Friday, 22 January 2016

'I am in your keeping' - Elizabeth Bowen

When he first sees her naked, he thinks she has "the most beautiful body I have ever seen". Her long, distinguished face is not so beautiful, and the contrast astonishes him. She is 41 and has been married for 18 years. He is seven years younger, and unmarried.

Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat of great charm and intelligence from a privileged Nova Scotia background, met in 1941, and their love affair was conducted in the emotionally heightened atmosphere of London at war. Ritchie - tall, thin, beaky and bespectacled - loved women. At first, for him, this was just a particularly intriguing and flattering affair, and one that he might put an end to. For Bowen, it was a matter of life and death, from the beginning. Their love fuelled her creative energy and what he called her "life-illusion". But gradually she became equally essential to him, "the centre of my life". Their world of love, and her idea of him and of his qualities, were the very opposite of his conventional social and diplomatic life - a life he nevertheless wanted and needed.

His private diaries have survived, and her letters to him, but not his to her. She wrote no diaries, though the letters constitute a sort of running journal. Reading the letters and diaries together, it is sometimes painfully clear that what he is feeling and what she is feeling (or tells him she is feeling) do not always tally.

Ritchie's diary documents the beginning of their love story, which lasted until her death 32 years later. The first letter from Bowen that he kept is the one she wrote when he was leaving London for Ottawa in 1945. It was their first separation. He took with him, she wrote, "my real life, my only life, everything that is meant by my heart. I am in your keeping. And you are in mine." In all the years that followed, they were never parted emotionally, even though they were usually hundreds of miles apart and never under the same roof for more than a week at a time. She saw Bowen's Court, her family house in County Cork, as their joint home, and the intensity of the few days he could spend there once or twice a year is replayed in her letters and chronicled in his diaries.

Elizabeth Bowen grew up in the Troubles that followed the Easter rebellion of 1916. When in 1922 the Irish Free State was proclaimed, with the six counties of what became Northern Ireland remaining under British rule, there was civil war in the south. The constitution of 1937 established Eire as a sovereign state. The Anglo-Irish who stayed on, like the Bowens, always in some sense "settlers" after hundreds of years, maintained their beautiful, often uncomfortable houses, Bowen wrote, "under the strong rule of the family myth".

Bowen's father had a breakdown when she was a child, and she and her mother moved to England, to Hythe on the Kent coast. When Bowen was 13, her mother died and she was brought up by "a committee of aunts", between whose homes in England and Ireland she shuttled. Her troubled childhood left her with a stammer, and a policy of "not noticing". A characteristic Bowen phrase is: "life with the lid on". In spite of her sociable nature, she thought of herself as solitary and "unrelatable", always adjusting to other people's expectations - except with Ritchie, she tells him, with whom she was her true self. Her husband, Alan Cameron, was six years older than she. At first, he was the dominant partner. Bowen was not university-educated and, when young, was a little gauche, with big hands and feet, a strong physique and features that were more striking than pretty. Cameron taught her how to dress, in smart tailored clothes that suited her type. Her looks came into their own in her maturity, around the time she met Ritchie.

In 1925 Cameron got a new job as secretary for education for Oxford. There, Bowen blossomed. Her second book of stories came out the year after they arrived, her first novel, The Hotel, the year after that, then two years later The Last September . . . and so on, in a fertile stream. Praised by the critics, popular with a general readership, she was a magnet to the clever, sociable young academics she met in Oxford such as David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin, who became lifelong friends.

When in 1935 Cameron's work took them to London, the Oxford friends were supplemented by London friends. Bowen became the centre of a coterie, and the Camerons' house in Clarence Terrace, Regent's Park, a rendezvous for the gifted and talented.

In her letters and his diaries we hear the lovers' voices. Circumstances and geography were against them, but both were sociable, and attractive to both sexes; and yet both, because of their hinterlands in colonial Canada and Ireland, came at society from an angle, which made them particularly observant. Both had a strong sense of family, aesthetic sensibility, a determination to live and work at the most intense level, a belief in "another world than this" - and a heavy and totally unworried dependence on cigarettes and alcohol. Ritchie writes that all his affairs had been "floated on alcohol".

He was soon unfaithful to Bowen, as he would later be chronically unfaithful to his wife. His diary-fantasy, not infrequently realised, was to be in bed with a woman, "and to fuck and smoke a cigarette and talk a little and stretch out my arm for a bottle of champagne beside us and drink a little and fuck a little and have a hot bath afterwards in a luxurious hotel bathroom". For this purpose he preferred dreamy, "girlie" women, completely unlike Bowen. Although he ceased desiring her physically quite early on, just being with her awakened desire (for other women), because of her "terrifying capacity for bringing one to life". 

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