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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She was a striking woman. In a photograph in the collection, she is dressed in what appears to be a linen pantsuit. She has short, slightly curly hair, full lips, fine features. Her hands are elegantly manicured, her nails painted. She is smoking a cigarette, as she often was when she was photographed. It seems in these times to convey a self-destructive urge, though in her time it may only have suggested sophistication.

But it was evidently not only her looks that attracted Greene. What seemed to have fascinated him was the combination of her carnality and her Catholicism. Like him, she took her adopted faith seriously, in her own fashion. Like him, she seemed to be able to live with one foot in the sacred world and one foot in the profane. His letters to her reflected both spheres. Sometimes he spoke of missing her at Mass, of remembering her in his prayers, and closed with "God bless you." The next day he might close, in code decipherable by any lust-struck boy: "I.W.T.F.Y."

"I love onion sandwiches. G.," Greene wrote cryptically in March 1947, on a postcard from Amsterdam. With this card, the line between fiction and life begins to blur. Maurice Bendrix, the narrator of The End of the Affair, falls in love with Sarah Miles over a dish of onions at a restaurant called Rules. Evidently, onions had a special meaning for Greene and Walston as well. It was one of their code words for making love.

The onion postcard is one of many things in the correspondence that make clear how much Greene lifted from his life and inserted more or less whole into his novels. It struck me that Walston served as a model for both Sarah Miles and Helen Rolt, who becomes Major Scobie’s lover in The Heart of the Matter. Like Catherine Walston, Sarah Miles had a husband whom she respected but no longer desired. Like Walston, she wrestled with the contradictions between her religion and her passion. Like Scobie, Greene had a wife whom he no longer loved and a conscience that periodically cast him into a slough of despond.

Sometimes in these letters it’s not clear whether art imitates life or the other way round. In April 1950, Greene wrote to Walston that he had gone to confession and told the priest everything. The priest had replied that if he wished absolution, he must stop seeing Walston and go back to his wife. "I’m sorry," Greene had replied. "I’m afraid I must find another confessor." It was almost a verbatim duplicate of a fictional attempt at confession he had written for Major Scobie, a scene that was published in 1948.

I had expected to feel some irony as I read the letters, an irony rooted in the fact that someone who flouted so many tenets of Catholicism should ultimately have his letters preserved in a Catholic university. Instead, I found myself understanding why Georgetown paid a reported $150,000 for the letters when Walston’s heirs put them up for sale in 1990. Though he failed in many ways to meet the standards of his faith, Greene never committed the transgression of taking it lightly. He might not always have been a good Catholic, but he was always a serious Catholic.

He seems to have reached for Walston not just for the simple pleasure of the affair but for the way it fertilized his imagination. "I believe I’ve got a book coming. I feel so excited," he wrote in the autumn of 1947. "Tonight I had a solitary good dinner where I usually go with My Girl [erstwhile mistress Dorothy Glover] and afterwards felt vaguely restless (not sexually, just restless) so I walked to the Café Royal and sat and read...and drank beer till about 10 and then I still felt restless, so I walked all up Piccadilly and back... suddenly...I saw...the beginning, the middle and the end and in some ways all the ideas I had.... I hope to God it lasts—they don’t always." He concluded with a triumphant postscript: "I’m not played out yet!"

As an occasional novelist myself (though one likely to be spoken of in the same breath as Greene only by people who read this essay aloud), I found the differences between the reality depicted in the letters and the world of the novels to be more instructive than the similarities. Greene knew how to make his characters more sympathetic than he himself was. Both he and Scobie, for instance, fell out of love with their wives and had affairs. But Scobie committed suicide rather than cause further pain to his wife. Scobie’s creator might have agonized for a while, but he was able to move his wife and children to a cold spot in his heart. Late in 1947, he wrote to Walston of "a sudden feeling of indifference about poor Vivien. A feeling that I’ve done all the worrying of which I’m capable."

The affair reached its apogee in the late 1940s. By 1950, Greene was begging Walston to leave her husband and marry him. She declined, for reasons the letters only hint at. Perhaps she was afraid she would lose her children in a custody battle. Perhaps she opted for the security of life with a rich and indulgent man. Perhaps she realized that Greene’s habits and temperament were better suited to a lover than a husband.

The affair cooled, though Greene wrote to her until she died in 1978, still the wife of Harry Walston. Greene had other women and wrote other books before he died in 1991. None of the subsequent books, I think, probed as deeply as the work she inspired. Though he remained on friendly terms with Walston, I suspect he saved his true response to her rejection of his marriage proposal for The End of the Affair. In its concluding stages, Sarah Miles dies.


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