When Julia Parry’s aunt died, she inherited a stash of letters that had been stored in her attic. Books that kick off with letters in attics generally contain some big revelations, but although this book is in some ways almost voyeuristically revealing of the letter writers, I think the revelations may not be entirely the ones intended by the author.
Parry’s grandfather Humphry House met Elizabeth Bowen in Oxford in 1933, when he was a fellow at Wadham, engaged to be married to Madeline Church. Bowen was ten years his senior and an established novelist; she had been married to Alan Cameron for a decade. They embarked on a love affair, which continued for some years, even after House’s marriage. When Victoria Glendinning was working on her biography of Bowen, she visited Madeline House, then widowed, who fed her some snippets from Elizabeth’s letters to Humphry. She also made the startling claim that Bowen’s marriage had been unconsummated and House had taken her virginity. Glendinning mentioned the affair in her biography, referring only glancingly to the virginity question; Humphry, at Madeline’s request, she left unnamed. This book does at least confirm the virginity story – Parry quotes here a letter from House that Glendinning hadn’t been allowed to see, in which, years later, he expresses surprise that he’d been Bowen’s first lover: ‘I thought you meant you had some malformation: for you said only “I am as difficult as a virgin”.’
The awkwardness of this exchange is typical of the letters quoted here by Parry. Bowen, both insecure and controlling when it came to men, wanted a lover and House was flattered by her attentions, despite being engaged. For years, it seems to have been a push-me-pull-you kind of relationship, with