A love less ordinary; The secret affairs of a Canadian diplomat yield an unexpected poetry
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 October 2008)

Charles Ritchie was a Canadian diplomat in an often routine job, but to his Anglo-Irish lover, Elizabeth Bowen, he was an artist who lived in the imaginative, sensuous spirit of a poet. Their story, until now known to only a few thousand of their closest friends, comes to life in Love's Civil War (McClelland & Stewart), constructed from her letters and his diaries by Victoria Glendinning, the English biographer, with the help of Judith Robertson.

It's a surprising, engrossing, sometimes painful narrative. Charles was a conflicted puzzle of a man, a puzzle above all to himself. At the heart of his life there was a kind of perversity and a powerful ambivalence about women and the arrangements of love.

He told his diary, "I cannot breathe for long the air of guilt, conspiracy, love -- and yet cannot breathe without it." While deeply connected to Elizabeth, and also married, he had affairs with other women, several of them quite serious. One lover called him a "torturer of women." He wrote, "She has made me feel a monster." Much later, while yearning for the scheduled arrival of another woman, he reflected, "It's really rather sad that the writer of this diary should have degenerated in his middle fifties into an elderly sex-maniac."

In 1941, when Charles (1906-1995) met Elizabeth (1899-1973), he was a young bachelor on the Canadian high commissioner's staff in London, developing a career that would eventually make him ambassador to both Washington and the UN, and would culminate in the successful publication of three brilliant volumes of diaries.

At that moment, Elizabeth was already a much-admired novelist, seven years older than he, married since 1923 to a British civil servant.

Each of them brought to their encounter an extensive romantic history. Their passionate, tumultuous relationship lasted till her death.

She, especially, exulted in their love. In a passage of astonishing self-congratulation, she wrote to Charles: "Really love does matter more than anything else in the world. If more people were as right-minded and happy as you and I are capable of being, the world would be a very different place."

But for them love was never easy. She felt she could not leave her husband; in later years Charles realized that he never wanted to marry her, just to love her. In 1948 he married his second cousin, Sylvia Smellie, but he and Elizabeth continued to meet, usually for a few days at a time.

Her letters make it clear that Elizabeth's literary imagination spilled over into her life. She seemed to view herself as a vibrant, carefully drawn character in a novel. Perhaps, being a friend of the Bloomsbury group, she reflected the Bloomsbury dream of living private life by high artistic standards. She proudly considered herself "extraordinary," a word she applied to Charles as well.

Yet there were times when she failed to meet her own high standards. In 1948, she wrote that she ought to be able to take in stride the fact of his marriage to Sylvia and the necessity of sharing him publicly with another woman, as he had from the beginning shared her with her husband.

She was anxious to keep this new circumstance from making her sad, an emotion she felt a woman of her character should not tolerate.

"How it shoots one down," she wrote. "The moment one is sad one is ordinary." That was not acceptable. Her sense of herself was threatened. "If you notice, nobody in Shakespeare (Shakespeare having no use for ordinary people) is sad." Despite her best efforts, however, she could be tiresome. Her variations on "I live for your next letter" eventually lose their charm for the reader of Love's Civil War, whatever effect they had on Ritchie.

In the mid-1950s, two or three years after her husband died, she found herself assailed by much more than common sadness. She was furious that Charles was married to Sylvia and not her. There was a blowup in Bonn when Charles was ambassador there and Sylvia was with him. The record isn't clear, but Elizabeth seems to have expressed herself with outrageous vehemence. Charles soon after wrote in his diary about Elizabeth's hatred for Sylvia. It frightened him, and he noted that Elizabeth said it was eating into her, like cancer.

The balance of love seems to have switched back and forth between them. In the beginning, Charles took their affair lightly. He worried that Elizabeth was becoming too serious and told himself it probably wouldn't last long. But the more he understood her, the closer he wanted to be. She was a witch, he finally decided, but a good witch. Soon he was as much in love as she, perhaps more. She shared her professional life with Charles and made a point of creating friendships with his family and his colleagues.

Over the years, though she continued to beg for more of his time, he grew unsure of her love. He worried about boring her.

In 1957, he wrote of his fear of being permanently separated from Elizabeth. "I love her." But in the next sentence he remembered his wife. "And S? What of her? How has she felt? Have I dealt lovingly with her?" Years after marrying, he wrote that he was falling in love with Sylvia. She had told him that their marriage was happy. He believed that if it had indeed worked it was because Sylvia willed it.

Four years after his wedding he deliberately left one of Elizabeth's letters where Sylvia would find it. He asked his diary, "What was my motive? To move her? To make her cry? To shatter the shell?" The next day he wrote, "With me, love for a woman is always linked with a need to betray that love; a compulsion which I dread and desire."

Charles quoted in his diary a sentence from Rebecca West, a writer both he and Elizabeth admired. West has a character in The Fountain Overflows say that "You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is." Charles told his diary that he believed just that --and would be dead if he ceased to believe it. At the end of Love's Civil War, we know something about both the joys and the terrors of such a demanding ambition.

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