Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Elizabeth Bowen (1899 - 1973)

It is not everyday that you find a CBE in your sock drawer. But that’s what I came upon when I moved in to my late grandfather’s house in Co Kilkenny in 1999. ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’, it announced.

I presented the medal to the tribal elder, with question marks, over breakfast. He wiped a few splashes of prune juice from his spectacles and studied it for a moment.

‘Oh yes, it’s Elizabeth’s’.

Elizabeth Bowen is a name I have known since earliest childhood. I am not sure if we ever met; she died in 1973, the day after my first birthday, but my mother and her were always close. Elizabeth was a first cousin of my grandmother, Noreen Butler (nee Colley), and a second cousin of my grandfather, Gilbert Butler. Indeed, Elizabeth was the Cupid who introduced the two. Gilbert popped the question to Noreen during a visit to Bowen’s Court in 1938.

Bowen’s Court was the tall square three-storey mansion in north County Cork which Elizabeth inherited on the death of her father in 1930. She spent much of her childhood at the house and, in 1942, published Bowen’s Court, a thoughtful history of both house and family. She was to develop a deeply sensual relationship with Bowen’s Court, where she hosted some of the liveliest house parties in Ireland during the mid-20th century. Alas, despair was ultimately to cloud her love when, short of funds in 1959, she was obliged to sell Bowen’s Court to a local farmer who duly razed the limestone mansion to the ground.

My grandmother owned a photograph album entitled ‘Bowen’s Court’, filled with black and white snaps of the house in Elizabeth’s glory days. Its an ever-revolving crew of literary genius. Evelyn Waugh, Iris Murdoch, Maurice Craig, Isaiah Berlin, Rosamond Lehman, Eudora Welty, Nancy Spain, Lennox Robinson, Hubert Butler (Gilbert’s brother). My grandmother, “Noreen”, is a constant presence, peering from dining tables and hammocks, perched alongside other bright young things on the front steps of the house itself. Elizabeth herself – “E’ – glides through the pages, proud and regal, the inevitable cigarette to hand. Her husband, Alan Cameron, my mother’s godfather, occasionally breaks into the foreground.

In one of these photographs stands a tall, slightly crouching, gentleman dressed in suit, tie and shell-rimmed glasses. Elizabeth stands nearby holding a well-wrapped baby, the child of a neighbour. The tall man was Charles Ritchie, Elizabeth’s lover for 32 years.

Hunting through an outlying wardrobe at home some years ago, I unearthed a musty black typewriter. My mother inherited it from Elizabeth, along with her writing desk. I like to think that this was the same typewriter upon which Elizabeth wrote the drafts of her novels such as ‘The Last September’ and ‘The Death of the Heart’. The typewriter does not work anymore. Its cogs and wheels are choked with ash, presumably dropped as she tapped out her magical prose and puffed furiously upon the cigarettes that eventually killed her.

Born in 1899, Elizabeth Bowen belonged to the last generation of the Anglo-Irish to enjoy supremacy in Ireland. Her Protestant forbears had lived at Bowen’s Court in north County Cork since the 17th century, first in a traditional tower house and latterly in a tall, three-storey mansion which Elizabeth was later to inherit. For the first seven years of her life, Elizabeth, an only child, wintered in Dublin where her somewhat eccentric father Robert practiced as a barrister. In the summers they returned to Bowen’s Court. In 1905, Robert developed a mental illness which was diagnosed as ‘anaemia of the brain’. He became prone to fits of rage, obliging his wife and daughter to flee to a rose-coloured seaside villa at Hythe in Kent. Elizabeth’s mother, to whom she was close, died of cancer. Perhaps in consequence of this trauma, the 13-year-old girl developed a stammer that she never shook off. She also became markedly aloof, a detachment that would ultimately make her such a sharp observer of life.

Elizabeth was subsequently raised by a ‘committee of aunts’ in England and Ireland. Chief amongst these were her uncle George Colley and his wife Edie (known as Aunt Baba). They lived at Corkagh Park in Clondalkin, where Elizabeth would spend a great deal of time during her teenage years. Here she became intimate pals with George and Baba’s two sons and four daughters, known as the ‘Colley Girls’, my grandmother amongst them.

