A True Love or Was It All for Show? Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen & Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Lewis

Edited by Victoria Glendinning Simon & Schuster e19.30 **

Elizabeth Bowen was an Anglo- Irish novelist of the upperclass Mitford-Sitwell type, writing in the Thirties to the Fifties. Her reputation is still considerable, her work still in print. Now her biographer, Victoria Glendinning, has edited her letters from what is described on the cover as 'the love affair of a lifetime'.

They were written to a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, whom she met in wartime London when she was in her 40s.

He was the inspiration of perhaps her best-known novel, The Heat Of The Day, and she dedicated it to him.

Their affair lasted from 1941 till her death in 1973. For many of those years, they were married to other people. They never managed to spend more than a week at a time together, at rare intervals.

To keep the love affair of a lifetime going for so long, almost entirely by correspondence and at such apparent heat on her side, sounds too frustrating to bear. My credulity was strained. Was this love always as she claimed it to be? Or did she prefer making love in writing? To complicate the mystery, we have only her side of the correspondence.

After her death, he destroyed his letters to her and passed on his selection of hers with several chunks cut out. On his side, we have edited extracts from his diaries, which tell a rather different story.

Here she is when he had gone back to Canada at the end of the war: ' You take with you my real life, my only life... I cannot live through the winter without seeing you... your voice wakes me up sometimes when I am asleep.' ere are some of his diary entries for exactly the same period: 'I don't think of E as much as I did.

I'm not sure if I could go back to England that I should want to.' Here she is 15 years later after another parting: ' You are always a new marvel parting: 'You are always a new marvel to me, the things you do and say and your beloved, alight, alive face ... I've never fallen out of love with you. For me, there is always the flame.' He, then in Montreal after a visit to her Cork country house, Bowen's Court: 'Thoughts of E, of the sad, disturbing, fearful love which I half hate and without which I am not alive. …