The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen by Julia Parry

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.

Tortured ten-page letters follow in which Bowen, star of the Oxford High Table whose erudite friends include Isaiah Berlin and Virginia Woolf, tells Humphry of her “desire to be towered over, spiritually, intellectually, morally”. She seems to have the wrong man: Humphry is rejected for a second time by All Souls College, gets an unglamorous lectureship in Exeter and later fails the War Office IQ test.

The Cleverness Factor

It is Bowen who seems the more vulnerable in these early letters. “To be a so-called clever woman,” she writes, “is to be moving blindly and dumbly under a crust of oneself all the time. I am partly a clever woman, but also very much more and very, very much less.” Humphry, meanwhile, is “eating my own bowels” with shame at his bad behavior.

He feels no such compunction, however, when it comes to Madeline, whom he considers dim. Before they marry in December 1933, he tells her that his “feeling for Elizabeth… is a solid and extremely valuable thing”. He adds: “I may even do sensual acts which are technically ‘unfaithful’.”

The letters confirm what Bowen’s 1977 biographer, Victoria Glendinning, guessed, that Bowen’s marriage was sexless and she lost her virginity to Humphry (before his marriage). Madeline just has to put up with this gruesome love triangle — she even meets Bowen, without Humphry, for a sherry in London. The next year, married and installed in Devon with a baby daughter, Madeline endures an excruciating visit from the author, who, crushingly, sends a tea service as a thank-you gift.

Parry notes her grandmother’s latent ire: Madeline will eventually burn correspondence, choosing which of Bowen’s letters survive. She also scribbles things such as “love outside marriage is homeless” on the back of her rival’s envelopes.

Before they marry, Humphry tells Madeline that his “feeling for Elizabeth… is a solid and extremely valuable thing”. He adds: “I may even do sensual acts which are technically ‘unfaithful.’”

By 1935 Bowen is starting to tire. The affair dwindles, she and Cameron (who seems to turn a fond, blind eye) move to London, where Bowen hosts glamorous literary cocktail parties at their Regent’s Park home. Humphrey, meanwhile, makes the staggering decision to teach in Calcutta, leaving Madeline behind, pregnant with their second daughter (Parry’s mother, Helen).

War further separates the lovers and by 1941 Bowen has fallen for the married Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, her love for the rest of her life. Her dramatic London wartime experiences will inform her 1948 masterpiece, The Heat of the Day.

Bowen’s voice is riveting: intimate, kind, fierce, brutal. She is far more interesting than Humphry, despite his complicated charisma. Parry’s spirited grandmother can’t really compete either, and a later section on the Houses’ collaborative work on Dickens’s letters before Humphry’s early death of a heart attack is accordingly less compelling.

The chronology is somewhat confusing at times as we leap around between letters and time frames, but Parry is an engaging writer, deliciously alert to the echoes and parallels that sometimes feel like ancestral instructions on how to approach the material.

Obsessed with hauntings, journeys and houses, Bowen might even approve of this book. Humphry, on the other hand, might not.