Her father recovered from his illness and married again. While Ireland tumbled towards into the War of Independence, Elizabeth again spent her summers at Bowen’s Court, playing tennis, strolling the garden and attending dances with the British officers garrisoned nearby. The number of soldiers had substantially increased since the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

In 1921, Elizabeth fell head over heels in love with one such officer, John Anderson. When he proposed marriage, Aunt Baba swiftly summoned Elizabeth to join her at Bordighera in north Italy. The Colley family had evacuated to Italy to escape the hostilities engulfing Ireland at that time. The balmy hotel retreat where they stayed would later provide the stage for Elizabeth’s novel, The Hotel. Anderson followed Elizabeth to Italy but was to return home unsuccessful, the engagement called off.

Elizabeth Bowen met her husband in 1923, the same year her first book of short stories, Encounters, was published. 30-year-old Alan Cameron was a large, dependable and hearty Englishman who had survived a bad gas attack at the Somme and won a Military Cross. They were married shortly afterwards. In 1925, Alan was appointed Secretary for Education to the City of Oxford where he was to prove an educational administrator of considerable talent.

The Cameron’s moved to Oxford where, inspired by her experiences of Ireland in 1919 – 1923, Elizabeth found the peace and time to start creating the books that would make her one of the most admired novelists of the early 20th century. The Camerons remained in Oxford until 1935 when Alan was transferred to London to work with the BBC. By then, Elizabeth was an author of considerable renown, with such critically acclaimed novels as The House in Paris and The Last September upon the shelves. In London she became the central figure of a literary coterie and the Cameron’s home on Clarence Terrace was a well-known gathering place for intellectual luminaries.

When Elizabeth’s father died in 1930, she inherited her childhood home at Bowen’s Court. For the next three decades, she was constantly moving between England and her County Cork retreat. In 1942, she published Bowen’s Court, a thoughtful history of both house and family. She was to develop a deeply sensual relationship with Bowen’s Court.

There can be little doubt that Alan Cameron and his wife were extremely fond of one another. Alan also keenly understood Elizabeth’s passion for Bowen’s Court and threw his all into helping her run the place. However, friendly as it was, the marriage was completely devoid of the pleasures of the bedroom. They had no children.

As a family we are, inevitably, Bowen enthusiasts although my grandfather confessed that he never managed to finish one of her novels. At home, our book-shelves are liberally sprinkled with her novels, short stories and general musings. In recent times, a number of books written about her have crept into the library.

The most recent addition is a new book, ‘Love’s Civil War’, edited by Victoria Glendinning, comprising extracts from the diaries of Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, and the love letters he received from Elizabeth during their 32 year long affair. It begins with their first encounter at a christening in Oxford in 1941 and concludes in New York in 1973, with Ritchie mourning her death.

Elizabeth’s sparring intellect and curious beauty demanded a lover. While in Oxford she commenced an affair with Humphry House, a young lecturer at Wadham College. She also had a brief fling with Goronwy Rees, the Welsh journalist and Marxist intellectual who subsequently admitted to spying for the USSR during the Cold War. In Ireland, there was a fleeting encounter with the Irish writer Sean O'Faolain, who shared Elizabeth’s growing despondency about the dreary countenance of de Valera’s Free State in the 1930s. Another sharer of the bed was young May Sarton, an American poet and novelist famed for her explanations of the lesbian experience.

However, none of these lovers excited Elizabeth’s passion quite as much as Charles Ritchie, seven years her junior and her partner-in-crime in ‘Love’s Civil War’. He was evidently a man of magnetic charm. Prior to meeting Elizabeth, he was something of a professional ladykiller, an enormously charming bachelor attracted to ‘rococo Romanian princesses and baroque dilettantes.’

Charles was born into a wealthy family of British loyalists in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Helped by friends in high places, he entered the Canadian Foreign Service. In 1939 he was dispatched to London to serve as Private Secretary to the Canadian High Commissioner. Two years later the 35-year-old Canadian was attended a christening in Oxford where he was introduced to 41-year-old Elizabeth Bowen. He had already read at least one of her books and was immediately impressed by her worldly nature, ‘a narrow, intelligent face, watching eyes and a cruel, witty mouth’. It is not known exactly when the affair began but within two seasons, their relationship was certainly consumated.

