Robert Fulford's column about Charles Ritchie

(The National Post, May 29, 2001)

Victoria Glendinning, an English biographer, once wrote that Charles Ritchie (1906-1995) was "no one's idea of a Canadian." That was her way of praising a diplomat who later became famous by publishing his private diaries. Glendinning described his elegance, his style and his "easily worn" learning, these being not at all the qualities the English expect in a Canadian.

That passage appeared in her Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, published in 1977. Ritchie was Bowen's lover in wartime London, when he was a junior diplomat and she was a celebrated novelist. At the time, he was single and she was married to an alcoholic. Their long affair inspired both her most-admired novel, The Heat of the Day, and some of the most enthralling passages in Ritchie's The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad, 1937-1945.

The appearance of The Siren Years in 1974 created a sensation in Canadian letters. It revealed that the diary Ritchie had been keeping for most of his life was not only sly and witty but also affectionate and wise -- and intensely readable. In the next dozen years he brought out three more volumes, most of them avoiding policy and politics in favour of personal observation. This season, McClelland & Stewart, hoping to bring a new generation of readers to his work, has reprinted both The Siren Years and An Appetite for Life: The Education of a Young Diarist, 1924-1927 in handsome paperback editions, the other volumes to follow.

As a writer in Canada, Ritchie stood (and stands) alone. The highly talented diarist who publishes while still alive is relatively well known in France and Britain, but 20th-century Canada produced no one like that except Ritchie. The Siren Years, more than half a century after it was written and a quarter of a century after it first appeared in print, feels astonishingly fresh and sharp. It vividly recreates wartime London, a period of desperate peril and tragedy but also a time that many found thrilling and erotically stimulating.

Ritchie, the un-Canadian, worked under two men who were closer to Canadian stereotypes. The high commissioner was Vincent Massey, our future governor-general, a chronic anglophile who loved the English upper classes and lusted vainly after a knighthood. Lester B. Pearson, the future prime minister, was second in command. Despite his experience and education, he remained boyish and easily likeable, not at all sophisticated in the sense that Ritchie was sophisticated.

Ritchie's path into literary and social London was smoothed by his friendship in the 1930s with John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, who served as our governor-general till his death in 1940. As a family friend, Ritchie attended the christening in England of a Buchan granddaughter in 1941. There he met the baby's godmother, Elizabeth Bowen. They became friends, then lovers, then friends again, and remained close till Bowen's death in 1973.

She was Anglo-Irish, and she believed they got along so well because, in English society, they were both outsiders who had burrowed inside. In private they were equally critical of the English, sometimes irritated by them.

She wrote to Ritchie: "I think we are curiously self-made creatures, carrying our personal worlds around with us like snails their shells ... I am strongly and idiosyncratically Irish in the same way that you are Canadian: cagey, recalcitrant, on the run, bristling with reservations and arrogances that one doesn't show."

When he met Elizabeth's friend David Cecil, the eminent biographer, Ritchie wrote in his diary: "I was charmed by ... his irony and his wit, his contempt for the middlebrow, the snob and the inflated personality." No fool, Ritchie must have known there were writers all over England who would have argued that David Cecil never knew anyone except inflated personalities; much later, in an act of pious self-inflation, he wrote an account of his famous ancestors, The Cecils of Hatfield House, an English Ruling Family (1973). But it was Ritchie's genial habit to accept these people more or less at their own estimation, once he had decided to enjoy them.

He encountered Nancy Mitford at a country weekend, found her "witty in a high-pitched, restless way," typical of the people in Evelyn Waugh's circle (and his novels). Their world had its own tone: "In love as in conversation a flavour of insolence is appreciated." They believed you should do as you want as long as you want -- and not a moment longer. That's why they changed sexual partners so often. He decided that the game of love, as they played it, required (like any other sport) a good eye, a cool nerve and a capacity to take punishment. The people in Mitford's set thought nothing of loudly ripping apart the reputations of their friends, even in public restaurants. "Discretion is looked upon as a paltry virtue like thrift."

Ritchie comes across as a good-hearted fellow who nevertheless appreciated articulate malice as an interesting quality in others. Once he heard T.S. Eliot dissect the then-popular novels of Charles Morgan, a friend. Eliot's conversation inspired a long Ritchie metaphor: "a most delicate feast of malice, the closing in on the prey, the kill, so neat and so final, and then the picking of the bones, the faint sound of licking of lips and the feast is over." At Massey's table he dined with R.A. Butler, a grand figure in the Conservative party: "I like him better each time I see him. He enjoys his own success so much. He is so malicious."

For Ritchie it was appalling to discover how little official London knew about Canada -- for instance, the foreign office could never abandon its crazy idea that Quebec was devoted to France. "I only hope to God that they know more about other foreign countries than they do about Canada." He did not find his own colleagues consistently brilliant, or even consistent. In 1944, as "reactionary" Poland struggled against the "progressive" Soviet Union, Canadian diplomats were pro-Russian and anti-Pole. "They do not see this as being inconsistent with our emphasis on the rights of small nations and find it inconvenient to be reminded that it is so." This is one of many moments in Ritchie's valuable and evocative book when we recognize that he's describing our time as well as his own.

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