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 August 2013

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel, wherever you are...thank you one million times over for writing this book!

The past five years of my reading life have pretty much been centered around World War II and twentieth-century authors.  So you can imagine the excitement when I discovered that there was a book, hot off the press at the beginning of the year, blending two of my favourite topics of interest.  The introduction begins with mention of Elizabeth Bowen, The High Priestess of Prose (in my humble opinion), and from there until the last page I was completely swept away by the events.

Feigel drops the reader straight into London with first-hand accounts of endless nights where the sound of bomb blasts, crashing buildings and alarm bells are so vibrant you feel as though you should be wearing a tin helmet just reading about it.  Drawing from the books, writings and letters of Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel we are given an astoundingly candid peek into their personal lives during a time when people thought they might not live to see morning.

One aspect of war that never fails to astound me is that some people found the Blitz to be a thrilling time and they welcomed the excitement.  Graham Greene and Henry Yorke both carried this sentiment.  Part of the appeal was that their wives were sent out of harms way and seemingly they packed up their sense of commitment and loyalty as well.  Being involved in an affair is a thread which runs through the lives all of the authors featured in this book.  Whether a case of opportunity, companionship or what was de rigueur at the time I can't say but I couldn't help but wonder about the spouses playing third wheel.

The book left me with two heartbreaking images.  Rose Macaulay's building was bombed on 10 May, 1941, she lost her collection of rare books, manuscripts and other necessary possessions.  Her most devastating loss though was the stacks of letters written by her lover, Gerald O'Donovan.  He was terminally ill and would die just over one year later.  Rose scrambled through the ruins searching for remnants, a quest that became something of an obsession for the rest of her life.  Digging through ruins for objects from a life once lived even found its way into her writing, something I recall from my reading of The World My Wilderness.  I also went back and read Macaulay's Miss Anstruther's Letters knowing what had happened and the short story became much more poignant and brought tears to my eyes.  The other heartbreaking image is of Elizabeth Bowen wandering the cavernous Bowen's Court in Ireland after the war, crying out 'Charles, Charles, Charles...'.  Elizabeth and Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, carried on an affair for over thirty years but their time spent together had long lapses in between and he did marry another woman while in the midst of his relationship with Elizabeth.

Judging by the pages of interesting events I scribbled while reading The Love-charm of Bombs I could go on for days but this is a book you simply must experience for yourself.  It is intelligent, well-written and one of the most fascinating history/ biography/English lessons you will ever pull from a bookshelf, all rolled into one.  Also, be prepared for the list of books you will be inspired to read, written by the authors portrayed here, such as Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, Henry Green's Caught, Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day and Love's Civil War edited by Victoria Glendinning as well as Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness.

Special thanks to Bloomsbury Press for sending along a review copy.  The months and months of waiting for the North American release date were worth it but the anticipation almost killed me!           

4 August 2013

Just Checking In

Well this doorhanger thingy says it all.  They were free for the taking at a bookshop in Fergus and I have been using it!  There are extra shifts to cover at the library while staff take vacation and frankly - the gorgeous weather means we really don't sit in all that much if we can help it.  This means that my reading pace has slowed to an hour at the end of the day if I can keep my eyes open.  I'm within the last forty pages or so of The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel and will be in deep mourning once it's finished.  It is absolutely the most perfect blending of interests for me and in this case dragging it out has been a good thing.
My long-suffering husband is off doing the grocery shopping while I'm supposed to be getting ready to head out to Toronto.  We're packing up Deacon, our busy border collie, and spending the day wandering the trails of Hyde Park.  Hopefully my two travelling companions can occupy themselves under the shade of a tree long enough for me to pop in for a quick tour of Colborne Lodge.

So a quick wave 'hello' to you - hope you are having a super summer so far and I will be back in a few days with some thoughts on my favourite read of the year thus far.