In the happiest sense, a haunting

Currently reading: Love’s Civil War,  which is the story of Elizabeth Bowen (English writer) & Charles Ritchie (Canadian diplomat) being in love for 30 years, after meeting in middle age, being separated by continents, married to other people. It’s largely told through Elizabeth’s rambly, intimate letters to Charles, with the odd diary entry of his dashed in there for contrast. Am feeling much the same about it as Independent reviewer John Walsh:

“The flow of brittle charm seldom subsides, but there’s an urgency about her protestations of love. You get the impression she kept the affair going by an act of determined will. This feeling is reinforced by the one-sidedness of the correspondence. Ritchie destroyed his letters to Elizabeth after her death. We have no record of his intimacies, insights, promises or undertakings; none of the thousands of ways he beguiled her over 30 years.”

To read a one-sided correspondence is so frustrating. I just about had a fit when I started the book and realised I would never see Elizabeth’s questions’ answered, declarations of love returned. Nonetheless, I’ve been won over and will even read her descriptions of gardens and scenery, which as a rule I can’t help skipping, ever since my LM Montgomery days.

Here’s Elizabeth to Charles, on 12 April 1955:

“Easter morning was pure and dazzling. I longed to kiss you on the forehead and say, ‘Christ is risen.’ They have banked the Spanish Steps with azaleas, mostly white…”*

This passage is what grabbed me in the bookstore. It’s so confusing to me, to talk with one’s married lover so blithely about God and church and Easter.  Did she believe the strength of her feelings made their love blessed whatever the circumstances? Or was church more of a tradition and idea, no authority? I’m not really judging, I just can’t help but wonder – did she really feel so joyous, so welcome, there, thinking of him? Elsewhere she speaks so girlishly of her love for the old hymns.

* Last portion only included because I didn’t want three quote marks in a row and didn’t know how else to deal, oh dear.

Elizabeth Bowen


February 21, 2010. Tags: , , , , , . history, writing.

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