A sunny afternoon in Brixton. A pint at the Prince Regent on Dulwich Road reading a biography of Elizabeth Bowen, the great 20th-century Irish novelist and short story writer. My purpose? To get to the heart of Bowen’s affair with my grandfather, the academic Humphry House, which took place in the early 1930s.
Central to the account of the relationship in the biography (written by Victoria Glendinning) was the following phrase: “Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée.” I was struck by the insouciant presumption of shared cultural knowledge of life writing in the 1970s, and glad that the friend who was joining me for a drink would know the provenance of the quotation.
“It’s from Phèdre by Jean Racine,” he burst out excitedly. “Theseus’s wife, Phèdre, is cursed by Venus and is smitten by Hippolyte, her own stepson. The first line of the couplet explains how her passion can no longer be contained. Falling in love with a younger man is a disaster, that’s the whole point!”
More important than the literary allusion in Glendinning’s account was a tantalising gap in the narrative. Though the history of the affair between Elizabeth and Humphry was there, my grandfather’s name was not. He was referred to simply as “the man”. Later I would find out the simple reason for his absence (the name was omitted at the request of my grandmother). In choosing not to to divulge all she knew Glendinning had, to misquote former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, presented an “unknown known”. It was a useful first lesson in the challenges of life writing.
The reason for my reading matter at the Regent, my sudden interest in this relationship, was simple. A sudden death in the family had delivered me the extraordinary unpublished correspondence between Humphry and Elizabeth. I was immediately fascinated by the letters and hoped to put them in some sort of book. Finding out all I could, from biographical accounts of Bowen’s life and from the letters themselves, was a good first step.
When Elizabeth Bowen met my grandfather in 1933 she was an established literary figure with four novels and two volumes of short stories to her name. She was in a comfortable marriage to Alan Cameron, then Oxford’s secretary for education. They divided their time between Oxford and Ireland, where the Bowen family had their ancestral home. Theirs was a supportive but not passionate partnership, one that possibly left a space unfulfilled in her life. A social life bursting with the brightest young men of the university was just what she needed. And it was here that she first crossed paths with Humphry House, clever, insecure and almost nine years younger than her.
House had been an undergraduate at the university in the late 1920s and was good friends with Isaiah Berlin and Stephen Spender. He was, when he met Bowen, trying to establish himself at the university whilst beginning his first major scholarly work, on the notebooks and papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Crucial to the development of the intimacy between Humphry and Elizabeth was her home in Ireland, Bowen’s Court, where Humphry spent a large part of the summer of 1933. Humphry was smitten by the damp grandeur of the Anglo-Irish gentry – its easy welcome of parties, tennis tournaments and outings to ruined castles. But when he returned to England there would be no return to Oxford; instead he would take a job miles away in Exeter, a move which placed an immediate strain on his relationship with Elizabeth.
Soon this physical distance was compounded by a structural one: Humphry married a woman called Madeline Church. The two of them had been in an on-off relationship for more than a year; Humphry’s taking up with Elizabeth had occurred during a fallow period in his relationship with Madeline. Elizabeth felt that any liaison with Humphry should be conducted outside a marriage; that its strength was its homelessness. Humphry’s instinct was the opposite; he wished to bring the two women together, even for excruciating dinners in provincial hotels à trois. Tortured love triangles are central to Bowen’s fiction: now she was between the sheets of one herself.
Indeed, the novel Bowen was writing at the time, The House in Paris (1935), could be read as a version of the affair. Despite the elephant trap of biographical fallacy, the novel does throw an interesting light on the situation Bowen found herself in at the time. The narrative charts an intense, clandestine attachment between an ill-matched couple, with a mousy second woman watching from the wings. My family myth is that two of the protagonists in The House in Paris are my grandparents. My grandmother Madeline even self-identified as the pitiful character, Naomi Fisher, sidelined by the central romance between Max Ebhert (Humphry) and Karen Michaelis (Elizabeth). And if Bowen was frustrated by Humphry and his behaviour in real life, she exacted a spectacular literary revenge: Max dies by the unlikeliest of suicides when his relationship with Karen implodes.
This novel (one of Bowen’s best) is not the only fictitious version of the interaction between Elizabeth and Humphry. The letters reveal both of them as wildly unreliable narrators of their own stories. Theirs was a self-conscious epistolary discourse; letter writing a craft as much as a means of communication. Bowen, in particular, performed for the page. And she shamelessly rewrote history when it suited her. As the relationship with Humphry reached its end in late 1935, she complained to her friend, the writer and editor William Plomer, of the “awful row” she had had with Humphry. Yet two months later she was claiming that the two of them had parted amicably. She was a writer who liked to apply an impressionistic flourish at the end of a story, in fiction or in fact.
If Elizabeth refashioned certain elements of the narrative, my family was equally guilty of reconstruction. This was apparent in the reason given for Humphry’s decision at the start of 1936 to take a post in Calcutta, leaving his young family behind. The oral history of this event in the family is unequivocal: Humphry left for India to “escape” Elizabeth Bowen. In this telling, the poor man was so bullied by a domineering older woman that he was forced to abandon his family and sail to the far side of the world. The letters revealed something different: Humphry’s restless spirit, his lust for adventure, his keen sense of failure in England and a wish to re-invent himself. Here was the clash between an inherited story and a found one; family often spins a truth comfortable to itself.
The final challenge, for me as a family member, was how to deal with some of the information that I unearthed in the letters. Let’s just say that my grandfather did not always cover himself with glory, particularly in his behaviour towards women. I was very conscious of the impact my new tale would have on those I loved, particularly on my mother. I had no wish to be like Karl Ove Knausgaard, writing my truth regardless of the feelings of my family. So I let the characters speak for themselves by including letters without judgement on my part. Humphry was, after all, a figure in a story as much as he was my grandfather.
The second decision I made was my about my own position in the narrative; I brought my family and myself into the version I wrote. As Bowen is a writer obsessed by sense of place, I travelled to all the locations in the letters. And as I retrod the soggy fields that surrounded the ruins of Bowen’s Court, or visited Presidency College in Kolkata, I felt a strange correspondence with spirits of people and place. I included my experiences as traveller and family member, cross-cutting them in the narrative with the letters and the biographies of Elizabeth, Humphry and Madeline. The polyvocality of my book was, I hoped, a way to celebrate the different interpretations of events as well as the many ways of telling a tale.
When I had finally finished a draft I was happy with, I passed it to my mother. My greatest supporter, my sharpest critic, my link between then and now. Her reaction? ‘I am not shocked or surprised by the content of your book, but some of your sentences are so banal!’ Time to write another, better version. Let’s hope the final published book earns my mother’s approval.
The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen is published by Prelude