Magazine article The Spectator

The Life of the Heart

Magazine article The Spectator

The Life of the Heart

Article excerpt

LOVE'S CIVIL WAR: ELIZABETH BOWEN AND CHARLES RITCHIE, LETTERS AND DIARIES FROM THE LOVE AFFAIR OF A LIFETIME edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Roberts Simon & Schuster, £14.99, pp. 490, ISBN 9781847372130 £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is probable that the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a virgin ten years after her marriage to Alan Cameron, the retired Secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting at the BBC.

Victoria Glendinning tells us that 'their alliance was always close -- but companionable, not sexual.' But then she began to have affairs: with the Irish writer Sean O'Faolain, and with Humphrey House, a young Oxford don; a lesbian relationship with May Santon, the Belgian-American poet; and a brief liaison with Goronwy Rees, a journalist and spy who abruptly left her for the novelist Rosamond Lehmann.

When, in the depths of the second world war, she met the young Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie (1906-1995) she had been married for 18 years and had become 'increasingly recognised as one of the most important and best-loved British women novelists of the first half of the 20th century'.

Ritchie was unmarried, seven years younger than her, 'something of a philanderer', and working in London as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission. She was 42, an Anglican, and loyal to the institution of marriage. Divorce was never contemplated.

They met at a christening in 1941. Ritchie's diary entry notes:

She seems all romance and girlish seriousness.

It can't be all bluff -- and yet ... She is acute as a razor blade and about as merciful ... she is a witch, that's what it is. In the first place, how can a woman of 40 with gold bangles and the face of a woman of 40 and the air of a don's wife, how can such a woman have such a body -- like Donatello's David I told her when I first saw what it was like. Those small firm breasts, that modelled neck set with such beauty on her shoulders, that magnificent back ... would I ever have fallen for her if it hadn't been for her books?

Indeed the brilliance of Love's Civil War is that Victoria Glendinning has been able to edit and splice together excerpts from Ritchie's diary, which survived their 28-year love affair, with Bowen's letters to him.

Neither Ritchie's letters to Bowen, nor Bowen's diaries, have survived, and although there is an imbalance in what he was feeling and what she told him she was feeling, 'that imbalance is one of the painful but generally undiscoverable truths of love'. The evidence of the book's title lies in the complementary relationship of Bowen's unpublished letters and Ritchie's diaries. What could have been a simple wartime fling became an essential and inescapable relationship that ended only with Bowen's death. It was a relationship that even survived Ritchie's marriage to his cousin, and a diplomatic career that often kept them on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

As Glendinning writes in her Introduction: 'They were never parted emotionally, even though they were never under the same roof for more than a week at a time.' The story of their love is told entirely through their words.

I first met Charles Ritchie in Chester, Nova Scotia, in 1975. We were neighbours on the picturesque Back Harbour. I am indebted to him for convincing me to give up the world of high finance and return to writing. …

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