Henry Green’s fourth novel, Caught, is presumed by many critics and reviewers to be inspired by his experiences as a volunteer fireman during the London Blitz. But this is not a predictable story of heroism. At first, the auxiliary firemen in the novel appear to spend most of their time chasing after women. When they are finally called to a fire, a man faints from excitement, they enter the wrong house, and they ultimately discover that the elderly woman next door at their intended location has managed to put out the small fire herself. In their embarrassed haste to return to the station, they leave their main officers behind. We do not encounter the firemen in the heat of real action until the end of the book, and even then, we do not “see” it in the present moment of the narrative, but hear about it second-hand, as Caught’s main character, Richard Roe, describes the first night of the air raids to his wife some time afterward.
Caught is far from the kind of war story we have come to expect from Hollywood movies made long after the war was written into history. Caught was published in 1942, when the war’s outcome was uncertain. Like many of Green’s novels, it deals with class, but at its heart, it is the story of the different ways in which lives and minds can come undone. We are accustomed to tales of the human spirit that celebrate resilience in the face of war and tragedy, but this is a story of human failure, of individuals who meet circumstances that are too much for them, sometimes as a consequence of small blows that add up to become unbearable, or for reasons that can’t be identified at all.
Caught’s main character, Richard Roe, is a well-to-do businessman who joined London’s Auxiliary Fire Service at the outbreak of the war. Early in the novel, we learn that his son has recently been abducted from a department store by the sister of his Fireman Instructor, Albert Pye. Although the child is very quickly recovered, this unfortunate coincidence, which Richard describes as “disastrous,” means that both Roe and Pye are constantly reminded of the abduction by their proximity at the fire station, with severe consequences for Pye’s mental state and more subtle ones for Richard’s.
When Roe goes down for the first time since the outbreak of the war to visit his wife and child in the countryside, where they have gone to stay with her sister, his interactions with his young son are awkward and uncertain.
[H]e wished, and he wished too late, that he had never made a point of not kissing Christopher. He was upset, at that moment, no contact with his son could have been too close. But he did not dare, for he was afraid, if he took Christopher in his arms, that he would break into tears, and then the boy might be frightened.
As he drove away he felt he had lost everything, and in particular the boy. Yet he had to admit that he could, at the time, feel nothing stronger than irritation when, some months earlier, as will appear, Christopher had really been lost in London.
This quote touches on one of the strangest aspects of the novel: Roe’s unusual reaction to the abduction of his son. Rather than being angry at Pye’s connection to the abduction, Roe often seems to feel embarrassed or even inconvenienced by it. And yet surely the abduction is part of why he is so emotionally affected by his separation from Christopher, even though he is not able to express it. By contrast, Pye appears quite resentful of Richard, rather than feeling guilty or ashamed about what his sister has done. He is angry that his sister has been institutionalized as a result of her crime and views it as unfair that he is asked to pay for the cost of her stay at an asylum. He expresses this resentment in various ways, thinking of “his triumphant refusal to contribute towards what had been forced on him by a savage society” and how he would tell the doctors “no, you doctors booked my sister in and now you can toe the line, foot the expense.”
Over the course of the novel, Pye develops an obsession with the idea that he is to blame for his sister’s misfortune, imagining he committed a sexual crime against her when they were young—it is never quite clear whether this is true. Pye’s slow breakdown is contrasted with the abrupt one Roe experiences after being knocked out by a bomb. But it is never quite clear whether the incident with the bomb is the cause of Roe’s mental distress, or whether it knocks loose the trauma that he has been concealing since the abduction. Pye and Roe’s mental struggles are contrasted with those of Pye’s sister, which we hear about only secondhand, and those of the daughter of the woman who cooks for the auxiliary fireman brigade, who has broken down mentally after the birth of her child.
Throughout the novel, there are recurring references to characters being “adrift,” which refers to their having gone away from the station without posting the proper paperwork. The cook is posted adrift when she doesn’t understand Pye’s hints at how he will cover for her if she goes to confront her daughter’s husband and therefore doesn’t communicate with him in a way that would allow him to do so. Pye’s being caught adrift is the final blow, from which he doesn’t recover. But the word adrift also describes the mental state of many of Green’s characters and even extends to the feeling Caught evokes in the reader. The novel can be disorienting, occasionally making abrupt leaps in time, casting us three months backward or twelve months forward to reveal information about the abduction, or about how the auxiliary fire brigade performs once the blitz actually starts, or stating with startling offhandedness that a character has died.
In the brief note that appears between the title page and the beginning of the novel proper, Green states that:
This book is about the Auxiliary Fire Service which saved London in her night blitzes, and bears no relation, or resemblance, to the National Fire Service, which took over when raids on London had ended.
The characters, while founded on the reality of that time, are not drawn from life. They are all imaginary men and women. In this book only 1940 in London is real. It is the effect of that time that I have written into the fiction of Caught.
Green’s gift is that he is able to communicate that effect to us—that feeling of being present in history before it becomes history, of being adrift in a story with many words left yet unwritten.