- Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie:Letters and Diaries 1941-1973
When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published in 1945, the world was given a searing portrait of obsessive love between its author, Canadian Elizabeth Smart, and the married British writer George Barker, with further details of their passion following in Smart's diaries, published in two volumes in 1986 and 1997. With the recent publication of Love's Civil War, readers have been given another adulterous autobiography, this time the Anglo-Irish lover is Elizabeth Bowen, one of the most celebrated novelists of her day, and the Canadian Charles Ritchie, the renowned diplomat and diarist (and good friend, incidentally, of Smart). The book comprises the letters sent by Bowen to Ritchie, and the diaries kept by Ritchie about Bowen, from the start of their relationship in 1941 to the months following Bowen's death in 1973. As such, the text is as much a compelling dialogue between two lovers as between two life-writing genres.
Editor Glendinning, biographer of literary talents including Bowen herself, is assisted by Robertson, who transcribed the material here. In their brief but helpful introductions they establish the backstory of how Ritchie met Bowen in 1941 in London, where he was posted as private secretary to the High Commissioner. The two promptly began what would become a nearly thirty-year alliance. While she was already married to administrator Alan Cameron, Ritchie dutifully married his cousin Sylvia Smellie in 1948. When Cameron died in 1952, Bowen struggled with Ritchie's marital status, and yet - and even while Ritchie engaged in other affairs and questioned his need of Bowen - Bowen and Ritchie's commitment to each other held fast. Their stolen visits across cities, countries, and continents sustained them during the weeks and months apart, and in such a fashion they grew old 'together,' with Ritchie by Bowen's side when she died of cancer at age seventy-three. Ritchie survived Bowen by more than twenty years, dying in June 1995; his wife died five months later.
After her death, Ritchie's letters to Bowen were returned to Ritchie, who destroyed them. He held onto his diaries, however, and preserved her letters to him, though as Glendinning notes he removed significant amounts of 'intimate material' before eventually passing them, along with his journal, to his literary heirs. Glendinning's rationale for piecing [End Page 498] together these narrative remains is a sound one: they offer crucial insights into two vital, public figures of the mid-twentieth century and the historical period itself. Bowen and Ritchie's love story is, of course, the central drama of the text, one that takes its place within a tradition of amorous life writings inaugurated by The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Bowen and Ritchie were dependent on each other, but they seemed just as dependent on their life writings, which allowed them a space to live - and love - to the fullest of their imaginative and linguistic potential. Glendinning has done a careful job of reassembling this literary space in order to structure as comprehensive and coherent a narrative as possible.
Glendinning's version of the affair reflects the shifting dynamic of any relationship such that sometimes Ritchie's diaries hold forth, sometimes Bowen's letters tell an uninterrupted story, and at other times their words work in tandem as a letter is complemented by - if not specifically 'answered' by - a diary entry. But just as Ritchie had control over Bowen's texts in deciding what to destroy, edit, and preserve, so his voice, which frames this compilation, seems to dominate Love's Civil War. Choice of genre grants the audience power over Bowen too. She revealed herself only to Ritchie, her sole addressee; her correspondence does not invite an external reader and so our presence seems a trespass on her privacy. Ritchie wrote for himself, to be sure, but the indeterminate addressee of a diary implicates us as potential listeners...