Henry Graham Greene (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991), is better known by his pen name Graham Greene. He is regarded by many as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century. Greene combined literary acclaim with widespread popularity. He acquired a reputation early in his lifetime as a major writer, both of serious Catholic novels, and of thrillers (or “entertainments” as he termed them). He was shortlisted, in 1966 and 1967, for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his 67 years of writings, which included over 25 novels, he explored both, the ambivalent moral, and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective.

    Although Greene objected strongly to his being described as a Roman Catholic novelist, rather than a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root, of most of his writings, especially, in four of his major Catholic novels such as, Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair. Several of his works, such as The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor, and his screenplay for The Third Man, also show Greene’s avid interest in the workings and intrigues of international politics and espionage.

    Greene was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire into a large, influential family that included the owners of the Greene King Brewery. He boarded at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, where his father taught and became headmaster. Unhappy at the school, he attempted suicide several times. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, to study history, where, as an undergraduate, he published his first work in 1925—a poorly received volume of poetry titled, Babbling April. He converted to a Catholic, in 1926 after meeting his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Later in life he took to calling himself a “Catholic agnostic.” He published his first novel, The Man Within, in 1929. Its favourable response enabled him to work full-time as a novelist. He supplemented his novel’s income with freelance journalism, and book and film reviews.

    Greene originally divided his fiction into two genres (which he described as “entertainments” and “novels”). His thrillers often had notable philosophic edges—such as The Ministry of Fear. His literary works on which he thought his literary reputation rested was The Power and the Glory.

    Greene had a history of depression, which had a profound effect on his writing and personal life. In a letter to his wife Vivien, he told her that, he had, “a character, profoundly antagonistic, to ordinary domestic life,”

    Henry Graham Greene was born in 1904 in St. John’s House, a boarding house of Berkhamsted School, in Hertfordshire, where his father was a housemaster. He was fourth of the six children. His younger brother Hugh became the Director-General of the BBC, and his elder brother Raymond an eminent physician and mountaineer.

    Greene’s father, Charles Henry Greene and mother Marion Raymond Greene, were first cousins, both members of a large, influential family that included the owners of Greene King Brewery, bankers, and statesmen. His mother was the cousin of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Charles Greene, Graham Greene’s father was the second master at Berkhamsted School, where the headmaster was Dr Thomas Fry, who was married to Charles’ cousin.

    In his childhood, Greene spent his summers with his uncle, Sir Graham Greene, at Harston House in Cambridgeshire.

    In 1910, Graham Greene’s father Charles Greene succeeded Dr Fry as headmaster of Berkhamsted School. Graham also attended the school as a boarder. Bullied and profoundly depressed, he made several suicide attempts, that he even wrote in his autobiography, by trying the Russian Roulette (a practice of loading a bullet into one chamber of a revolver, spinning the cylinder, and then pulling the trigger while pointing the gun at one’s own head) and also by taking aspirin before going swimming in the school pool. In 1920, at the age of 16, he was sent for psychoanalysis for six months in London, after which he returned to school as a day scholar. His school friends included British journalist Claud Cockburn and Peter Quennel the historian.

    In 1922, Greene was for a short time a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and sought an invitation to the new Soviet Union, of which nothing came through. 

    Since Greene suffered from periodic bouts of depression while at Oxford, he largely kept to himself. His contemporary in Oxford, Evelyn Waugh noted that: “Graham Greene looked down upon us (and perhaps all undergraduates) as childish and ostentatious. He certainly shared in none of our revelry. He graduated in 1925 with a second-class degree in history.

    After leaving Oxford, Greene worked for a period of time as a private tutor and then turned to journalism—first in Nottingham Journal, and then as a sub-editor in The Times. While he was working in Nottingham, he started corresponding with Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who had written to him to correct him on a point of Catholic doctrine. Greene was agnostic at the time, but later when he began to think of marrying Vivien he started associating himself with Catholic faith.  Greene was baptised on 26 February 1926. They married on 15 October 1927 at St Mary’s Church, Hampstead, in North London.

    Greene’s first published novel was The Man Within in 1929. Favourable response emboldened him to quit his sub-editor’s job in The Times and work as a full-time novelist. The next two books, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1932), were unsuccessful. He later disowned them. His first true success was Stamboul Train (1932) which was taken over by the Book Society and adapted as the film Orient Express, in 1934.

    He supplemented his novelist’s income with freelance journalism, book and film reviews for The Spectator, and co-editing magazine Night and Day. Greene’s 1937 film review of Wee Willie Winkie, for Night and Day—which said that the nine-year-old star, Shirley Temple, displayed “a dubious coquetry” that appealed to “middle-aged men and clergymen”—provoked Twentieth Century Fox successfully to sue Greene for £3,500 plus costs, and Greene leaving the UK to live in Mexico until after the trial was over. While in Mexico, Greene developed the ideas for his novel often considered his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. By the 1950s, Greene had become known as one of the finest writers of his generation.

