This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Duckworth Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
A death in the family results in Parry becoming custodian of a box of letters between her grandfather, Humphry House, who she never met, and celebrated novelist Elizabeth Bowen. The details of their affair had been passed down through family lore but the presence of these tangible remnants of their relationship compel her to go in search of them. Her grandmother, Madeline, is largely silent because she destroyed many of her own letters from the period, and yet her personality and intelligence is clear throughout. Often dismissed as dull and unintelligent by both Elizabeth and Humphry, Parry brings her to life in the pages of this fascinating memoir.
Unlike many biographers Parry places herself firmly in the book, discussing her physical journey to the places of importance to the trio, as well as the emotional journey her research takes her on. Coming to the book with no prior knowledge of Bowen I was able to enjoy the intimate family history, the discussion of how stories are passed down and pieced together, and the way voices are silenced or raised in the choices made by those who care for the archives. Parry makes history feel a very personal pursuit and the result is a book that will interest not just fans of Bowen but those interested in social and gender history.
Humphry’s affair with Elizabeth began after his initial engagement to Madeline was broken, but when their marriage became a certainty there was no question that the affair would end. He was painfully open about his dual romantic life, seemingly giving no thought to how either woman would feel being reminded of the other’s presence. He even went as far as orchestrating meetings between them, which naturally were uncomfortable events for both parties. Elizabeth was not impressed by his choice of wife and desired their affair to proceed entirely separate from either of their marriages. She was completely committed to making her success of her own but found sexual and intellectual stimulation outside of it, having many more lovers after Humphry.
Elizabeth is shown to be cutting in her assessment of other women and desires control in her affairs. She lays clear boundaries for Humphry but quickly breaks them herself. Through their letters we see high emotion and occasional jealousy, especially on the news of Madeline’s first pregnancy. The two gradually grow apart, and although their romantic attachment fades their friendship remains. Elizabeth seems to have gained a confidence from Humphry’s affections that propels her into a busy social life in London.
We see Humphry through Elizabeth’s eyes in her letters, supposedly worn down and depressed by marital and parental responsibility, yet coming alive when with her in Ireland. Despite this assessment of their marriage we see on several occasions that when Humphry and Madeline have time alone, especially when working on projects together, their relationship thrives.
Humphry does not come across as entirely likeable, frequently leaving his heavily pregnant wife to spend time with Elizabeth. Similarly, he leaves her to look after their young daughters alone, meeting their second for the first time when she was already walking and talking. We do not have written evidence of Madeline’s feelings during this time but it is not hard to feel sympathy for her, having given up her job and left her friends to move to Exeter with Humphry, she is frequently abandoned in a lonely, dank cottage.
Humphry underestimates his wife’s talents frequently. Indeed, he seems to struggle to take female intellectual pursuit seriously, being dismissive of his female University students. He does Madeline a great injustice in not appreciating her strength and active mind. She went to University at a time where it was not common, carried out meaningful work in the slums of London, and spent a month alone in Germany before their wedding, just after the Nazis had come to power. Her knowledge of German was essential to his work as he relied on her for translation. She later worked tirelessly on editions of Dickens letters, a project initiated by Humphry but which became her crowning glory. Throughout she shows determination and flare and refuses to be dismissed as a simpering housewife.
It is at times hard to believe the way Humphry conducted himself, but Parry resists judgment. She offers a fair and considered view of a history so close to her heart. This is a fascinating book made possible by the strong epistolary tradition of the participants. The letters are not presented in full, and Parry admits to editing to weave her own story, an acknowledgment that the telling of history is never without its biases. A brilliant tale of a complex marriage, and a chance to read previously unpublished letters, shining a light on a relationship that has otherwise been publicly obscured.