Hello! Welcome back and happy new year! There have been some pretty serious tomes piling up on the Window Seat lately, so it’s high time we had a spot of comedy. Travels with my Aunt is the best of Greene’s lighter works. He has a way of capturing English eccentricity so as to expose its funniness to the world and yet somehow maintain sympathy for his crazy characters – even the unpleasant ones.
Our (anti-)hero is Henry Pulling, a quiet, retired little man who has worked in a bank all his life. He has never married and seems likely to see out his limited life without ever having experienced passion of any sort. Things start to look up, however, when he first makes the acquaintance of his aunt (intimidatingly named ‘Aunt Augusta’) at his mother’s funeral. From her first remark to him (‘I was present once at a premature cremation’), we know that this is no ordinary aunt. Moreover, she has something important to tell Henry about the circumstances of his birth – namely, that he is not technically his mother’s child. Once Henry recovers from this shock, he is naturally drawn to find out more about the identity of his biological mother. This quest fuels the ensuing travel narrative, as Aunt Augusta convinces Henry (who really has nothing better to do since his retirement) to accompany her on her energetic globetrotting.
The reader is taken along for a ride with Henry, sharing in his curiosity to find out more about this unusual woman. Aunt Augusta is well into her seventies yet still travelling with gusto around the world, has a (much younger) black boyfriend and seems to be attracting some unhealthy attention from police officials in several countries…
Aunt Augusta is up there with Lady Bracknell as one of the funniest women characters of English literature. Poor Henry is rather scandalised at her frankness, lust for life (and men) and her neverending series of unsavoury stories of an adventurous and clearly misspent youth. What exactly Aunt Augusta did to make a living in her youth is never spelled out, but the reader is led to some pretty startling conclusions by the end of the rollercoaster ride that is this entertaining novel.
Greene was an avid traveller all his life and this led him to look upon England and his countrymen with a critical eye. His portrayal of English eccentricity is sometimes sharp to the point of political satire – he points a finger at the xenophobia, insularity and timidity which characterised provincial English life. He is quick to highlight humorous eccentricities of other nationalities as well, but it’s clear that in a comparison of rival eccentricities he will always prefer the outlandlishness of, say, South America than that of his native land. His travel writing is superb – whether describing the streets of Istanbul, the disappointment when a famous landmark does not live up to your expectations (Hagia Sophia, if you must know!), or the quiet fragrant beauty of an unmaintained Paraguayan village, Greene knows how to put the reader there. Travels With My Aunt really demonstrates that sometimes armchair travel can be as good as the real thing – especially in the company of ladies like Aunt Augusta.
Verdict: Travel and comedy in equal measure – English eccentricity at its best!
Read more: Greene’s short story collection May We Borrow Your Husband? (subtitled And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life) also contains its fair share of barmy English people doing strange things in exotic locations – read a review here.