As literary discoveries go, it’s a big one: the discovery in her uncle’s attic by Julia Parry, a secondary school English teacher, of the forgotten correspondence between her grandfather, the literary critic Humphry House, and the famous 20th-century Anglo-Irish novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Bowen. The Shadowy Third is Parry’s account not just of their extramarital affair (which lasted roughly from 1933 to 1935), but of her attempt to understand, via a quest that took her from Oxford to Ireland, Texas to Calcutta, how on earth her grandmother Madeline put up with this ghastly love triangle.
In 1933, when Bowen and Humphry first meet at a Wadham College luncheon in Oxford, Bowen is 33, married to Alan Cameron, a BBC man, and already the author of four novels and three short-story collections. Humphry is 24, an aspiring academic with an on-off engagement to Madeline. The connection is immediate; Bowen invites him to her ancestral Irish home, Bowen’s Court, and he visits, twice, while simultaneously patching things up with Madeline. Although nothing sexual has happened yet, things with Bowen get intense in Ireland, and when Humphry’s head is turned by an attractive fellow guest, she is hurt and distraught.