    As his career lengthened, both Greene and his readers found the distinction between entertainments and novels increasingly problematic. The last book of his oeuvre that Greene termed an entertainment was Our Man in Havana in 1958.

    Greene also wrote short stories and plays, which were well received, though he was known first and foremost as a novelist. His first play, The Living Room, debuted in 1953.

    Michael Korda, a lifelong friend of Greene and later his editor at Simon & Schuster, once observed Greene at work: Greene wrote in a small black leather notebook with a black fountain pen and would write approximately 500 words. Korda described this as Graham’s daily penance—once he finished, he would put the notebook away, for the rest of the day.

    His writing influences included Conrad, Ford, Haggard, Stevenson, James, Proust, Buchan and Peguy.


    Greene travelled far from England, to what he called the world’s wild and remote places. The travels led to his being recruited into MI6 by his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the agency. Accordingly, he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. Kim Philby, who was later revealed as a Soviet agent, was Greene’s supervisor and friend at MI6. Greene later wrote an introduction for Philby’s 1968 memoir, My Silent War. As a novelist Greene wove the characters he met and the places where he lived into the fabric of his novels.

    Greene first left Europe at the age of 30 in 1935 on a trip to Liberia that produced the travel book, Journey Without Maps. His 1938 trip to Mexico to see the effects of the government’s campaign of forced anti-Catholic secularisation was paid for by the publishing company Longman, thanks to his friendship with Tom Burns. That voyage produced two books, The Lawless Roads (published as ‘Another Mexico’ in the U.S.) and the novel The Power and the Glory. In 1953, the Holy Office informed Greene that The Power and the Glory was damaging to the reputation of the priesthood, but later, in a private audience with Greene, Pope Paul VI told him that, although parts of his novels would offend some Catholics, he should ignore the criticism.

    Greene first travelled to Haiti in 1954, where his novel The Comedians (1966) is set, which was then under the rule of dictator Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, frequently staying at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. And, in the late 1950s, as inspiration for his novel, A Burnt-Out Case (published in 1960), Greene spent time travelling around Africa visiting a number of leper colonies in the Congo Basin, and in, what were then, the British Cameroons. During this trip in late February and early March 1959, he met Andree de Jongh several times, a Belgian, resistance fighter, responsible for establishing an escape route for downed airmen from Belgium to the Pyrenees, somewhere between Spain and France.

    In 1957, just months after Fidel Castro began his final revolutionary assault on the Batista Regime in Cubs, Greene played a small role in helping the revolutionaries, as a secret courier transporting warm clothing for Castro’s rebels hiding in the hills during the Cuban winter. Greene was said to have a fascination with strong leaders, which may have accounted for his interest in Castro, whom he later met. After one visit Castro gave Greene a painting he had done, which hung in the living room of the French house where the author spent the last years of his life. Greene did later voice doubts about Castro’s Cuba, telling a French interviewer in 1983, “I admire him for his courage and his efficiency, but I question his authoritarianism,” adding: “All successful revolutions, however idealistic, probably betray themselves in time.”

    After falling victim to a financial swindler, Greene chose to leave Britain in 1966, moving to Antibes in France, to be close to Yvonne Cloetta, whom he had known since 1959, a relationship that endured until his death. In 1973, he had an uncredited cameo appearance as an insurance company representative in Francois Truffaut’s film, Day for Night. In 1981, Greene was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, generally awarded to writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society.

    In the last years of his life he lived in Vevey, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the same town where Charlie Chaplin was living, at this time. He visited Chaplin often, and the two were good friends. His book Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (published in 1980) is based on themes of combined philosophical and geographical influences. He ceased going to mass and confession in the 1950s, but in his final years he began to receive the sacraments again from Father Leopoldo Durán, a Spanish priest, who became a friend.

    In one of his final works, a pamphlet titled J’Accuse (which means a strong denunciation): The Dark Side of Nice (1982), Greene wrote of a legal matter that embroiled him and his extended family in Nice, and declared that organised crime flourished in Nice because the city’s upper levels of civic government protected, judicial and police corruption. The accusation provoked a libel lawsuit that Greene lost. But he was vindicated after his death when, in 1994, the former mayor of Nice, Jacques Medecin, was imprisoned for corruption and associated crimes.

    In 1984, in celebration of his 80th birthday, the brewery which Greene’s great-grandfather founded in 1799 made a special edition of its ‘St. Edmunds’ ale for him, with a special label in his honour. 

    In 1986, Greene was awarded Britain’s Order of Merit. He died in 1991 at age 86 of leukaemia and was buried in Corseaux cemetery.

Posted by Kamlesh Tripathi



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