End of the affair

In Search of a Beginning: my life with Graham Greene

Yvonne Cloetta; translated by Euan Cameron <e

A more dashing subtitle for Yvonne Cloetta's memoir might have been "the mistress's story". Clo-etta evidently belonged to a beleaguered species, the adorably old-fashioned mistress, providing delightful comforts when asked, never living with her lover, certainly never marrying him, and at no point meriting, for better or for worse, the modern word "partner".

Unfortunately, Cloetta and her interviewer Marie-Francoise Allain (who provides a great deal of the book) never quite seem to have appreciated the truth of her position. Again and again, solemn comments are made by the two ladies which add little to our knowledge of Graham Greene, and more to our knowledge of Cloetta (and Allain) than we may care to have. In Cloetta's words, "How many times did he make me tell him the story of my adolescent years at the Lycee in Quimper, a novel in itself, in his opinion!" He even urged her to write it all down, taking out "some large sheets of paper" in Capri. Cloetta never did. But she adds the comment: "He was kind-hearted, you see. Writing for him was therapy, and he used to say that it would be so for others." Then, according to Cloetta, Greene presented her with his wife Vivien's book on antique dolls' houses: "He went on, 'I think she writes better than I do.' It was all said with great sincerity." No doubt.

The pity of the plonking comments is that a short account of Cloetta's life - with Allain's long, often repetitious interrogations omitted - would have been interesting and undoubtedly touching. The relationship, which lasted for more than 30 years, until Greene's death, was clearly not at all easy to begin with. Greene was 20 years older and came with a great deal of emotional baggage, to say nothing of being technically married to Vivien, while Cloetta herself was married with two young children. It was, as the Catholic priests would have said at the court of Louis XIV, a double adultery, in that two marriages were in theory being betrayed.

Under Allain's questioning, Cloetta takes refuge in the belief she shared with Greene: making love to a woman with her consent was not against the will of God. (Incidentally, this was the same line taken by Charles II, Louis XIV's more laid-back first cousin: God would never punish him for these pleasures provided they were consensual.) But God's presumed tolerance was one thing, and could only be guessed, whereas the ruling of the Church on adultery was another, and made perfectly clear to one and all. As to Greene's true attitude to all this, deep down, a remark he made to Cloetta late in his life seems specially significant: "I now realise that love - real, true love - between two human beings only reveals itself once it's no longer a question of sex." Cloetta's gloss on this was: "He was not speaking directly about us, but it was a declaration of love." It was, however, rather an odd declaration of love to make to his mistress of 30 years, with whom, as Cloetta frequently indicates, he enjoyed a happy and satisfying carnal relationship (which with age, one assumes, had ended).

It is when Cloetta's totally understandable feelings of jealousy about Greene's past flare up, that the simper in the narrative is temporarily stilled, and one has a sense of something more human. Thank goodness, the famous nickname for Cloetta of "Happy Healthy Kitten" (taken from a dedication to a Greene book - "For HHK") was not actually invented by the writer but by someone else. Certainly the kitten could scratch all right, as when Greene, with extraordinary ineptitude, arranged some kind of brothel display for this "nice Breton girl". Her feelings when she visited Greene's chambers in Albany and saw a large picture of his celebrated mistress Catherine Walston were also turbulent. Greene's reaction - that he had simply forgotten the photo was there - seems once more clumsy.

Or was it? Was Greene perhaps making sure by such tactics that he was not involving himself with another charismatic, turbulent paramour like Walston? Cloetta had to know her place, accept Greene's long travels, accept their shorter travels when they were offered, in short act as a proper mistress. Catherine Walston was something else again. I knew her a little because she and her husband Harry were friends of my parents, and I was once taken to stay at Newton Hall, their home in Cambridge. At the age of 20, I was completely mesmerised by this strange, utterly beautiful, unconventional being, wearing jeans at dinner when the rest of England hardly knew what they were, a see-through summer dress at Mass in the drawing room, and so forth - and all done with the greatest style in which defiance mixed with humour. Walston, with a perfect milky complexion and huge blue eyes, wore no make-up and needed to wear none. Above all her wildly curling hair, completely against the fashion of the time (we all struggled to straighten our horrid natural curls), seemed to sum her up.

In the same way, in all the photographs of Cloetta, her perfectly bouffant locks, never out of order or casual, whatever the scene, seem to sum her up. Tiny in a shocking-pink trouser suit, immaculately blonde, neat and utterly adoring, she obviously made the change that Greene wanted. But he must have had more fun with Walston.

Antonia Fraser's most recent book is The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Get out now