A trove of letters reveals a literary love triangle with the Anglo-Irish author at its heart
‘Ghost, get, out.” As Julia Parry started taking notes on her computer for this book about her grandfather’s love affair with the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the keyboard lurched out of control, spitting out a gibberish from which only those three monosyllables emerged coherently.
Parry took it as a positive sign of an “electric connection” with her subject and an invitation to expose the truth of something long buried. The result is an essay of rare sensitivity and intelligent reflection. More robust tastes might find it excessively quivering with self-consciousness — a quality it shares with Bowen’s fictional manner — but at its heart is a fascinating clash of complex characters, and Parry is alive to all its implications and ramifications.
There are three main players, but Bowen will inevitably be the focus for most readers. Her charming, occasionally brutal, personality dominates the triangle she shared with her lover, the literary critic Humphry House, nine years her junior, and his wife, Madeline, Parry’s grandmother and “the shadowy third” of the title. An obscure fourth player is Bowen’s “solvent, solid, devoted” husband Alan Cameron, who seems to have been blissfully unaware of the episode.
Parry’s primary source is an inherited trove of previously unexamined letters between Bowen and House, illuminating a relationship the importance of which none of Bowen’s biographers has fully understood.
Partly because of her superior class, Bowen pretty much held the upper hand throughout the affair. She met House in Oxford in 1933, when she was not only an established writer, married for 10 years with a wide circle of sophisticated friends, but also a scion of the Anglo-Irish gentry as the chatelaine of Bowen’s Court, a handsome mansion near Cork that passed to her after her father’s death.
House was a modest solicitor’s son from Kent, an ambitious but uncertain scholarship boy who had done well at Oxford. Bowen’s worldliness and social savoir-faire dazzled and daunted him, but intellectually they were thrillingly combustible. So self-absorbed were they that the politics of the period passed them by.
Bowen’s marriage had never been consummated, and House eventually took her virginity. Physical sex, however, was never their motivation: it was the talk and the letters that made the excitement, and Bowen exploited the emotional complications of the situation to find raw material for her fiction — in one letter, she tellingly describes the “almost erotic fondling of the pen”, and there is an underlying sense that she is ruthlessly mining the experience as raw material for her fiction: “It is hard for me (being a writer before I am a woman) to realise that anything — friendship or love especially — in which I participate imaginatively isn’t a book too.”
What spoilt their fun and fuelled the agonising was the prior existence of Madeline, a nice, sensible girl who was openly established in London as House’s girlfriend. She knew something of what was going on from House, who said he didn’t love Bowen “in bed” and unapologetically insisted that he was prone to “sensual acts which are technically unfaithful... but they will not be betrayals or falsifications”.
The deeper adultery was indeed mental rather than sensual: House just didn’t find Madeline as glamorous or stimulating as Bowen, even though he expected Madeline to marry him and behave as an agreeably accommodating wife. When the marriage took place and a child was conceived, a retreat became necessary: Bowen tried to behave decently towards Madeline, but her half-hearted, half-jealous politeness came across as patronising. Madeline simply didn’t appear to her as anything special. To Isaiah Berlin, Bowen wrote that House was “embracing mediocrity with his eyes open”.
In creating the character of Max in her novel The House in Paris, she had got what she most profoundly wanted from House. Any last embers in their relationship turned to ashes when he was posted to a teaching job at Calcutta and Bowen moved on to a grander passion for the writer Seán Ó Faoláin. Then came the war.
Bowen’s life continued to be mouvemente, with the publication of her most successful novel, The Heat of the Day, in 1948; the death of her anchor, Alan Cameron; long periods teaching in American universities; financial pressures that obliged her to sell Bowen’s Court; and a lengthy, if rather “shrill and clingy”, affair with the diplomat Charles Ritchie.
House settled down to family life and a fellowship at Oxford. His academic reputation grew and he became a radio broadcaster. But he comes across as a selfish and unsympathetic man. In the last chapters, Madeline unexpectedly triumphs. “Generous, determined clever, resilient”, she made a success of their marriage by refusing to put up with “any nonsense” and proving an invaluable helpmeet in his editing of Charles Dickens’ correspondence — a project she inherited after House’s death in 1955 at the age of just 46. If there were ghosts struggling to get out of Parry’s keyboard, the shadowy third of Madeline is the one that emerges shining.
© Telegraph Media Group 2021
Biography: The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry
Duckworth, 384 pages, hardcover €23.80; e-book £5.59
Telegraph Media Group Limited