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.’

The Bowen who wrote to Ritchie was almost always at a seeming disadvantage, the pursuer, the less-beloved. At times the inequality of feeling is such that infatuation does indeed seem to leave her less than fully intelligent. ‘I cannot forget the very slightest thing about your person or mind or nature. I see you at so many moments, at every moment,’ she told him in 1946. While Ritchie, who had now left London, noted when he met her that summer in Paris: ‘I had hardened, now I am sliding back towards her. As she stood waiting for me . . . she looked noble and sad and she touched me. I cannot bear to write about myself and her.’ While she was working on The Heat of the Day, which was she told him ‘extraordinarily . . . your and my book’, he was enjoying or not enjoying various love affairs, ambivalence being apparently intrinsic to all his sexual relations, and coming reluctantly to the conclusion that ‘turn and twist’ as he might against the commitment of marriage, it was time that he found a suitable wife.

When the book finally appeared, after a long gestation, in 1949, Bowen was delighted with his reaction to it. ‘Short of there having been a child there could be no other thing that was more you and me. It would have been terrible if you hadn’t liked it.’ More than usually in this tantalisingly fragmentary correspondence we long to know what, exactly, Ritchie said about it, for Bowen the novelist was apparently as all-seeing and unsparing as Bowen the mistress was doting. The book evokes the idyll of their early days together, the walks in the rose gardens in Regent’s Park in the warm autumn of 1941, the hasty dinners and occasional shared nights, all set in high relief against the dramatic backdrop of air-raids and the blackout. The mainspring of the plot, however, is not love but treachery. What did Ritchie, who had been disconcerted by the unblinkingly accurate depiction of Cameron in The Death of the Heart (1938), make of the characterisation of himself as Robert, the crypto-Nazi spy whose loyalty his lover Stella is gradually forced to question as the story unfolds until, at the end, unmasked, he falls or jumps to his death from the roof of her house? Much of what Bowen put into her letters of what she wanted to believe about their love is echoed in the novel, the desire for complete union, ‘doubled awareness . . . interlocking feeling acted on’ until they are one being, ‘everything gathered behind them into a common memory’. Yet so is what she didn’t say, a consciousness that beyond this enclosed world of lovers there is disloyalty and an unbridgeable mismatch of sympathies driving the narrative towards an unhappy end.

The year before The Heat of the Day appeared, Ritchie married, with his usual mixed feelings, a cousin, Sylvia Smellie. Four years later Cameron died and the balance of power and need shifted still further in Ritchie’s favour. He and Bowen continued to meet, Ritchie often going to stay at Bowen’s beloved family home in Ireland, Bowen’s Court. Always superficially polite about Sylvia, Bowen nevertheless insisted on her own priority with Ritchie. ‘What we have is perpetuity, and the breaks in it are shadows . . . You are my eternity,’ she wrote to him after one visit, though she was not always so gracious in her insistence. ‘Wouldn’t it be an economy if Sylvia went to Ottawa?’ she wondered, writing to Ritchie in New York where he had arrived as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, ‘except that it would be nicer if she were in Ottawa later, while I’m in New York.’ Just what poor Sylvia, who was well aware of Bowen’s looming presence in her marriage, felt is another question that Ritchie left largely unexamined, while his own feelings for both women oscillated between passionate attachment and resentful weariness.

