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Absence Makes the Heart Grow,
This review is from: Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973 (Hardcover)
"Love's Civil War" recounts the remarkable story of the 32 year extramarital love affair between Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, and Charles Ritchie a senior Canadian diplomat through the medium of her surviving letters and his excerpted diaries. The book is edited by the distinguished biographer, Victoria Glendenning (who published a life of Bowen in 1977 before these materials became available) and Judith Robinson, the lifelong fiend of Ritchie's niece and the eventual inheritor of the manuscripts. Their introductions and notes perform excellent service in providing the context for the relationship. In a sense, however, the real editor was Ritchie, who destroyed his own letters (whose ghosts may be traced here through Bowen's references to them), destroyed quite a few of hers, and expurgated others by ripping out the more intimate portions.
Bowen and Ritchie met at a christening in Oxford in 1941. Bowen was 42, had been married for 18 years and was already a successful writer (the link between Woolf and Murdoch and Spark, Glendenning observes in her biography). Ritchie was 35, an officer with the Canadian embassy and still single. Their affair began soon afterwards and lasted until Bowen's death in 1973. It survived Ritchie's marriage in 1948 and the death of Bowen's husband in 1952. Ritchie's diplomatic career took him back and forth to Ottawa, New York, Bonn, Washington, Brussels, Paris and London. Thus large portions of their relationship were conducted at long distance , via correspondence and through snatched liaisons in hotels in several cities. Only during periodic stays together at Bowen's court, Elizabeth's ancestral pile in Cork (which she had to sell in 1958) did they ever truly have "quality time" together. Almost certainly it was the separation and the illicitness of their affair that sustained it at the intense "in love" stage and kept it from evolving into the more stable, marriage like condition which most relationships assume over time.
There is an asymmetry between the two versions of the affair, as letters and diaries present very different takes on reality. Moreover, both letters and diaries are potentially deceptive forms of communication. In her comments on Diana Cooper's letters, Bowen herself warns us that correspondents may "sweat blood to give a relationship an immense buildup for the benefit of each other" , and long ago, Dostoevsky reminded us that there is no reason why a man should be more truthful in his diary than he is in any other forum. From Glendenning's biography of Bowen and from Ritchie's published "diplomatic diaries" we know that there was more to their lives than the relationship at the centre of this collection. Nonetheless, it is clear that the affair was pivotal to both.
For Bowen, her love for Charles was her "life illusion." She recounts all the symptoms of an obsessive love: the imagining of the beloved's presence, the repeating of his name, the association of places with their time together, the mental tracking of his movements, attempts to insert herself into his family circle, unbecoming and uncomfortable sniping at his spouse. She "wills" their relationship and suffers a breakdown because of it. Ritchie is more cynical. He attributes Elizabeth's clinging to him to her age: "I am her last, and she knows it." He initially sees this as just one more affair (he had and continued to have many); he talks himself into believing that he loves her, does not love her, has stopped loving her, is afraid she has stopped loving him and so on. He is, however, deeply attracted by her personality and her intellect - she is "one of the minds of our generation" - and finds himself under her spell " she is a witch, a good witch." We conclude that he was not as cold as he pretends and that his love for her was real and defining. The final two sentences in the book capture it all: "I would give anything I have to give to talk to her again, just for an hour. If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is revenged."
I confess that on reaching page 295, I exclaimed to myself "My God, it is only 1958, I have another 15 years to go!" Is the book too long? The truthful answer is "almost." There is considerable repetition - most of Ritchie's diaries inevitably fall into this category since the editors have included only excerpts relevant to this affair, and there are entire sections of Bowen's letters which replay variations on the same theme. However, we are pulled back from the edge by the collateral benefits of Bowen's writing. There is the writing itself, but also the atmospheric glimpses of the fading world of the Anglo-Irish with their eccentric friends and retainers and their crumbling, under-heated and under-plumbed homes - I especially loved the butler's interruption of dinner at one such home with the announcement: "The light on the upper landing has failed and there are six bats in her ladyship's bedroom." There is also the gossip about Bowen's literary and upper-class friends - all the usual suspects , her travel reporting (she is deliciously wicked about Scotland) and glimpses into her times: her discovery of a new pen, for example, "it's called a Biro," or the information that in the early days of passenger aviation, jet-lag was called "flying-tiredness," and there is the ubiquitous alcohol on which the affair was, in Ritchie's words, "floated."
My final verdict on the book may best be summed by saying that I have since bought Glendenning's 1977 biography of Bowen, Bowen's "The Heat of the Day," the fictionalized story of the early part of the affair, and her "Bowen's Court," her history of the house at the centre of the story.
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