Book reviews: Elizabeth Bowen and the lost art of love, letters

"...this is a story shot through not so much with the comedy as the agony of the sexes."
Book reviews: Elizabeth Bowen and the lost art of love, letters

Irish novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899 - 1973) working at her home, Bowen's Court in Kildorrey, County Cork. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen
  • Julia Parry 
  • Duckworth, €20.45 

FIRST, some introductions. Elizabeth Bowen was (and is) a big name: an eminent and successful novelist of the mid-twentieth century, author of The House in Paris and The Heat of the Day. She divided her time between England and her family’s ancestral home, Bowen’s Court, near Mitchelstown. (Her forebears had come to Ireland during the Cromwellian campaign of 1649, acquiring swathes of land in north Cork.) She was a friend to Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf. During the Second World War, she wrote reports for British intelligence services on Irish attitudes to the conflict.

Humphry House was a teacher and man of letters. At Oxford, he was part of a “peacock generation” of young intellects, knocking around with the likes of Stephen Spender and Isaiah Berlin. But House did not have a smooth path to the glittering prizes of an elite academic career. He would become a failed, unbelieving clergyman and didn’t secure a coveted position at Oxford until shortly before his untimely death.

Finally, Julia Parry is House’s granddaughter, and, as her first book now amply demonstrates, another talented writer. The Shadowy Third reconstructs the affair between Bowen and House, using letters between them that dropped into Parry’s lap ten years ago. Neither of the lovers, Parry observes, had tranquil spirits: “Because you can hurt me more utterly and deeply than anybody, you are more valuable than anybody,” House wrote to Bowen.

As a result, this is a story shot through not so much with the comedy as the agony of the sexes. Bowen thought her feelings for House had “a touch of the subjection that is latent in any woman’s feeling for any man: (…) the desire to be towered over spiritually, intellectually, morally”. She thought that by marrying Madeline Church, the author’s grandmother, her lover was “embracing mediocrity”, hitching himself to someone with a “talent for earnestness and inauspicious remarks”. Later, she finds Madeline “a poor little creature”, “pop-eyed with anxiety”, the mother of “plain blond babies”, who makes a home that is “something between a dolls’ house and a rabbit hutch”.

Before they married, Humphry House was anxious to ensure that his wife-to-be would have an open mind about acts of unfaithfulness on his part, occasions when he might give in to “violent and casual physical attraction to all kinds of women whom I meet”. These, he felt, would not be “betrayals or falsifications, but trivial and regrettable incidents”. Parry pieces together what little she can about a child House had with a woman other than Madeline or Elizabeth, a biological uncle she and no one else in her family has ever met. She feels, though, that her grandmother was “embracing inconstancy with her eyes wide open”.

Humphry House’s opinion of his wife was at times pretty low: she lacked a “social personality” and was less well read than him (“I do not manage to hide the difference,” he told Bowen). His rage at coming home to burnt sausages for dinner once caused her to flee their flat for a few hours. He is somewhat resentful when their first baby comes too soon for his liking. He accepted fatherhood, according to Parry, but “work always came first”. In later years, Madeline would insist that her role had been to be the “pillow” that her gifted but agitated husband needed.

Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, chatting w. Bryn Mawr students over tea as part of her fellowship obligation in which she has no academic duties other than to stimulate students in gatherings and discussions
Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, chatting w. Bryn Mawr students over tea as part of her fellowship obligation in which she has no academic duties other than to stimulate students in gatherings and discussions

The characters in The Shadowy Third seem to inhabit a world where marriage is mainly a matter of good form, a necessary social prop, and, if one was lucky, a reliable source of comfort and companionship. Husband and wife could be completely committed to a form of shared life as long as this had clear boundaries and other satisfactions could be sought elsewhere. Madeline met Elizabeth and was on friendly enough terms with her, even though she knew how entangled her husband was with the Irish novelist. Julia Parry judges that the triangle, as far as Humphry was concerned, “had no sharp edges”.

