Biographies: Henry Graham Greene (England, 1904-91)

Figure 1.--This portraitof Graham was taken about 1910 when he would have been 5-6 years old. He wears a sholder buttoning sweater, rather long short pants, long stockings, and strap shoes. While Graham did not like sports, here he holds what looks to be a cricket ball.

Noted English author Henry Graham Greene was one of a number writers who were very unhappy at their private schools. Graham had a hard time, not only because hedidn't like sports, but because his father was the headmaster. Some biographers believe that his experiences at school has a profound impact on his outlook on life and personal outlook projected in his novels. His father thought he was disturbed and set him to a therapist. One of his most noted books is The Power and the Glory addressing religious oppression. He is also known for his Cold War books, especially The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana. He also did a number of screenplays, the most famous was The Third Man.



Henry Graham Greene was born October 2, 1904 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in England. He ws the fourth of six children. He was not athletically enclined. He was a rather shy a bookish boy.

Childhood Clothing

A portraitof taken about 1910 when he would have been 6 years old shows Graham wearing a sholder buttoning sweater, rather long short pants, long stockings, and strap shoes. The outfit is interesting because at the time long stockings were going out of style in England and many boys were wearing kneesocks.


Graham was educated in private boarding schools as was common for British boys from families with means. He would take off at sports and instead find a quiet place to read. He especially liked adventure authors like Rider Haggard and R. M. Ballantyne and their influence can be seen in his own writing. Not showing up for sports caused problems as English private schools put a great emphasis on sports. Not only didit cuse trouble with the sports masters, but also with the other boys who also teased him, sometimes cruely, about being the headmaster's son. One biographer believes that the accounts of treachery and betrayal that appear so commonly in his books result from his school years where he teased by the other boys. Many boys were unhappy at school. Graham appears to have had an especially difficult time. There were even suicide attempts. Finally he ran away from school and wrote his parents that he wanted to leave school. He was only 15 years old at the time. His father sent him to a London therapist. His father chose Kenneth Richmond, who prived to be sympathetic. He encouraged Graham to write and even introduced him to literary friends.

Graham enrolled at Oxford's Balliol Collegeto study modern history. He dismisses his time there saying hr was often drunk and had little money. He became the editor of the Oxford Outlook a prestigious and very good training for newspaper work. He joined the Communist Party, but not out of any deep convinction. We suspect that it was more out of bitterness for the way he thought himself abused while at school. He wrote his first novel at Oxford, Anthony Sant. He graduated with a B.A. in 1925.

Early Newspaper Jobs

Greene's first job after Oxford was as a newspaper subeditor at the Nottingham Journal. It did not go well. As did two other attempts with other newspapers. He thought these papers rather seedy and this figures in his novel Brighton Rock. Soon he had a prestgious job at The Times (London), Britain's most respected newspaper.


While working at newspapers early in his career, Greene met his wife Vivien Dayrell-Browning. She wrote to him to inform him that were mistakes about Catholicism in some of his writings. She incoraged him to convert at he did in 1926. Greene married in 1927. They had a two chidren, a daughter Lucy Caroline and a son Francis.

Inter-War Novels

While working at The Times Greene wrote his first political novel, The Episode. He was unable to find a publisher. He did, however, get his next book, The Man Within published. It proved a success and as a result, Greene resigned from TheTimes. This was a diffiult decission as he liked working at the paper. Also it provided a secure income. There was no assurance that he could support his family as an independent writer. Indeed his next novels were not successful, both The Name of the Action and Rumour at Nightfall. To earn some extra money, at this time he began doing book reviews for The Spectator. He also wrote Stamboul Train, a book designed to appeal to the public, but was not what he would describe as a serious novel.


Greene began a more diversified output. He began writing both "serious" movels and "entertainments". He continued reviewing books and began reviewing movies as well for The Spectator. He even co-edited Night and Day, but it soon folded. Movies intreagued him. Not only did he review films, but began screenwriting. His reviews became controversial when he critucized, of all people Shirly Temple. Twentieth Century-Fox sud him. He did quite a bit of film work, including folm adptations and screenplays of his own. His most famous film was the rather dark post-World War II film The Third Man, where he adopts his first non-commital view of the Cold War.


Greene his remembered as being an invenerate traveler, including countries off the normall tourist tracks. His travels began after he had become a successful writer and could afford to travel in style. He loved the adventure of traveling as well as fodder for his books. After a tip to Sweden he wrote England Made Me. He traveled idely throughout Liberia, which almost resulted in his death. The book that followed was Journey Without Maps. He went to Meico in 1938 to observe that country's religious purges. His view was The Lawless Roads. Greene was horrified by what he saw in Mexico. The Power and the Glory that addresses the issue of religious prsecition is widely seen as his best work. It is surely the novel for which he is best known. It won the Hawthornden Prize in 1941, but was condemned by the Vatican.

World War II

Every one in England did their bit during the war. West Africa was in 1940-42 affter the fall of France the location of considerable diplomatic and covert actions as well as military action between Vichy, the Free French, and the British. Greene despite his brush with Communism, worked for the British Secret Service in Sierra Leone. The book that followed was The Heart of the Matter.

Post-War Novels

Greene continued traveling after World War II. He liked to visit countries that were in the news. He visited Vietnam (during the French Indochina War), Kenya (during the Mau Mau uprising against the British), Poland (as a Soviet satellite), Cuba (under Castro), and Haiti (under Duvalier). Many of these visits were connected with the Cold War and figured in his books. Greene always presented himself as essentially apolitical. His novels have an anbigous sence of the absence of write and wrong in the Cold War struggle between America and the Soviets. That certainly is a point if view that needed to be expressed, but it is in itself a political pont of view. Both sides in the Cold War took imoral actions and the literary expression of this is ceratainly a valid subject for novelist. Completely absent in his writing, however, is any attempt to address the great issues at stake in the Cold War--such as the fact that in the Soviet Union he could not have written and punlished his books. In many of his novels he is drawn to the oppressed.

Biographers have discussed Greene's involvement in the British Secret Service and his actual loyalties. He was a lifelong friend of notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby who he worked under with MI6. He is especially known in America for the The Quiet American. Many accussed him of being anti-American which seems unfair. The charcters in the book are anbiguously described as is typical og Greene. His reaction, hoever, was to develop a real dislike of Americans, especially the right-wing in America. He ws especially critical of Ronald Reagan. He began to take an interest in Central American affairs, especially Central American leaders which confrontd America--Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, and Omar Torrijos. His experiences in Panama and with General Torrijos resulted in one of his last books, Getting to Know the General. Notably his often critical look at Britain and America is not as sharp as his look at Torrijos. Like many on the left, he ignores human rights abuses committed by Castro while shaply criticising America and Britain.

Personal Life

Greene led the high life. He made a considerable living with his novels and journalistic career. He had homes in London, Antibes, and Capri. He socialized with other important literary figures. associated with many famous figures of his time, especially othr English writers: Noel Coward, T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Alexander Korda, Herbert Read, Evelyn Waugh, and others. He was not a faitthful husband. He addmitted this, writing that he was "a bad husband and a fickle lover". I'm not sure what kind of father he was. He and his wife separated in 1948, but there was no divorce. As an older man he lived in Vevey, Switzerland with his long-time companion Yvonne Cloetta.


A HBC reader was especially impressed with his autobiography, A Sort of Life.


Grene, Graham. A Sort Of Life (London: Bodley Head; New York: Simon and Shuster, 1971).


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Created: July 290, 2003
Last updated: August 1, 2003