That ‘Darling Elizabeth’ adored Ritchie from the outset, there can be no doubt. She yearned for him with a passion that would make most modern hearts wilt. He, on the other hand, approached her with a philanderer’s caution. Her mind impressed him, of course, but he was particularly astonished by her body which, 41 years on, reminded him of Donatello’s David, ‘pure in line and contour, lovely long legs and arms and small almost immature firm breasts. Naked she becomes poetic, ruthless and young…’ There is a considerable chance that two of Elizabeth’s first cousins, my venerable great-aunts, now in their mid-90s, might read this piece so I can only commend Ritchie for recognizing a beautiful pedigree when he saw one.

London during the Blitz of the Second World War was undoubtedly a frightening place to live. But the possibility of impending death also lent a sense of urgency to everything, not least to romance. By the time Ritchie returned to Canada in 1945, he was four years into his lifelong affair with Elizabeth. However, the complications of Elizabeth having a husband spurred Ritchie himself to take a wife and, in January 1948, Ritchie married his second cousin, the memorably named Sylvia Smellie.

Ritchie’s marriage might have been the end of the affair but it wasn’t. In 1949, Elizabeth published The Heat of the Day. This surprisingly objective study of espionage and betrayal was dedicated to Ritchie. He was also the role model for the lover in the book, the desperate and rather wretched Robert, who sells information to the ‘enemy’. Ritchie does not seem to have been offended by the comparison. He had long anticipated that their relationship would ‘develop into one of her long psychological novels in which I see myself being smothered in love and then dissected at leisure’.

The tragedy of Elizabeth and Ritchie’s love twisted again when Alan Cameron died in his sleep in the summer of 1952. Alan’s death was devastating to Elizabeth. Without his guiding voice, she was rudderless at Bowen’s Court and so the beloved house entered the final stages of its existence. In 1959, short of funds, she was compelled to sell Bowen’s Court to a local farmer who duly razed the limestone mansion to the ground.

There is an intense yet uncluttered rawness about the Bowen-Ritchie correspondence that makes it all eminently readable. It is a long-distance love affair explained in epic slow motion, combining the incisive and often witty analysis of hearts and minds, an extraordinary grace of language, and startling descriptions of the everyday world, or at least Elizabeth and Ritchie’s everyday world, in which their lives revolved. Elizabeth particularly lets herself go, filling her letters with garrulous confessions, impulsive promises and droll observations. Ritchie did not claim to be a writer. His contributions are thus somewhat downbeat, terse, hesitant and matter-of-fact.

There were often long periods, months and seasons, when they did not see one another, particularly after Ritchie’s marriage. He was also a busy man, serving, for instance, as Canada’s Ambassador to the USA under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The letters and diaries reveal the excitement they felt as they prepared to meet again, followed by the blow-by-blow post mortem of all they did and said. It is clear they can feel each other’s presence despite the oceans and mountains between them.

In 1965, Elizabeth purchased a modest house in the small coastal town of Hythe in Kent. She named the house Carbery after the Colley’s ancestral home in Ireland. Here she wrote her enchanting final book, Eva Trout, published in 1969. Elizabeth and Ritchie maintained their passionate correspondence to the end. After her death in a London hospital in 1973, her body was brought back to Ireland and buried in St Colman’s churchyard in Farahy, close to the gates of Bowen’s Court. A commemoration of her life is held annually in Farahy church.

Charles published his diaries the following year. ‘The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad 1937-1945’ won the 1974 Governor General's Awards. He passed away in 1995.

Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Robertson (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

In 1945, Elizabeth wrote to Ritchie from Bowen’s Court while my grandparents were staying with her on a weekend that ‘passed, I am bound to say, in a haze of drink, with a few tottering walks through the dripping woods’. She says she is ‘devoted’ to my grandmother and describes her as ‘a beautiful, affectionate, malignant and funny creature’). Malignant? I can only assume she meant (quite rightly) that my grandmother had a wicked sense of humour!

Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning, with Judith Robertson (Simon & Schuster, 2009).