National bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book
The passionate, life-long love affair between two magicians of the written word.
The Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie met at a christening in London, England, in 1941; shortly afterward they embarked on a love affair that lasted until her death in 1973. At the time they met, she was married, but Ritchie quickly became her whole life, although she remained committed to the loving but sexually unfulfilling life with her husband. When Ritchie realized that she would never divorce, he eventually married too — wedding his cousin Sylvia in 1948. In a terrible twist of fate, Bowen’s husband died just a few years later.
Most of the time the lovers were apart, snatching a few days together when they could. But they wrote constantly to each other, letters in which she poured out her heart to him about their affair, about her money troubles, about friends, politics, and literature, and Ritchie kept every letter she wrote. His own letters to her have not survived, but he wrote candidly about her and his conflicted feelings for her in his diaries, diaries that were heavily edited for the four volumes that have been published. Ritchie died in 1995.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Biographer, critic, broadcaster, and novelist, Victoria Glendinning was born in Sheffield, England, and educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern Languages. Her acclaimed biographies include Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, published in 1977; Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions (1981), which won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography) and the Duff Cooper Prize; and Rebecca West: A Life (1987). Both Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (1983) and Trollope (1992) won the Whitbread Biography Award. Her latest biography is Leonard Woolf (M&S, 2006). Glendinning is also the author of three novels: The Grown-Ups (1989); Electricity (1995); and Flight (M&S, 2004), a novel of passion and betrayal set in the world of international business.
From the Hardcover edition.
Charles Ritchie’s diary entries throughout are instantly recognisable for the reader by their dated headings in bold type. From time to time, where helpful to indicate his whereabouts, the place from where Charles is writing is given in [ ] .
Elizabeth Bowen’s letters (and her whereabouts) are obvious from their italicised addresses and dates.
Charles Ritchie did not keep Elizabeth Bowen’s early letters to him. The first four years of their relationship can be traced only from his point of view, through his diaries.
He was thirty-five when they met, unmarried, and working in London as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission (promoted to First Secretary from 1942). She was forty-one, an established and successful author of novels and short stories, living with her husband Alan Cameron at 2 Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park, London.
These selections do not reflect the busy working lives both were leading, the large numbers of friends they saw together and separately, or the overwhelming fact of the war – with deaths of friends in the services, the threat of German invasion, and the heightened and heady atmosphere of a London blacked-out by night and under the constant onslaught of air raids and bombings.
10 February [London]
Weekend at Oxford. Motored down with Alistair Buchan and went first to Elsfield to the christening of Bill B’s child . . . . Met Elizabeth Bowen, 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. I had expected something more Irish, more silent and brooding, and at the same time more irresponsible. I was slightly put off by her being so much ‘on the spot’. She told me that the early part of The House in Paris, that part about the two children, had ‘come to her’ without her being conscious of inventing or thinking it out.
She says it began when she saw me standing outside the church after the christening, but I find that hard to believe. It smells to me of literary artifice. But then with her I never know what to believe. She croons away at me in that sympathetic, sensitive young voice of hers, with its stutter of shyness. She seems all romance and girlish seriousness. It can’t all be a bluff – and yet . . . She is as acute as a razor blade and about as merciful . . . . She is a witch, that’s what it is. In the first place how can a woman of forty with gold bangles and the face of a woman of forty and the air of a don’s wife, how can such a woman have such a body – like Donatello’s David I told her when I first saw what it was like. Those small firm breasts, that modelled neck set with such beauty on her shoulders, that magnificent back . . . .Would I ever have fallen for her if it hadn’t been for her books? I very much doubt it. But now I can’t separate her from her literary self. It’s as if the woman I ‘love’ were always accompanied by a companion spirit infinitely more exciting and more poetic and more profound than E herself . . . . When it comes to writing, well I had a letter from her the other day so blunderingly expressed, so repetitive, that the least of the characters in one of her books would never have been guilty of it.
I tried to tell her some of this the other day at lunch, but I didn’t get far. The trouble is I now believe that she is in love with me . . . Like all women she fears that because she has become my mistress I shall think she is a ‘light woman’. It’s a waste of time trying to discuss character, personal behaviour etc with a woman who is in love with one; it always comes back to a few simple variations on the one theme.
