How rude of me to assume that everyone knows what I am going on about...Love's Civil War begins in 1941 with diary entries by Charles Ritchie. The Canadian diplomat neglected to keep letters written to him by Elizabeth Bowen for the first few years of their relationship but a mountain of later correspondence did survive. When they first met, Charles was unmarried and Elizabeth perfectly satisfied with her companionate marriage to Alan Cameron.
'10 February (London) - Weekend at Oxford. Motored down with Alistair Buchan and went first to Elsfield to the christening of Bill B's child...Met Elizabeth Bowen, well-dressed middle-aged with the air of being the somewhat worldly wife of a don, narrow intelligent face, watching eyes and a cruel, witty mouth. I had expected something more Irish, more silent and brooding, and at the same time more irresponsible. I was slightly put off by her being so much 'on the spot'. She told me that the early part of 'The House in Paris' , that part about the two children, had 'come to her' without her being conscious on inventing or thinking it out.'
I have to say that it was difficult to warm up to Charles considering that at times his private thoughts revealed an indifference to Elizabeth while she poured out reams of passion in her letters to him. He used the term 'witch' to describe her on several occasions, perhaps down to the fact that despite writing out letters of good-bye he was frustrated by his lack of seeing things through. While in her company he wished to be alone but when an ocean separated them he frequently rang her up and sent gifts. Packages of hot chocolate and soap were a particular favourite during the time of austerity.
'Alan came back from London on Wednesday, bringing with him the contents of 2 of your beloved parcels, and the soap is; those large curved mauve-pink cakes are completely voluptuous. And of all the things out of the parcels, the packets of to-drink chocolate most brought a lump to my throat. From their being the same as the packets you used to have in Grosvenor St. I thought of the Sunday mornings and times late at night when we used to make cups of chocolate with the electric kettle.'
Which causes me to consider two things. How very okay Alan was with being a go-between for his wife and her lover and the image of the author I adore above all others swooning over a bar of soap and packet of hot chocolate! And if that vignette wasn't enough, Elizabeth would place a cake of her much-loved soap into the guestroom for friends but race up the stairs to retrieve it as soon as their car made it out to the road. Getting back to Alan, he was the inspiration for Thomas Quayne in The Death of the Heart which now makes complete sense if you've read the book.
Elizabeth rarely seemed to stay in one place for very long and her seemingly exhaustive travels were logged beside the date in her letters. Meetings with publishers, agents and speaking engagements brought her to many of London's hotels, research for A Time in Rome meant frequent trips to Italy. The family pile in Ireland, Bowen's Court, was a source of concern and a constant drain on her finances so she was extremely glad for the large cheques forwarded by Ritchie. Elizabeth was called upon several times to speak to alumni or give lectures to fresh-faced students at universities in the United States such as Princeton and Bryn Mawr. If her trip abroad coincided with Charles being in Washington or Ottawa she would arrange to meet with him or his family. It's no wonder that many of the scenes in her books originated on the backs of envelopes pulled from her purse while in cabs or lounges as she travelled to and fro.
Fans of writings by Elizabeth's contemporaries will enjoy the name-dropping dotted throughout. One line in particular made me beam with delight...'Oh my darling...I felt so near you, talking to you from Elizabeth's (Jenkins) little Gothic Hampstead cottage drawing -room on Friday evening. I have stood at the gate in front of that 'cottage' so you can imagine the fantasy that went through my head...here once stood one of the world's most sublime authors....and me! Fifty years apart but details, details.
Towards the end of the book the first hints of a cough begin. Considering that Elizabeth revered smoking and drinking before food it is rather amazing that she lived to experience her seventh decade...but only just. At this stage I became aware of slowing down my reading to put off the inevitable. In her obituary, Audrey Fiennes wrote 'Widow of Alan Charles Cameron' under the heading 'Occupation'. I bristled at the neglect of her life's work and 1973 doesn't seem long enough ago for the excuse that it was a different time.
If I were not completely under the spell of 'that witch', Elizabeth Bowen, before reading this book I am now. Yes, there were times when I wanted to shout at the ghost that she was ridiculous to be so head-over-heels in love with a man who was a serial womaniser. She deserved better. But when the end came and Charles Ritchie was by his own admission 'left rudderless' my opinion of him softened. The book ends with a diary entry ten months after his lover's death, the last line almost too heartbreaking to bear. And don't bother segregating that line from the tale of a love affair. Take the journey.