A conference is held in Berkhamsted every year to discuss the huge volume of Greene's novels and other writings and the many films based on them. Greene was born in a building of the Berkhamsted School, one of six children in a large, prosperous and intermarried family.
He boarded at the Berkhamsted School, where his father was made headmaster. He was bullied and unhappy, and frequently depressed. He was sent to London for psychoanalysis in 1920, which was unusual at the time. He tried to kill himself several times. Doubtless unconnected with his depression, he attended Balliol College, Oxford. Also, surely unconnected with his Balliol affiliation, he (briefly) joined the Communist Party.
He began his career as a reviewer and essayist. An avowed atheist, he had been questioning his faith since his days at boarding school. He wrote:
So faith came to one—shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy.Garrison Keillor describes Greene's marriage as follows:
When he was 21 years old, [Greene] wrote an essay referring to Catholics as people who "worship" the Virgin Mary. He received an indignant reply from a young woman named Vivien Dayrell-Browning, explaining that Catholics did not worship the Virgin Mary, they venerated her. He wrote her back, they met, and Greene was smitten. Unfortunately, Dayrell-Browning was a very devout Catholic, and she had several more eligible men courting her. But Greene was stubborn. He wrote her no less than 2,000 letters and postcards, sometimes three a day. And he converted to Catholicism. How much of his conversion was influenced by his future wife, and how much by other spiritual motives, no one knows for sure. But he became a Catholic, married Vivien, and went on to write novels about characters struggling to reconcile their faith with the rest of their lives.Greene's first novel, The Man Within (1929) was sufficiently successful that he was able to earn a living writing novels, all of which deal with questions of morality. About ten years into his marriage, Greene had an affair, the first of many. He and his wife separated, but never divorced.
The Power and the Glory (1940) is a novel about an old Mexican priest. He calls himself a "whisky priest" and looks back on a life of drinking and other misdeeds including fathering a child with one of his parishioners. At the end of his life, he is living on the run, practicing his faith despite the new revolutionary government's outlawing Catholic sacraments.
The Power and the Glory was so popular that it attracted the attention of the Vatican, which appointed two different people to review it and decide whether the Church should take an official position. The two readers had similar reactions to the novel. One wrote: "Odd and paradoxical, a true product of the disturbed, confused, and audacious character of today's civilization. For me, the book is sad." They thought it should never have been written, but they also knew it would look bad for the Church to officially condemn it, since Greene was the most famous Catholic writer in England. Instead, they recommended that Greene's bishop privately scold him for it and direct Greene "to write other books in a different tone, attempting to correct the defects of this one." Greene did nothing of the sort, and continued to write about characters struggling with their own moral failings and their Catholicism in novels like The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), which he dedicated to his mistress.Greene's other novels include Brighton Rock (1938), The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973).