The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen, by Julia Parry, Duckworth, 386 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0715653579
It is a story quite literally out of an Elizabeth Bowen novel: a tattered trove of half-forgotten love letters long buried in an attic springs out of the past and into the hands of an unsuspecting reader. In A World of Love (1954), Bowen’s protagonist, Jane, is haunted by the restless spirit of the fallen soldier Guy – a man she has never met – and she succumbs to his spell by reading his love letters years after they were written. In Bowen’s novel, the dead writer exercises the “extraordinary power of his illusion”, which hangs “in the air over scene and people, affecting them, working on them” continuously. A similarly eerie force is at work in The Shadowy Third, in which Julia Parry collates previously unpublished exchanges between Bowen and her first extramarital lover, Parry’s late grandfather Humphry House. Like Guy, Humphry is an enigmatic and elusive figure from another time and his words enthral Parry, who never met her grandfather.
Parry explains that as a former English teacher she always felt she knew Bowen better through the medium of her literature. For much of Parry’s life, the relationship between Bowen and House remained a delicate subject and thus a mysterious part of family lore. Parry inherited their missives upon the death of her uncle, who had stashed them away in his attic. Prior to that, half of the letters had lain for years in another attic in Oxford, right where Elizabeth had left them. It is extremely rare to have both sides of a correspondence; but fortuitously, the new Oxford homeowner gave the letters Humphry had written back to the House family. Bowen famously declared her dislike of “unhaunted” houses, and it is therefore fitting that she would return to haunt the Houses in the form of her words. The result is a remarkable body of correspondence spanning two decades, from 1933 to 1953, far outlasting the tumultuous affair itself.
Part memoir, part biography and part travelogue, The Shadowy Third is Parry’s survey of the impact this relationship had on Elizabeth, Humphry and the House family, a task she undertakes by retracing the lines of their letters and their psycho-geographical co-ordinates. Bowen first met House at a formal luncheon party held at Wadham College, Oxford in February 1933. She was a thirty-three-year-old established novelist and short story writer, who caught the roving eye of the classics scholar seven years her junior. Humphry’s Oxford mate describes him as “a shit from Sevenoaks on the intellectual ascendant” who set his sights on women above his station.
Their early clandestine meetings took place in the neighbouring parish of Abingdon where, after a short, rattling bus ride, Elizabeth met Humphry in the village of Appleton. She had been married to Alan Cameron for a decade and their marriage remained unconsummated (Parry and other Bowen biographers indicate that Alan was gay). Humphry was a sexually promiscuous lapsed Anglican chaplain, and still engaged to his future wife Madeline Church. The potent symbolism of the illicit meetings between Bowen and her dashing young lover “under the apple trees” would not have been lost on either of them. Parry observes that both parties were nervous at the start and they waited to sample the proverbial forbidden fruit: “Though the sexual side of their relationship was not to begin for several months (correspondence reveals this happened sometime in the autumn of 1933), her physical attraction to him was real.”
Still a virgin, Bowen’s initial response to her erotic desire for Humphry was to fill the space between them with anxious chatter. She writes to him:
To be a so-called clever woman is to be moving blindly and dumbly under a crust of oneself all the time. I am partly a clever woman, but also very much more and very very much less. If when I do this nervous talk someone would put a hand on my arm and say: “That’s enough: do shut up, do be calm, do let me breathe” I should be all right. I talk most like this with anyone I most hope will be able to stop me.
In the first year of their liaison, Elizabeth permits Humphry to stay at Bowen’s Court “for most of the summer” and he spends part of this time on his own in Ireland while she is in London. Parry discerns that this allows him an opportunity to “play lord of the manor”, a role he relishes. When he contacts her from Cork, “The letter is written on the small, headed notepaper of Bowen’s Court, the colour of Irish skies.” He tells Elizabeth:
I look forward to you on Saturday: you will add how much! We are asked to tea at Annesgrove on Sunday – or alternatively to play together in a tennis tournament! How absurd of me to talk of you “adding” to your own house – it is the penalty of allowing vicarious enjoyment. But you know you will add, because the house will come to life.
Humphry makes himself rather at home in Elizabeth’s Irish country seat. Ostensibly he is there to write a book, for which he “engag[es] a local ‘boy’ to type up material”, even though he knows perfectly well how to use a typewriter (his fiancée Madeline normally does this for him in England). He spends his mornings doing “vague reading”, afternoons failing to compose poetry by the riverside, and evenings attending dinner parties at neighbouring Big Houses. His letters show that Humphry fancies himself an Anglo-Irish châtelain, and he projects his colonial desire onto Elizabeth’s demesne.
Humphry’s unsubtle gestures, writing a note to Elizabeth on her own letterhead, proclaiming that she will “add” to her own house and later pursuing another woman in front of her while they are under her roof, are attempts to wrest back the power that he thinks she holds over him. Bowen slaps him down effortlessly and artfully in her letters: “I have a Celtic absoluteness of mood and, very much as I like and love you am not a ‘man’s woman’ in the sense of putting myself about when I don’t feel like it.” Nevertheless, she has a harder time doing this face-to-face because she is in love with him. Such power struggles ultimately lead to the demise of their romance, which ends with a terrible row just before House leaves for a teaching job in Calcutta with the civil service in 1936. Humphry’s infatuation with the last days of the Anglo-Irish and the British Raj would make for an interesting study in itself.