With Ritchie, Bowen kept up a brave front despite the sadness of widowhood and the associated shortage of money, which obliged her to produce journalism at a titanic rate. Elsewhere in her writing of this time, as Allan Hepburn notes, the theme of disappointment preoccupied her ‘as a subject of psychological, even psychoanalytic, proportions’. In one of the best of the previously uncollected essays and articles in People, Places, Things she talks, the year after Cameron’s death, of the corrosive effects of slow disappointment, of disappointment as ‘a sort of process – going all the deeper because it has acted slowly’. It was in friendships, marriages and love affairs, she suggested, that one most risked this undermining loss of hope. ‘There is danger of becoming that sad type, the recognisably “disappointed” person – condoned with, but liable to be shunned.’ Appropriately enough, and not surprisingly, given its meditative and melancholy tone, the article, which had been commissioned by Reader’s Digest, was rejected. Like the essay on Jane Austen from 1936 and the occasional piece, ‘Calico Windows’, written to help raise funds for the rebuilding of Soho after the Blitz, ‘Disappointment’ is a small masterpiece in an uneven collection. Some of the writing is slight and some goes over ground, such as the history of Bowen’s Court and London in wartime, that she covered better elsewhere. A worthwhile addition to Bowen’s oeuvre, this is not the place to start with her non-fiction. Yet, even in the least of these pieces, there is vitality. Of Austen she wrote that her ‘two twin orders, Elegance and Propriety’ were the key to her greatness, going on to add that these are qualities ‘one would be prepared, in the last resort, to die for, that one would be prepared, at least, to sacrifice a life to’.

That combination of propriety with a most un-Austen like passion for it, a determination to have elegance or death, is perhaps the best explanation for her determined attachment to Ritchie. What she always, and he at times, wanted from their affair was to preserve the high moments of love at the most intense pitch of experience. Writing to him in 1962, 21 years after they met, she told him that ‘it seems as though my missing of you increased; I mean, with each month and year it gets worse and worse . . . How lucky I am to have you to miss . . . I can’t think what people must feel like who are not in love (and this slightly separates me from quite a lot of my contemporaries)’. Certainly not many people in their early sixties expect or want to be watching every post for a love letter, living from meeting to meeting or undergoing torments of jealousy. But there is more than bravado in the vivid accounts of her life that Bowen sent to Ritchie. The reader begins to suspect that Ritchie’s physical unavailability was positively useful, even if Bowen did not recognise that, putting him at the perfect psychological distance. ‘An old atmosphere-queen’ as she described herself to him once, needing to recount her life in order fully to live it, Bowen, like her heroine in The Heat of the Day, seems to have felt the intimacy of love most powerfully when by herself. Stella, running over the affair with Robert in the light of his betrayal, recalls that she ‘had trodden every inch of a country with him, not perhaps least when she was alone’.

As time passed the inequality of feeling between Bowen and Ritchie was thrown ever more sharply into prominence by their differing fortunes. Bowen struggled financially, eventually losing the battle to keep up Bowen’s Court, while her writing, having been so closely associated with ‘the taste of 20 years ago’, came to seem dated. Ritchie’s career meanwhile flourished. ‘I’m simply a widow,’ as she put it, ‘and you are an Ambassador.’ For all of which hers is the life one would rather be living. Although the new mood of London in the 1960s did not favour her writing, she was alive to it and to the city’s transformation, ‘a modern Babylon, with wonderful-looking creatures wandering dazedly, slipshod, through the arrogant-looking sunny streets’. ‘Do you dance the Twist?’ she asked Ritchie only half ironically, ‘I feel very pessimistic about it . . . I can’t imagine taking to any form of dancing which involves hopping about and looking enthusiastic . . . But do all the same tell me.’ Ritchie’s diary on the other hand, where he mopes and frets in self-dislike, is, as he admits, the chronicle of ‘an obsessive cycle of boredom, dissipation, remorse, apprehension, boredom again’ in which his centre of emotional gravity rolls around from Sylvia to Elizabeth and back to himself. Urbane, cultivated and witty in company, lunching with Diana Cooper and staying with the Queen at Balmoral, in private he broods on his own timidity, wondering whether he will ever manage to write a novel, escape ‘the womb of self’ and finally, in his fifties, ‘an elderly sex-maniac’, embark on ‘the voyage out’ into life.

