quite fun and was probably even more fun at the time, but it’s kinda dated now. I’ll let you off with this one… 😉

    • Thanks, Cleo! Aren’t you on holiday?? Yes, he did seem to be giving the older person’s view of the swinging ’60s, which was quite fun. And Aunt Augusta seemed to have been living in the swinging 60s since about the Roaring Twenties! 😉

  6. I read this one some time ago, and I remember nothing about it but that I found it very enjoyable. Funny how some novels stick with you and others… don’t! (Curse of a voracious reader, I guess.) I’m glad you enjoyed it and I loved your review. I need to read more of Greene’s work – I’ve only read this one and The End of the Affair.

    • Yes, I often think I should go back to reviews after a couple of years and give them an extra star if I still remember the book! I love Greene, and some of his books and characters have stayed with me for ever… but not this one. A light, enjoyable read, but not to be compared to the likes of The Heart of the Matter or The Comedians. 🙂

  7. Great review. You’ve reminded me that I’m well overdue to read one of Greene’s novels. Luckily I picked up a handful on my recent trip to Hay, so there’s no excuse!

    • Thanks, Sarah! 🙂 Oh good – you’re all set then! I’d love to re-read some of his more serious books – keep trying to fit them in… keep failing! One day…

  8. I still haven’t read anything by GG – not for lack of intention, though. Someday… And, I will keep your advice in mind and read one of his others. I think I own ‘The Heart of the Matter’.

    • I love The Heart of the Matter – one of my all-time favourite books and long overdue for a re-read. The other one people tend to get quite passionate about is The End of the Affair, which I’m not at all sure I’ve actually read – must somehow find a way to fit all these books in!! Who needs sleep, anyway… 😉

  9. American couples do not have tea! Dadblameit.

    But it does sound sorta like a neatio story. I mean, going on adventures would be something. Though, I must admit, a part of me is doubting an aunt could get up to anything interesting. *nods*

  10. I read one of his books when I was in college and as a girl who was raised in fundamentalism (and it was a strict college I was amazed to find it was a Catholic author we were studying. And I loved it.)

    The story we read was A Burnt-Out Case and I have never forgotten it.

  11. This sounds really nice.. 😀 I did try reading Our Man in Havana a few months ago, but then I started to struggle with it and gave up..is there any other Graham Greene you would recommend for a beginner? Something a bit light, like this one, probably..

    • Hmm… to be honest, I’m not as keen on his light stuff as I am on his more serious books. And his spy books always leave me a little underwhelmed. So I’d really recommend one of his major books instead – I find most of them quite easy reads even though they’re quite deep, if that makes any sense. The Heart of the Matter is my favourite… there’s quite a lot about his struggle with faith in it, but basically it’s about a man caught in a trap he’s made for himself between two women… 😀

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