VICTORIA Glendinning’s new book on Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie may have unleashed a slow-scorching lava flow on existing critical studies of the novelist and her era, but it has also brought into a new and glowing prominence the geography of Bowen’s life. This applies in particular to the landscape of north Cork in which, according to the letters she wrote from her family house at Bowen’s Court, she felt deeply rooted and peculiarly at home.
Peculiarly, because she had several homes in her lifetime, most obviously a house in London and, later and finally, in Hythe on the south coast of England. The letters she wrote to her Canadian lover Charles Ritchie from all these addresses are presented in Love’s Civil War, edited by Glendinning with Judith Robertson (Simon Schuster) – in a counterpoint to Ritchie’s diary entries.
Critical reviews of the book have seized on the revelations of her immense capacity for love, her longing for the completion gained from Ritchie’s presence, and on what both of them have to say about his diplomatic career and her creative inspiration and processes.
Closer to home are her accounts of her days and weeks (sometimes months) at Bowen’s Court and even those who never knew north Cork or south Tipperary will feel the spell her words cast over this landscape and its people.
It’s not that she romanticises any of these native components. It’s only that, as she says herself in an excuse for passing on the local gossip, “we all here take in one another’s washing”. So a woman who has had all of Paris, London and New York at her feet still finds delight in shopping in Clonmel or Mitchelstown or even, especially for hats, in Cork city. She writes of visits to Bobby and Molly Keane (yes, that Molly Keane), of staying with Stephen and Lady Ursula Vernon at their bat-haunted house in Kinsale, of having Eddie Sackville West (yes, that inheritor of the Knole estate in Kent) stay with her until at last and thankfully she helps him move into his house in Clogheen.
Neighbours from the village of Kildorrery are stalwarts of these letters. There are encounters in Mallow and Fermoy and details of all the activities of the farming countryside she shares with so many people. And she writes, quite often and not just from Bowen’s Court, of church-going.
Much of this was at the estate church at Farahy, built by a Bowen ancestor. Both Elizabeth Bowen and her husband Alan Cameron now lie there together; Cameron seems to have tolerated, much as Ritchie’s wife did, the enduring sexual liaison between Bowen and Ritchie.
However, while Bowen found it very difficult to accept Ritchie’s decision to marry she seemed able to withstand the knowledge that he was reliably unfaithful to both women. The complexity of these relationships – enhanced in Glendinning’s book by enthralling and comprehensive footnotes – adds to the allure of Farahy.
Bowen’s Court of course is gone; the letters on the sale of what Bowen finally called her “Barrack of Anxiety” are heart-breaking in their neediness and helplessness. But St Colman’s church at Farahy remains, largely due to the unceasing care of Jane Annesley of Annes Grove in Castletownroche and Dr Robert McCarthy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Whitewashed, surrounded by its little churchyard, lit only by the sun through its latticed windows and, on the gently ceremonial occasions organised by Annesley, scented with viburnum, woodbine and stock, this is the scene of the annual Bowen commemoration service. More recently, it has also been where some of the concerts in the North Cork Classical Music programme have been performed.
That programme’s main venue is the Village Arts Centre in Kilworth, near Fermoy which this year has already hosted the Rastrelli Cello Quartet and classical guitarist Agustin Maruri; the programme there continues until the end of August with Balfe, Elizabeth Cooney and Redmond O’Toole, Cumasc and finally the New Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra. Yet those who have heard the Vanburgh String Quartet play at Farahywill seize any opportunity to revisit.
The church does not figure largely on the tourist trail, instead it has stood quietly through the years as a lasting memorial to the writer and her heritage. Its survival depends significantly on the funds raised by the concerts held here in summer months, and of these, the major event will be the three-day residency of the Carducci Quartet from June 12th to 14th.
“It can’t be often,” remarks Annesley, “that one of the most successful young string quartets in Europe actually asks to play in a small seldom-used 18th-century church without electricity and in the middle of nowhere . . .” There will be three concerts, with refreshments to match each billing, as in Mozart with Muffins, (June 12th 7pm), Beethoven with Brownies (June 13th at 7pm) and Schubert with Shortcake (June 14th 3pm); other composers – Haydn, Glass, Mendelssohn, Moeran and Horovitz will be included and the gardens at Annesgrove will be available for a picnic supper after the Sunday concert.
The county council grant, although reduced, is some help towards the cost of these concerts, so is Music Network and even the artists themselves have reduced their fees in support of the maintenance of this special place.
St Colman’s is up a little avenue off the main road from Mallow to Mitchelstown. Pilgrims will find their way to it again later this year for the Bowen commemoration service at Farahy on Sunday, September 13th, at 3.30pm, with the annual address to be given by Dr David Ellman.
Concert booking and details from the Avondhu office, 24 MacCurtain Street, Fermoy (025-32227); Cotters Bar, Kilworth (025-27109 after 5pm); Hyland’s Bookshop, Lower Cork Street, Mitchelstown (025-24528) or Jane Annesley (022 26145, or email@example.com).