26 March (1924): Graham Greene to Elisabeth Greene

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In the letter below, Graham Greene addresses the youngest of his siblings, Elisabeth, on the occasion of her tenth birthday. While growing up Greene was never close with his sister, in part because of their difference in age (eleven years). Here he strikes a sarcastically edifying tone, making a parody of what an older brother would be expected to write; the jokes seem to be  for his, rather than her, amusement. Over the following years the two became close friends, and Elisabeth is at least in part responsible for Greene’s career as a novelist. A member of the British Secret Service during WWII, she enlisted her brother as an M-16 agent, an experience which served as a catalyst for his writing. 

To Elisabeth Greene

Balliol College, Oxford

[March 1924]

Dear Elisabeth,

Here is a little memento of this auspicious, nay, may I say epoch making, occasion. For the first time you leave the single state (no, not to enter into matrimony, but into double figures). Double figures! What a thought is there! To think of the time that must elapse before you leave them. To be exact, if my mathematics does not fail me, ninety years. Did I say ninety years? Yes, ninety years. Though there’s always a trick about these numbers somewhere. For instance, the other day I was adding up the number of days between the first of March & the fourth. One from four, I said to myself, leaves three. Why, I learned that on my mother’s lap, I added (to myself). It was the first thing that my baby lips learned to lisp, I continued. But, would you believe it, I was wrong! There are not three days between. In the same way I have an awful suspicion that in some queer way you will only remain in double figures for eighty-nine years. Think of that! As the Americans say, it won’t be no freight train. Only eighty-nine years!

Have you ever noticed how useful numbers are in filling up a letter? Take the tip the next time you write to anyone. If you can’t think of anything to say just write something like this, ‘I hope you are in the best of health, myself I am somewhat

7x-59q2b = (10 x 16 x 42) / (93 x 25q) + 10= λqb/ady

You can go on like this for a long time. Then they may think you are very deep, or they may think you are mad, & then they won’t write to you again, or else they’ll try & work it out, & then I am quite sure you’ll never have to write to them for a second time.

Of course, it may not look as if this little lecture has anything to do with your birthday, but it has really. Only it’s very subtle and very, oh so very, deep. You’ll probably not understand it: till you get into treble years, though of course if it’s only a question of eighty-nine. I wish you’d consult a mathematician about it, or ‘teacher’ or somebody and set my mind at rest. As Mr. Leslie Hanson sang

‘O I’m so very n-n-n-n-nervous,

I’m not myself to-day.’

O, the last line doesn’t mean that at all. Don’t be ridiculous. You are very rude. Even if you are in double figures, you needn’t say that kind of thing.

What’s that? You didn’t. Then that thin tenuous whisper that seemed just now to float mockingly round my head, tickling the back of my nose into a sneeze, cannot have been you at all. If it was Hugh, sock him one on the point of the jaw.

The enclosed letter is for Mumma, the book for you. Don’t muddle the two up, keep the letter yourself & give the book to Mumma.

Love & happy returns

Graham

Note: Hugh was Graham’s younger brother.

FURTHER READING

Review of Shades of Greene, an account of the family (which rivals the Huxleys and Darwins in its possession of cultural clout).

Obituary of Elisabeth Dennys (née Greene).

Tall, highly intelligent, and much married: another account of the clan