Parry’s grandmother Madeline House, Humphry’s wife, is “the shadowy third” of the book’s title – the other point of the love triangle. Her story has been obscured by that of Elizabeth and Humphry, and by the novelist’s caricaturing of her as Naomi Fisher in The House in Paris (1935), a book which echoes the affair (Humphry is rumoured to have inspired Max Ebhart). Yet Parry discloses that it is Madeline who first edited their letters, selectively preserving some of the emotionally and intellectually charged epistles and burning others after his early death aged forty-six.
In an engrossing chapter, Parry details Madeline House’s exchanges with Bowen’s first biographer, Victoria Glendinning, who caught wind of the affair in the mid-1970s. Bowen died in 1973, and two years later Glendinning approached House directly to seek clarification and permission to discuss the relationship in what would become her seminal book Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer (1977). When House invited Glendinning to tea, the latter divulged that one of Bowen’s other younger, married lovers with whom she had a brief but intense affair – the writer Seán O’Faoláin – would not be named in the biography at his insistence. Madeline recollects their encounter in a letter to a friend:
I asked whether V.G. planned to go into the subject of E’s lovers. And she said No no. All she wanted to know was how they influenced E’s books. We spoke of Sean O’Faolain, who refused to see her when she wrote to him, but the next time he was in London rang her up and they met. He has a virago of a wife and didn’t dare let it be known that he was seeing her. She is NOT going to mention his name in her biog.
Accordingly, Madeline explains that she took this as “my clue for the anonymity for H”. She told Glendinning that she would share excerpts of Humphry and Elizabeth’s letters, provided that her husband would not be named either – terms to which the biographer agreed. In her ensuing letters to Glendinning, House also does not name O’Faoláin, instead playfully referring to him as “the Irishman”. Glendinning duly sent chapter drafts addressing the affair and House responded with her comments which included, as she states, “a couple of straight corrections and – more difficult – a rather different interpretation from hers of the whole business”. In the end, Madeline’s edited version of events was the one Glendinning published, giving her the final word on the fraught matter of her husband’s infidelity.
Despite its significance to the field of literature, however, Parry does not include the entirety of Bowen and House’s unpublished correspondence, opting instead to offer excerpts from selected missives. It is a lamentable loss. One hopes that she will turn the letters over to an archive for safekeeping, where they can be carefully preserved and eventually made available to researchers. Meanwhile the burgeoning of Bowen Studies and Bowenalia continues apace. In addition to Parry’s book, two other major publications have appeared this year: Heather Ingman’s study Elizabeth Bowen for Edward Everett Root’s Key Irish Women Writers book series, and a special issue of Irish University Review devoted to Bowen co-edited by Tina O’Toole and Anna Teekell.
In her monograph Ingman asserts – quite rightly – that “to confine Bowen’s writing to a single ideological lens is to impoverish it”. She provides a thorough and engaging overview of the field of Bowen Studies, expertly tracing its myriad developments and outlining its new trends. This introductory study is a valuable addition to the corpus of single-author texts on Bowen’s life and writings by notable researchers such as Victoria Glendinning, Hermione Lee, Patricia Craig and Patricia Laurence. As this list indicates, historically it has been mainly women writing books on Bowen, with very few exceptions.
O’Toole notes in her introduction to the special issue of Irish University Review that this collection “present[s] contemporary treatments of [Bowen’s] work by international experts … providing a sense of new directions in Bowen scholarship”. The essays cover a fascinating range of topics, such as the politics of consent in Bowen’s fiction and the relationship between her writing and the visual arts. The issue also features a delightful compilation of letters exchanged by Bowen and her close friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Eudora Welty, which were previously accessible solely in the archives. These letters, compiled and introduced by Teekell, are testament to the importance of Bowen and Welty’s friendship as women and as writers, with insightful commentary on each other’s work. Welty, for instance, praises Bowen’s largely overlooked third novel Friends and Relations (1931), telling her: “Friends & Relations I loved reading so & love having. Such heartbreak though … I don’t know what other image, vision, even in your writing, has ever more held a moment.”
Ingman, O’Toole’s and Teekell’s publications bring Bowen Studies up to the minute, and crucially, they also contextualise Bowen as an Irish author. Maureen O’Connor points out in her piece in the special issue that works about the author are “often neglectful” of “the specificities of Bowen’s Irishness” and “the intricacies of the writer’s Anglo-Irish identity”. Unfortunately this is the case with Parry’s book which, despite acknowledging “Humphry’s infatuation with Bowen’s Court and Elizabeth’s Irish life”, has a tenuous grasp of Bowen’s complex and compound identity. Curiously, Parry likens Bowen’s “Irishness” to that of O’Faoláin, describing it as “a shared idiom … the vowel-memory of the land, as well as the more prosaic language of love”. I doubt if either author would concur with this definition, which resembles a romantic Celtic Revivalist notion of Irishness – a literary ideology they both rejected.
On human relationships, Bowen muses: “We grow to know one another: gleam by gleam, intimation by intimation the truth blossoms, the story comes to be told.” Indeed, in The Shadowy Third, Bowen’s epistolary afterlives reveal dazzling gleams of insight into this multifaceted, captivating and complicated writer. However, like all the best authors, Bowen does not tell the entire story in her writings – be they literary or epistolary. Rather, she retains an ineffable quality and continues to exert the haunting power of her illusion over scene and people today, a century after she officially took up her pen.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She holds an Arts Council of Northern Ireland award for her work as a literary and cultural critic. Dawn is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (Dublin: New Island Books, 2017). She tweets @drdawnmiranda.