- Two Sides to the Question
This is a strange book. It is uneven, repetitive, unbalanced, unenlightening; while also from time to time candid, witty, touching, revealing. Its unsatisfactory state is due to its stitched-together composition, since it is made up, on the one hand, of a professional writer’s letters to her lover and, on the other, of his private diaries, written during his career as a diplomat. Her distinction, of course, remains, while his has faded, and that, presumably, is what has brought the book into being, so long after their deaths. But the letters and diaries seldom cover the same periods, and the periods are often disrupted in themselves. Sometimes the appropriate letters have been lost, or the diaries abandoned.
But consider the protagonists (which is really what they are, in this semiprivate drama): the woman is seven years older, forty-one when they meet, an established, even celebrated, novelist deriving from what used to be called Anglo-Irish society. The man is thirty-five years of age, third secretary in the Canadian High Commission in London. You would expect from such an editorial nightmare some compensatory revelation of their life and times, some glimpse into the workings of the human heart, some entertainment, [End Page lxxxvi] forsooth, some scandal. (Oh, those Europeans!) Such expectations regarding novelists are legitimate. Literature is moral at heart. So what are these lovers like? Are they like us? Does the tale of their behavior and their feelings provide a standard, set a norm? Diaries are private and confessional, after all, and letters are meant for a single other person. So there is an ambiguity in place between writer and reader from the very first page—the reader is the wrong reader, a spy, an interloper. But we do not have to worry, that’s a convention: it is no accident that the some of the first novels in English take the form of letters between characters. We get a thrill out of eavesdropping. Witness its role in literature proper, especially in drama.
And we wonder how Elizabeth Bowen, married for eighteen years to Alan Cameron, can slip so joyfully into Charles Ritchie’s bed from the very beginning, or why Ritchie will engage himself to marry Sylvia Smellie in 1948, when the love affair on the side was flourishing, as it would for thirty-one years in the face not only of that marriage but of Ritchie’s various come-and-go girlfriends also. What was wrong with Alan Cameron? Why didn’t he protest? What was wrong with Elizabeth Bowen, come to that? Neither Bowen nor Ritchie explains.
Nor does anyone explain why an editorial note has to be inserted to explain that Elizabeth Bowen at last exploded with rage and jealousy in the long-suffering wife’s face in Bonn, during Ritchie’s tour of duty there. This central point in the drama almost escaped, unremarked on. And what does that tell us? That this stuff is unrehearsed?
So a pious reader may surmise that this book after all is nothing but the higher gossip. In Ritchie’s case, certainly, Bowen’s intellectual status—her mind, imagination, wit, scope, her celebrity, and her capacity for making friends among interesting people—was initially a magnet for Ritchie. His first impression of her was not exciting: “well-dressed middle-aged with the air of being the somewhat worldly wife of a don, a narrow intelligent face, watching eyes and a cruel witty mouth.” Undressed she revealed beautiful breasts, the body of Donatello’s David. But we don’t ask so much. What are we going to do with the knowledge? Read the novels differently? What does Coetzee look like without clothes, and does it matter?
More to the point (if this book has a point) is Ritchie’s repeated statement to himself that she represents intellectual freedom, as opposed to domesticity. (He declares this in spite of Elizabeth Bowen’s passion for good houses to...