There is something dispiriting about the protagonists’ repeated attempts to manoeuvre other people into the postures and demeanours they desire (and their railing when this doesn’t quite work). The dramatis personae of The Shadowy Third present a confusing mix: harsh but brittle in temperament, volatile but somehow frosty, clingy but also detached, sly but also frank; clever people capable of mindless snobbery. A young woman who has got engaged to an Oxford friend is dismissed by Bowen as “common” and “hopelessly unpalatable”: “If only she would be run over by a bus”.

Parry identifies the leitmotifs of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction as “stifled people, sinister houses, dislocation”. She wrote about the “house-islands” of the Ascendancy during their descent towards ruin. Visitors from England joked that Bowen’s Court was “straight out of Russian literature: a feudal backwater, an air of gloom, a way of life whose demise was as inevitable as the cutting down of ancestral trees.” When her husband died, Bowen wrote to a friend, “Really, my next of kin is this house.” (The house eventually passed out of family hands and was demolished in the late 1950s.) The Shadowy Third is continuously enlivened by fine turns of phrase. Julia Parry writes, for instance, of the “damp grandeur” of the Anglo-Irish gentry; and compares Bowen’s handwriting to “the flight of a drunken bird across the page”. 

She captures well the languid enjoyment of various shades of privilege. We find House, for instance, on a visit to Bowen’s Court, sitting around in the library, “reading Virginia Woolf all day, the smell of cut hay wafting through the windows, drinking his way through Elizabeth’s store of sherry”. Bowen liked living in Oxford within easy reach of “the articulate and the learned”. Parry pictures her ready to venture out to donnish social occasions with a “generous layer of make-up, a bag full of cigarettes”. When Bowen and her husband move residence from Oxford to London, it was to a house facing Regent’s Park with “Nash pillars, cream stucco, parquet floors, and trees reflected into the room”.

Parry excels too at plotting the arc of the Bowen-House relationship through time and space. Her travels in search of “psychogeographical” revelations from the lives she is peering into take her to Ireland, across southern England and Wales, and as far away as Calcutta. Humphrey went to India to be a Professor of English, leaving behind his wife, who was pregnant with his second child (the author’s mother), in an isolated farmhouse outside Exeter. However, when the new baby was only a few months old, Madeline herself headed alone to Calcutta for a five-month stay. Maurice Bowra, one of the pre-eminent Oxford dons of the day, commented that this type of separation was “inevitable” and “the correct procedure for English families”.

House thought of his own departure for India as a very important “mental and emotional adventure”. Only later, when a son came along, was there something outside of him in his family life that truly commanded his attention. He had taught the boy the Greek alphabet before he was two years old. But, as for his daughters, House’s passionate engagement was more with literature than with them. Parry’s mother could not remember him ever having given her a kiss.

The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen Julia Parry
The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen Julia Parry

Humphry House was in India for two years, during which the air went out of his romance, if not his friendship, with Elizabeth Bowen, who moved on to affairs with May Sarton, an American poet; Seán Ó Faoláin (married to Eileen Gould, whom Madeline House would later sneeringly refer to as his “virago of a wife”, perhaps for not going along with Ó Faoláin’s unfaithfulness); and a Canadian diplomat named Charles Ritchie, another man “open to several attachments at one time”.

The Shadowy Third is, in part, a successful rescue mission by Julia Parry on behalf of her grandmother Madeline, releasing her from confinement to the image of a feeble but inconvenient truth for inconvenienced lovers. Madeline House eventually found greater intellectual equality with her husband when she gets deeply and very productively involved in his project editing Dickens’ letters. When Humphry died suddenly at 46, she lamented “his goodness and greatness”. Meanwhile, when Bowen’s husband died back in Cork, she was comforted by Irish attitudes to dying: “what’s most healing is that here it’s natural to weep. Nobody is so ignorant as to say “Forget it.”” 

From the Bowen-House letters, Julia Parry has managed to carve an absorbing concoction of curiosity, melancholy and ultimate contentment; “a feeling of gratitude” for the stories and talents she has inherited from her family. Acquiring the letters was itself a lesson in both “the power of objects to choose their human hosts” and ““the power of letters to let loose their spirits, enabling them to seep into the present”.

Indeed. “Writing to anybody,” Bowen thought, “is one great way of making oneself feel one is in their presence.” Books such as The Shadowy Third are going to assume more and more significance as the culture and habit of letter writing fades from living memory.

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