I told her how bewildering it was being in love with a genius. She says she has no genius, only talent and great concentration.
‘Take it from one of the best living novelists that people’s personalities are not interesting,’ she said in a dry voice unlike the voice she uses with me as a rule. ‘Except,’ she added, ‘when you are in love with them.’ She is in love with me and she talks about me to me; she describes my smiles, when I am smiling; my gestures when I touch her. Everything is put into words in that faintly sing-song Anglo-Irish voice of hers. She says in a novel which describes one of her other lovers that his body and his gestures were ‘losing their naiveté’. I don’t wonder if she did the same thing to him. I am perpetually showing off to her, like a male coquette . . . . She treats me as though I were a boy. I resent this, but at the same time I know that she has fastened on to something adolescent in my nature . . . .
It is graceless of me to think like this. I suppose I get the kind of love I deserve. The contrast between her face and body seems symbolic . . . . It is a face with a strong family resemblance to Virginia Woolf, and even to George Eliot. It is a powerful, mature, rather handsome face. But the body is that of a young woman. The most beautiful body I have seen. It is pure in line and contour, lovely long legs and arms and small almost immature firm breasts. Naked she becomes poetic, ruthless and young . . . .
Our first few days and nights were like one of her intensely poetic short stories. But the affair threatens to develop into one of her long psychological novels in which I see myself being smothered in love and then dissected at leisure.
If I am not cruel now, she will be later . . . .
The truth is that I am sick of the whole thing and wish it was over.
Every now and then I recapture for an hour or so the charm of the first few days. For instance that afternoon when we went to see the roses in Regents Park. For days we had been talking of those roses, but I could not get away from the office before nightfall and it seemed as if we should never go together to see them. Then on one perfect September afternoon she telephoned to say that if we did not go today it would be too late, they were almost over. So I put away the FO boxes in the safe, locked up the files and took a taxi to Regents Park. As we walked together I seemed to see the flowers through the lens of her sensibility. The whole scene, the misty river, the Regency villas with their walled gardens and damp lawns, and the late September afternoon weather blended into a dream of our love . . .
She holds me by the imagination. My daylight feelings, solid affections and passions are on another plane and go on untouched.
Yet I am getting very fond of her in a mistrustful way.
My bed smells of her over-sweet violet scent. It is queer that she uses such an obvious scent – the perfume that goes with blondes and floating veils and sentiment . . .
I am reading The Death of the Heart3 in her special edition. It is an exact description of her house and of her husband. The position of the sofa in the drawing-room, the electric fire in his ‘study’ are all described exactly as they are. What is alarming is the husband is an unsparing portrait of A. I read this novel with most curious feelings as ‘a work of the imagination’; it has been destroyed for me by my knowledge of the particular circumstances . . . . She took that from here, she copied that turn of speech, that must be so-and-so, these thoughts go through my mind as I am reading. It is like eating an elaborate dish after seeing the materials of which it is made up lying about in the kitchen, or being so near the ballet that you can see the make-up.
E has gone to Ireland. I ought to be writing her a letter now instead of doing this diary.
E has been telling me how she goes about writing a novel. She told me about Death of the Heart. She thought first of the Eddie-Portia relationship (why? Because she was brooding over her own love-affair with GR? And the essential character of that love was Eddie-Portia despite the reversal of age and circumstance in the novel). I see the two women in Death of the Heart as the two halves of E. Portia has the naiveté of childhood – or genius. She is the hidden E who I have got to know through love. The other woman (whose name in the novel I have forgotten) is E as an outside hostile person might see her . . . . But all this is surmise and not what E told me. She said that besides this Eddie-Portia theme, there was a second situation, that of the poor unworldly girl who comes lonely with her pathetic trunk containing all the things she owns to live in the house of grand relations. E says this is a well-worn favourite with Maria Edgeworth etc. Portia is in the position of the governess in Jane Eyre . . . . The visit to the seaside and the life in the bungalow there comes from her memories of the time when she and her mother lived in such places and knew such people when she was a child . . . . She is going to a psychoanalyst to be cured of her stammer which is so much part of her.
E came to tea. I should hate to lose her friendship. It would be shattering to quarrel with her. I have so much more respect for her than I have for myself.
From the Hardcover edition.
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