Despite her best efforts to maintain it at fever pitch Bowen’s passion for Ritchie became with time, if not cooler, then calmer. While this was disturbing for him it had an enlivening effect on the letters, which began to range refreshingly far beyond the airless world of the lovers and their perpetual tug of war. When writing from Bowen’s Court she drew on the other great theme of her published work, the world of the Anglo-Irish gentry, a subject on which she was at her funniest and best. The round of country-house visiting, horse shows, dinner parties, hunt balls and even family funerals was, she told Ritchie, the essence of pleasure, pleasure of ‘the real kind – slightly dashing, more than a bit ramshackle, but totally without calcul and unsnobbish’. Isaiah Berlin and Nancy Mitford appear from time to time and are observed, but it is the background that is compelling as Bowen and her friends career around the countryside from house to house, a combination of dark roads, much alcohol and the absence of any driving test in Ireland at the time all taking their toll, not least on Eddy Sackville-West’s immaculate front lawn.

She is wonderfully observant of detail – ‘a sort of scented mildness in the air’ at the start of spring, or the aftermath of a storm and its ‘holocaust of . . . torn-up trees, with their look of despair and ignominy’ – and also of the telling vignette. Almost everything that needs to be said about life in the Irish big house is implicit in her account of arriving at Ursula and Stephen Vernon’s home in Kinsale after a particularly dour Church of Ireland funeral. Faulkner, the valet, Bowen told Ritchie,

came in after dinner, coughed, and said: ‘The light on the upper landing has failed and there are six bats in her ladyship’s room.’ Stephen said: ‘Fortunately her ladyship likes bats.’ And indeed she does. When we all went to bed, through her open door I saw her gazing up at them ecstatically.

It was a milieu in which Bowen’s attachment to Eddy Sackville-West could not lead to marriage, although for a while Ritchie was alarmed that it might. His homosexuality was no problem, but her Protestantism was insuperable.

By the early 1960s Ritchie thought the ‘civil war’ was over, reflecting ruefully that they had reached that ‘footing of accustomed friendship’ to which he had once looked forward, though now it seemed an anticlimax. He was wrong. Once again it was her writing that made the third party in the drama. Bowen’s attention was completely absorbed by her latest novel, The Little Girls, published in 1964. ‘Anybody would think I’d never written a book before, from the fuss I’m making about never being able to be apart for an hour, if possible, from the dear thing,’ she told him. ‘But it has a sort of hallucinatory excitement about it.’ The story of the complex relations between three women united by a childhood secret, the novel draws on Bowen’s many long female friendships, a side of her life that she tended, as Victoria Glendinning notes, not to reveal to Ritchie. Played out between the characters’ childhoods on the eve of the First World War and their adult lives, it is both comic and sinister. It is also a book in which men are either dead or faintly ridiculous. Reading the first chapters, Ritchie told Bowen he thought the book was written out of revenge. ‘“Oh yes,” she said, meaning, “You don’t know the half of it.” Revenge on love. Revenge on me.’

Both Bowen and Ritchie drank a great deal. He complained once that all his love affairs had been ‘floated on alcohol’ and the scale of consumption can be deduced from Bowen’s scandalised report that in an attempt to lose weight Cyril Connolly had ‘practically given up drinking (except wine)’. In Ireland even producing the local nativity play involved ‘oceans of drink’ while ‘the only bother about a cathedral is, one – naturally and properly – can’t smoke.’ Bowen’s heavy smoking began to undermine her health in the late 1960s, and by 1971 Ritchie noticed with alarm a new frailty in her appearance. Early in 1973, when lung cancer had been diagnosed and it was clear that she was dying, he finally made himself unreservedly available, coming over from Canada to be at her bedside for the last weeks of her life.

Her death at once reversed the balance of power irretrievably. He was overcome not only with regret but by terrible jealousy as he realised how many other people had had the right to claim an intimacy with her, how she had kept parts of her life from him that she had shared with others. Looking back over their affair he wondered if, after all, he had not been in some ways the less loved, his the losing side. ‘I need to know again from her that I was her life,’ he wrote. ‘I would give anything I have to give to talk to her again.’ It had been a war and in the end she had won. The last entry from Ritchie’s diary reprinted in this book admits defeat. ‘If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her,’ he wrote, ten months after her death, ‘she is revenged.’