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The life of the heart

Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries from the Love Affair of a Lifetime edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Roberts

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie,Letters and Diaries from the Love Affair of a Lifetime Victoria Glendinning (editor), with Judith Roberts

Simon & Schuster, pp.490, 14.99

Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries from the Love Affair of a Lifetime edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Roberts

It is probable that the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a virgin ten years after her marriage to Alan Cameron, the retired Secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting at the BBC. Victoria Glendinning tells us that ‘their alliance was always close — but companionable, not sexual.’ But then she began to have affairs: with the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain, and with Humphrey House, a young Oxford don; a lesbian relationship with May Santon, the Belgian-American poet; and a brief liaison with Goronwy Rees, a journalist and spy who abruptly left her for the novelist Rosamond Lehmann.

When, in the depths of the second world war, she met the young Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie (1906-1995) she had been married for 18 years and had become ‘increasingly recognised as one of the most important and best-loved British women novelists of the first half of the 20th century’. Ritchie was unmarried, seven years younger than her, ‘something of a philanderer’, and working in London as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission. She was 42, an Anglican, and loyal to the institution of marriage. Divorce was never contemplated. They met at a christening in 1941. Ritchie’s diary entry notes:

She seems all romance and girlish seriousness. It can’t be all bluff — and yet … She is 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 40 with gold bangles and the face of a woman of 40 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?

Indeed the brilliance of Love’s Civil War is that Victoria Glendinning has been able to edit and splice together excerpts from Ritchie’s diary, which survived their 28-year love affair, with Bowen’s letters to him. Neither Ritchie’s letters to Bowen, nor Bowen’s diaries, have survived, and although there is an imbalance in what he was feeling and what she told him she was feeling, ‘that imbalance is one of the painful but generally undiscoverable truths of love’. The evidence of the book’s title lies in the complementary relationship of Bowen’s unpublished letters and Ritchie’s diaries. What could have been a simple wartime fling became an essential and inescapable relationship that ended only with Bowen’s death. It was a relationship that even survived Ritchie’s marriage to his cousin, and a diplomatic career that often kept them on opposite sides of the Atlantic. As Glendinning writes in her Introduction: ‘They were never parted emotionally, even though they were never under the same roof for more than a week at a time.’ The story of their love is told entirely through their words.

I first met Charles Ritchie in Chester, Nova Scotia, in 1975. We were neighbours on the picturesque Back Harbour. I am indebted to him for convincing me to give up the world of high finance and return to writing. It changed my life. We talked about practically everything, avoiding Elizabeth Bowen when we could, and I remember him pointing out that Bowen’s Demon Lover (1945) was certainly not about him. By the mid-1970s Ritchie had retired from his last posting as High Commissioner to London in 1971, and had just published The Siren Years: Undiplomatic Diaries 1937-1945 which caused quite a stir on the Canadian literary scene. It is still considered to be one of the best books about London in the second world war — and it was during these years that his affair with Elizabeth Bowen began.

Between 1934 and 1971 Ritchie had a spectacular diplomatic career and is best known for his work at the United Nations, at NATO, and as ambassador to the United States. In one of Bowen’s 1949 letters to Ritchie she pointedly talks about reviewing a book about Virginia Woolf for the New York Times:

How difficult she is to write about … I can’t believe she’s dead … Oh, supposing the horror if you were dead and somebody wrote a book about you and I was asked to review it!

Now I have put myself in that same unenviable position. Luckily Ritchie’s diary (and indeed Bowen’s letters) speak for themselves. Bowen’s love was essential to Ritchie. He fed off it. As Glendinning points out, ‘Their world of love, and her idea of him and of his qualities, were the opposite of the conventional social and diplomatic life he wanted, and needed, to lead . . . And for Bowen, his love fuelled both her creative energy and what Ritchie called her ‘life-illusion’. . . If their love had failed she might not then have found another.’

This moving book will re-introduce the artistry of Bowen to those who may have forgotten the acclaim she received, particularly in the years following the second world war. According to Glendinning:

It is in Charles’s absence, writing to him about his remembered presence, pouring out with instinctive artistry the words and phrases about himself and their unbreakable love … that she is most brilliantly Elizabeth Bowen.

It may also bring some new and deserved attention to Ritchie who, although well-known in Canada, never attained anything like the fame Bowen did.

It was bad timing that Elizabeth Bowen’s husband, Alan Cameron, died in 1952, a mere three years after Ritchie married his cousin Sylvia Smellie. One wonders whether, had he waited, he might have married Bowen and enjoyed the same enduring love. A curiously revealing London diary entry for 8 May 1973 by Ritchie, after meeting Ian Fleming’s wife Ann at a party three months after Bowen’s death, may give us the answer:

We talked about E. I only remember what I said, and that under her modish cleverness I caught a trace of human affection and regret for E. More than I can say for Diana [Cooper] who was jealous of her and who will say that I am becoming a bore on the subject. She had got it wrong and insisted that Alan died before I was married. The implication being that I had been free to marry E. but had not done so. This is psychologically true. I doubt if I should have married her then, if she had been free; but it is chronologically false…

These fluent, entertaining letters and diary entries give an intimate insight into a remarkable love affair that survived the demands of a diplomatic career, separation and literary high-life in London and Ireland during a receding era.

Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Woolf in Ceylon and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

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