Written out of Revenge

Rosemary Hill

  • Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen & Charles Ritchie Letters and Diaries 1941-73 edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Robertson
    Simon and Schuster, 489 pp, £14.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84737 213 0
  • People, Places, Things: Essays by Elizabeth Bowen edited by Allan Hepburn
    Edinburgh, 467 pp, £60.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 7486 3568 9

Civil war is an unpleasant business and the story that unfolds in the letters and diaries of Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat with whom she was in love for more than thirty years, is not a happy one. This was not so much what the publishers are pleased to call on the dust jacket ‘the love affair of a lifetime’, more like a fight to the death. Not that theirs was a tempestuous relationship in the usual sense. There were occasional scenes and some quarrels, but not, apparently, many. The struggle was between two complex and internally divided natures at war with themselves as much as with each other and constrained by circumstances largely of their own making. After her death Ritchie destroyed his letters to Bowen and some of hers to him. We are left, therefore, with her remaining letters and his diaries: she talks to him and he talks to himself. Like two soliloquists just within earshot of one another they seem sometimes to fall into dialogue and at others to be taking part in completely different dramas.

They met during an actual war, in 1941. Bowen was 41, married and already successful as a writer. Ritchie, six years younger, was second secretary to the Canadian High Commission. It was not, for him, a coup de foudre. His first impression of her was sharp-eyed and ambivalent. She struck him as ‘well-dressed, middle-aged with the air of being the somewhat worldly wife of a don, a narrow intelligent face, watching eyes and a cruel, witty mouth’. His second impression, just seven months later, was that she was ‘a witch’ whose middle-aged face belied the most beautiful body he had ever seen, a body ‘like Donatello’s David . . . Those small firm breasts, that modelled neck set with such beauty on her shoulders, that magnificent back.’ In another four days the ambivalence had returned. He was afraid that she was in love with him and ‘it’s a waste of time trying to discuss character, personal behaviour etc with a woman who is in love with one . . . If I am not cruel now, she will be later.’ So the tone was set for the next three decades of frantic entanglement. Bowen had no intention of leaving her husband, Alan Cameron, to whom she was devoted. Their marriage, however, was unconsummated. Ritchie was not her first lover, but at her age, as he ungallantly observed, he might well be her last. She openly adored him, while he, an accomplished ladies’ man, longed for a little indifference. ‘Any woman who kept me in a state of anxiety could keep me permanently,’ he noted. Bowen realised she could keep him anyway. He had, she pointed out, ‘a will of india rubber’.

The third point in this eternal triangle was not Cameron, whose implicitly benign presence in the marital home in Regent’s Park goes almost without comment by both Bowen and Ritchie. The other party to the affair was Bowen’s writing. She made slight mention of it in her letters to Ritchie but for him it was an almost tangible presence, especially in those early days, a ‘companion spirit’ that hovered about her, ‘infinitely more exciting and more poetic and more profound than E herself’. He felt himself absorbed by it, ‘carried along on the tide of her imagination’ to the point of not bothering to describe their day together at Kew in his diary ‘as I am sure that it will all be found in her next novel’. Her work infused his feelings for her while hers for him became an inextricable part of the experience of London during the Second World War, the theme of some of her best work. Her wartime novel, The Heat of the Day, often said to be her finest, was based on their relationship and dedicated to Ritchie. To read these letters in the shadow of the novel gives a new resonance to her remark, made not to Ritchie but to Cyril Connolly, that ‘I am fully intelligent only when I write.’

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