28 August 2013

Love's Civil War edited by Victoria Glendinning

Oh but I feel like a thoroughly wrung-out voyeur!  After weeks of immersing myself in The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel which then cascaded into this heart-wrenching compilation I have come up for air.  And it is misery.  The drama, the sensuousness, the soul-bearing, the covert liaisons, the repeated use of the endearment 'darling'...a woman could weep, and I did.

How rude of me to assume that everyone knows what I am going on about...Love's Civil War begins in 1941 with diary entries by Charles Ritchie.  The Canadian diplomat neglected to keep letters written to him by Elizabeth Bowen for the first few years of their relationship but a mountain of later correspondence did survive.  When they first met, Charles was unmarried and Elizabeth perfectly satisfied with her companionate marriage to Alan Cameron.

'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, 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 on inventing or thinking it out.' 

I have to say that it was difficult to warm up to Charles considering that at times his private thoughts revealed an indifference to Elizabeth while she poured out reams of passion in her letters to him.  He used the term 'witch' to describe her on several occasions, perhaps down to the fact that despite writing out letters of good-bye he was frustrated by his lack of seeing things through.  While in her company he wished to be alone but when an ocean separated them he frequently rang her up and sent gifts.  Packages of hot chocolate and soap were a particular favourite during the time of austerity.

'Alan came back from London on Wednesday, bringing with him the contents of 2 of your beloved parcels, and the soap is; those large curved mauve-pink cakes are completely voluptuous.  And of all the things out of the parcels, the packets of to-drink chocolate most brought a lump to my throat.  From their being the same as the packets you used to have in Grosvenor St.  I thought of the Sunday mornings and times late at night when we used to make cups of chocolate with the electric kettle.'

Which causes me to consider two things.  How very okay Alan was with being a go-between for his wife and her lover and the image of the author I adore above all others swooning over a bar of soap and packet of hot chocolate!  And if that vignette wasn't enough, Elizabeth would place a cake of her much-loved soap into the guestroom for friends but race up the stairs to retrieve it as soon as their car made it out to the road.  Getting back to Alan, he was the inspiration for Thomas Quayne in The Death of the Heart which now makes complete sense if you've read the book.

Elizabeth rarely seemed to stay in one place for very long and her seemingly exhaustive travels were logged beside the date in her letters.  Meetings with publishers, agents and speaking engagements brought her to many of London's hotels, research for A Time in Rome meant frequent trips to Italy.  The family pile in Ireland, Bowen's Court, was a source of concern and a constant drain on her finances so she was extremely glad for the large cheques forwarded by Ritchie.  Elizabeth was called upon several times to speak to alumni or give lectures to fresh-faced students at universities in the United States such as Princeton and Bryn Mawr.  If her trip abroad coincided with Charles being in Washington or Ottawa she would arrange to meet with him or his family.  It's no wonder that many of the scenes in her books originated on the backs of envelopes pulled from her purse while in cabs or lounges as she travelled to and fro.

Fans of writings by Elizabeth's contemporaries will enjoy the name-dropping dotted throughout.  One line in particular made me beam with delight...'Oh my darling...I felt so near you, talking to you from Elizabeth's (Jenkins) little Gothic Hampstead cottage drawing -room on Friday evening.  I have stood at the gate in front of that 'cottage' so you can imagine the fantasy that went through my head...here once stood one of the world's most sublime authors....and me!  Fifty years apart but details, details.

Towards the end of the book the first hints of a cough begin.  Considering that Elizabeth revered smoking and drinking before food it is rather amazing that she lived to experience her seventh decade...but only just.  At this stage I became aware of slowing down my reading to put off the inevitable.  In her obituary, Audrey Fiennes wrote 'Widow of Alan Charles Cameron' under the heading 'Occupation'.  I bristled at the neglect of her life's work and 1973 doesn't seem long enough ago for the excuse that it was a different time.

If I were not completely under the spell of 'that witch', Elizabeth Bowen, before reading this book I am now.  Yes, there were times when I wanted to shout at the ghost that she was ridiculous to be so head-over-heels in love with a man who was a serial womaniser.  She deserved better.  But when the end came and Charles Ritchie was by his own admission 'left rudderless' my opinion of him softened.  The book ends with a diary entry ten months after his lover's death, the last line almost too heartbreaking to bear.  And don't bother segregating that line from the tale of a love affair.  Take the journey.


Elizabeth Bowen

9 comments:

  1. I am deep into The Love Charm of Bombs, on your recommendation, and loving every minute. I've just read the chapter on Bowen and Ritchie and even in that volume it made me a bit sad to see what a womaniser he was, planning on marrying a younger woman even as EB loved him so much. I'm not sure I could bear this, but I'm also sure it would be really interesting. And how shocking that obituary was! I love Bowen so much and now really need to get hold of another of her as yet unread novels a.s.a.p. -- thanks.

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    1. Phew! It's such a relief to hear that you're enjoying The Love-charm of Bombs, Harriet, although knowing the sort of read you enjoy it was almost a sure bet. There are two ingredients that pop up quite a lot when it comes to affairs and they are power and opportunity. Charles had an attractive position and it doesn't sound as though he turned down an opportunity! But oh the dynamics...there was Sylvia entertaining her husband's lover. Should we feel sorry for Mrs Ritchie or do you think she knew what she was in for?

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  2. I have never read (or known much) about Elizabeth Bowen - my loss, my deficiency to be fixed! - but she has popped up in so many places, including (I was surprised) as a friend of Eudora Welty. I've put this on the list now!

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    1. YES! Eudora does pop up in this book a couple of times, Audrey. Take your time but know that whenever you're ready for something new to sink your teeth into you can turn to Bowen. You can thank me later...

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  3. What a great post, and to think that I picked up that book in a shop last week and then put it back on the shelf - I was being 'sensible' and remembering the masses I have waiting to be read! Ah well, another time ...

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    1. As someone who has had the pleasure of a peek at your many tbr piles, I don't blame you! Actually, I did the same thing a couple of times but when this book appeared on a clearance table for $2...well, it was just silly not to buy.

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  4. Elizabeth Bowen is one of my favorite writers. I read "To the North" recently and loved it. I am wondering if you have read it and enjoyed it? Her writing is beautiful and devastating. What a great photo of her!

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    1. To the North was the first Bowen novel I read and there was no turning back! The ending left me in tatters for a couple of days...was not expecting it AT ALL!

      Since every photo I have ever seen of Elizabeth is in black and white I was surprised to find out her hair had a reddish colour to it. Any why not?! It's funny isn't it...the ideas we get into our head.

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  5. Well you've sold it to me and I'm not even particularly fond of EB! Love your reviews.

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