Matter of the Heart

Graham Greene's letters to his paramour, Catherine Walston, trace the hazy line between life and fiction

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I do not, as a rule, rummage in people’s desk drawers. In the checkout line at the supermarket, I rarely succumb to the temptation to have a quick read about Nicole Kidman’s latest heartaches. But when I learned recently that Graham Greene’s letters to his lover, Catherine Walston, were available for inspection in the Special Collections department of the GeorgetownUniversity library, my resistance failed. I had to see them.

My curiosity, I rationalized, was not so much prurient as literary. Greene was one of the greatest writers of the past century. His affair with Walston began when he was working on what became, in my judgment, his best novel, The Heart of the Matter. It continued through the writing of The End of the Affair, which was almost as good. Greene’s biographers have written about the letters, and I wanted to see them for myself. They might, I thought, illuminate the osmotic border between his fiction and his life.

They are kept, it turns out, in dozens of stiff, slender cardboard boxes, each the pale gray color of a London sky. Inside each box are about 30 green folders and in each folder is a letter, or a postcard, perhaps a photograph. A polite, well-scrubbed graduate student brought me the first box, and I opened the first folder. I found a letter postmarked London, 25 September 1946, 6:15, written on a flimsy sheet of paper with the letterhead "Eyre & Spottiswoode, (Publishers) Limited." Seeing Greene’s handwriting, created in evident haste with a fountain pen, I felt at first as if I were handling a relic. Then I was struck by a sense of mortality. In these boxes were the remnants of a passion that consumed two remarkable human beings.

"Dear Mrs. Walston," the first letter begins. Greene’s hand is barely decipherable. He wrote as if he had no time to waste forming vowels. His consonants were spare as spiders’ legs. "I feel I am a most neglectful god-father! I haven’t even sent you a silver mug or a spoon to bite."

That was the genesis of the affair. Catherine Walston was the American-born wife of a wealthy British land-owner. At the age of 30, inspired by Greene’s work (he had published a novel about a martyred Mexican priest, The Power and the Glory, in 1940), she decided to convert to Catholicism. Though she had never met Greene, she asked him to be her godfather. He accepted, but could not attend the ceremony. He sent his wife, Vivien, in his place. A polite friendship between families developed, but within a few folders, it becomes increasingly clear that the friendship quickly led to the affair.

In one letter, Greene refers to the precise instant this happened for him. It was in a small plane chartered by Mrs. Walston to take him home to Oxford after a winter afternoon at her estate. "A lock of hair touches one’s eyes in a plane with East Anglia under snow," he wrote, "and one is in love."

The affair would go on for many years—in London, in Capri, in Ireland, in Paris. Greene had been more or less separated from his wife when it began, and shortly thereafter he left her formally. He was also still involved with his wartime mistress, Dorothy Glover. His personal life, as he acknowledged to Walston more than once, was rather grotesquely complicated.

Hers was no less so. Greene was not her only lover. Some of Greene’s love letters are written on the stationery of her husband’s estate, Thriplow Farm, and refer to trysts that took place while he was a guest in her house, ostensibly visiting not only her but her husband and her children. Harry Walston evidently did not interfere in his wife’s personal life until the affair with Greene became a matter of widespread gossip.

Greene’s character emerges quickly in the letters. He wrote to her about his conscience, about the way he rationalized the affair, about his dreams. Reporting on an evening’s slumber in the spring of 1949, he sent her what could well serve as his epitaph: "I woke up this morning very calm and quiet... after an odd dream of being dead, but even dead there were women and bedrooms." Thoughts of death and thoughts of women were forever rivals in his mind.

The reader of the letters perceives Walston only indirectly. Most of the correspondence Greene received from her he destroyed. Her thoughts are revealed only in Greene’s responses, her actions only in his reactions.


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