Closer than words

 

LETTERS: Mary Morrissyreviews Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen Charles Ritchie – Letters and Diaries 1941-1973Edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson Simon Schuster, 475pp. £14.99 and Elizabeth BowenEdited by Eibhear Walshe Irish Academic Press, 216pp. €19.95

WHEN ELIZABETH Bowen met Charles Ritchie in London in 1941, neither of them could have envisaged the longevity of their association. She was 42, the successful author of six novels, part of a charmed upper-class literary set; he was 35, a Canadian diplomat and something of a ladies’ man. But their affair persisted for over 30 years, despite the fact that geography was their enemy.

He was posted at different times to France, Germany, the US and Canada and she divided her time between her beloved Bowen’s Court in north Cork and her home in London, as well as managing a hectic schedule of travelling associated with her writing career.

Despite, or maybe because of, their “companionate” marriages, the relationship thrived. When they met, Bowen had been married for 18 years to Alan Cameron, a bluff, handsome ex-military man with “a feminine streak”, according to Victoria Glendinning. Theirs was a sexless but contented union, by all accounts. She had had several other affairs, most notably with Seán Ó Faoláin, and had at least one lesbian entanglement with the American poet May Sarton, but she seems never to have contemplated divorce. (In her 1977 biography of Bowen, Glendinning describes the Camerons as a pair of homing birds, rather than love birds.)

On the other hand, seven years into their relationship, Ritchie set out to find a wife. This seems to have been a career decision, but he conceded in later years that it was a happy marriage, because his wife, Sylvia (who was also his second cousin), had willed it so. Whether she knew about the relationship with Bowen is never made explicit here – there certainly was some kind of showdown in 1952 when Ritchie left one of Bowen’s letters where he knew his wife would find it, but either with her approval or not, the affair continued – as did Ritchie’s marriage – only ending on Bowen’s death in 1973.

Glendinning shares the editing of this volume with Judith Robertson, who was bequeathed Ritchie’s letters and diaries by his niece in 2001. So it’s a two-handed, long distance affair, much like its subject matter. Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking features of Love’s Civil War(a phrase Ritchie himself coined to describe their relationship) is how the form – Elizabeth’s love letters juxtaposed with Charles’s diaries – so entirely encapsulates not just the difficulties of an illicit love affair, but the very difficulty of love itself. So while the reader is privy to Bowen’s passionate outpourings and heated declarations – these are love letters, after all, and were, surely, not intended for publication – what we get from Ritchie is more detached and bloodless, his internal musings not meant for her eyes. (He published a selection from his professional diaries in his retirement.)

For her, Ritchie was “the love of her life”, but in the early stages of the affair, he was decidedly ambiguous. “After dinner we got into one of those stupid brutishly serious conversations about our feelings. What I was trying to convey and did in fact convey, was that I did not love her. . . a little indifference goes a long way with me – indeed my system requires it, like the need for salt,” he writes on April 21st, 1942. In Bowen’s closest letter in time to this, written in January 1945, she was rhapsodizing that “we are so close to each other in understanding, closer than words could make us”.

Thanks to Ritchie, there are some maddening omissions and gaps in her correspondence. He had contemplated destroying Bowen’s letters after her death, as he had his own to her; in the end he merely edited some and culled others so there is, apart from the editors of this volume, another steering hand at work here.

Bowen once declared that she was a writer before she was a woman, so while these are primarily love letters, they also offer a fascinating slice of social history. There is the death rattle of the Big House, the rather jaunty lifestyle of a well-off, well-connected writer with houseguests such as Iris Murdoch, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, as well as the catastrophic destruction of the second World War and the privations of its aftermath. (The cigarette famine was particularly acute for Bowen, a life-long smoker who succumbed to lung cancer.)

Her fascination with place is evoked in the pellucid prose of her novels; she made an art of letter-writing. She got around. There is a prescient description of Prague just before the Communist coup and a graphic account of what she calls the “scabrous hill town” of Butte, Montana. Her acerbic wit and her terrible snobbery is evident too. “I remember liking Scotland and the Scots when I was staying with Gildie Morden in that nice big house in the country outside Stirling. It is these middle-class Edinburgh ones who are appalling. Compared to them the Swiss are glamorous and the Czechs a riot.”

But the cruel imbalance of feelings remains the central theme of Love’s Civil War, and is never as pointed as in Charles Ritchie’s final entry here, written shortly after Bowen’s death, when, felled by grief, he declares: “I need to know again from her that I was her life . . . If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is revenged”. Gone now, the indifferent man.

The second volume in the Irish Writers in Their Time series from the Irish Academic Press, Elizabeth Bowen, aims to provide “a comprehensive scholarly account” of each of her 10 novels and some of her short stories. Though probably not for the general reader, the collection, under Eibhear Walshe’s shrewd editorship, is eminently accessible for anyone familiar with the work and pleasantly kaleidoscopic in the filters the contributors use to examine their subject.

The book opens with a biographical essay from Noreen Doody, which gives us the life in clear, broad brush-strokes. It crisply sets up the rest of the collection which includes Vera Kreilkamp’s pungent exploration of Bowen’s Ascendancy baggage, Clair Wills on the “half-life” of 1950s Ireland and Derek Hand’s meditation on ghostly presences in her work.

Heather Laird bemoans the disjointed nature of scholarship on the writer. Bowen as Anglo-Irish doyenne, as bisexual, modernist and spy have all attracted critical attention, as if they were separate rather than competing identities, whereas Laird believes the key to viewing Bowen’s work is her “fascination with fragmentation itself”.

In her chapter on Bowen’s autobiographical writings, Mary Breen examines the writer’s misgivings about the form; she was a self-declared hater of nostalgia and realised how slippery memory could be. Furthermore, as a writer, she felt her entire life had already been “haunted” by fiction. Breen suggests another reason for Bowen’s antipathy to memoir – her Anglo-Irish reserve, a class reticence so thoroughly engrained that she couldn’t quite shake off the indulgence that telling it all implied. Which is, I suppose, where Charles Ritchie came in.

Mary Morrissy is the Jenny McKean Moore writer in Washington 2008/09, at George Washington University