Sean O’Faolain’s other women
An extract from Julia O’Faolain’s memoir ‘Trespassers’
Young men, taken aback by this, could be scathing. A handsome, charming but, to my mind, too matter-of-fact young Frenchman called Robert took me to dinner and then to the Bois de Boulogne, where he hired a boat and attempted to make love to me as we drifted into the dark. When given the frozen treatment, he said sourly, “So, you’re holding on to your little capital, is that it?”
He assumed I was a virgin, which by then I no longer was. The question bothering me was my emotional state, which depended on his and on the likelihood that feeling might play a role in this encounter, especially as I had just spent a year in Rome, where I had grown used to Italian readiness to indulge in patient, courteous, unconsummated foreplay, which allowed me and my male friends to warm ourselves in the glow of an old-fashioned amitié amoureuse .
The evening with Robert, an honest man and an adult, was a debacle.
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Suffering from a nine-year itch (he had married my mother in 1928), my father had developed a cerebral passion for the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, his imagined “Irish Turgenev”. They hadn’t met, but to remedy this, an amused Derek Verschoyle, editor of the Spectator , for which Sean sometimes reviewed, arranged a small luncheon party at his London club and, one may guess, prepared the ground by telling Elizabeth how keenly this ex-IRA man admired her.
Sean was good-looking, and it seems that Bowen’s marriage, though solid, was unconsummated. So he and she began an affair. “Why,” he later remembered wondering during that lunch, “might I not learn as much from her about Woman as I had already learned from Turgenev about Writing?”
Interestingly, her next lover, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, whom she would meet in 1941 and love for 30 years, considered her writing “infinitely more exciting . . . and profound than E herself ”.
Inspiring cerebral passions seems to have been her forte.
Sean describes a final visit to her in London on August 31st, 1939, when, as they “lay abed, passion sated”, her husband rang to say that the fleet had been ordered to mobilise, “which means war”.
It also meant the end of their affair, as neutral Ireland would now be isolated and Elizabeth, when she did come over, would be doing so – though Sean did not know this at first – partly at the behest of the British ministry of information, which was eager to have her report on how Irish people felt about the English threat to take back the Irish ports.
A letter from her to a former lover, Humphrey House, describes Sean without naming him and says, “we are . . . very much in love. It doesn’t feel like a love affair. It feels like a marriage . . . He is the best (I think without prejudice) of the younger Irish writers. I only read any book of his last summer . . .”
She claims that she nearly wrote him a fan letter. Then that he wrote her a fan letter, so they met. This account of their manoeuvring is more hesitant and less Stendhalian than Sean’s but probably slightly arranged – as no doubt is his. After all, both were writers. She says nice things about Eileen, mentions her husband and my five-year-old self, and says that, as they would both hate to upset anyone, “We are paying for our happiness by being very good. We are both, by nature, extremely secretive, which helps.”
Tension in the house
The above information comes from their pens. All I knew at the time was that there was a bristle of tension in our house, that Eileen was restive and that Sean was making trips not just to London but to Cork – and not to Cork city, either, where his mother lived, but to Bowen’s home,
Bowenscourt. Why, I heard Eileen ask, if he was going, as he claimed, to a house party, had she not been invited too? Airily implausible, he insisted that it was to be a professional gathering that only writers would attend. A likely story! And yet, given his view of Elizabeth as an Irish Turgenev, there was some truth to his claim. His interest was not only professionalbut also a form of fieldwork.
Muted rows dragged on, and Eileen must at some point have met Elizabeth, because, later, she disparagingly described her as wearing yards of fake pearls. No doubt they met at one of the dinners hosted by the Irish Academy of Letters, for Sean had meanwhile introduced Bowen to its founder, the aged Yeats, whom she apparently charmed.
Sean himself was mesmerised. He and Bowen had so much in common: Co Cork, romanticism and its opposite, emotional doubleness, their restless age (when they met, both, like the century itself, were 37), short stories – they both wrote them, and she drew attention in her Faber Book of Modern Stories , which appeared that same year, to the fact that “the younger Irish writers” had all carried arms.
This remark fitted Sean’s case almost too neatly, as, having both made bombs and carried a gun, he had indeed “carried arms”, but, as far as I know, he himself never turned them on anyone. He was proud of his marksmanship, though, and shooting was for years to be one of his hobbies. The story of his that appears in Bowen’s Faber anthology is The Bombshop .
This is an edited extract from Trespassers , published by Faber and Faber, £14.99