The Shadowy Third: Coda

Julia Parry

A reader on the fringes of Ashdown Forest closes his hardback of The Shadowy Third. He remembers a bundle of correspondence he bought years ago, letters which had been sent to Elizabeth Bowen. Of particular interest to him were Virginia Woolf ’s letters; other correspondents were simply names at the foot of a page. Intrigued by Bowen’s affair with Humphry House, he wonders whether any of Humphry’s letters rest in the cardboard coffin in his study. He finds the box and begins to look through the letters. Musty with memories, the pages and people pass drily through his hands. Then, there it is. The name ‘Humphry’. It had meant nothing to him before. He reads carefully, conscious that the man before him now has some shape and colour. An hour later, he sits down at his computer and begins an email: ‘Dear Julia Parry . . .’

The six newly uncovered letters fill a key gap in the narrative. They are some of Humphry’s letters to Elizabeth written from India between July and September 1936. They are not the replies to her blistering rebukes of his early months in Calcutta. The first one refers to Elizabeth’s impressionistic missive of 29 June about the Norfolk Broads, which is full of soporific reflections, the girl from a Renoir painting and her capable Aunt Bertha (see Chapter 12). With this new find, the epistolary baton is passed to Humphry just as Elizabeth’s letters come to a temporary halt. Humphry indulges in an occasional whisper of their former intimacy – ‘I want to say little Bengali phrases to you. I can’t make love in Bengali’ – but the general tone is friendly and measured.

elizabeth bowen
Elizabeth Bowen

In the earliest letter there is an echo of his sentiments when he first arrived in Ireland; he feels occasionally ambushed by something ‘hugely and madly foreign’, despite his growing affection for Calcutta. His new friendships, which were among the most important elements of his time in the city, went some way to alleviating his feelings of strangeness. He details a daytrip with Sudhin Datta and John Auden to Chandernagore, one of the ‘islands of French India’, with its florid Catholic Church and riverside promenade. He writes of the journey, the ‘roaring racing air’ buffeting them all as their car dashes through a countryside of lush, ‘violent greens’.

Another letter begins with just the type of sketch Elizabeth would love: ‘My dear, two monkeys led on chains, one with a baby hanging upside down from its belly, have just gone by to a drum: probably advertising a cinema.’ He tells her of the joys of ceiling fans, the ‘curve of excitement’ when a huge storm hits, of the palm tree and lemon tree he sees from his window. He explains how one must never wear a white topi (the hat of colonial rule) as ‘they are either army or vulgar’, and talks with real affection for his students, commenting that he has never in his life enjoyed his teaching as much. Inevitably, there is more about the crooked operations of the state, the spying, the interception of letters. Elizabeth is treated to more details of police brutality than appear in letters to Madeline.

From what Humphry writes in one letter, it is clear Elizabeth had asked him about whether he had come across any Bengali short stories. At the time, she was editing a book of short stories for Faber (published in 1937). Her request might have been with a view to including a Bengali story in her selection; a bold and unusual choice for the time, but evidence of Elizabeth’s voracious interest in the genre. Humphry explains that the problem lies in the quality of translation before telling her he is going to attempt a translation of one himself – not bad for someone who had only been learning the language for a few months. Humphry rhapsodises about the Bengali language, and peppers the page with colloquialisms from Bengali English. Two words he writes out in Bengali to show her the shape and strokes of the script. One can understand why he might choose the word ‘Darling’; the word for ‘Printing Works’ less so.

humphry house
Humphry House

From what Humphry writes in one letter, it is clear Elizabeth had asked him about whether he had come across any Bengali short stories. At the time, she was editing a book of short stories for Faber (published in 1937). Her request might have been with a view to including a Bengali story in her selection; a bold and unusual choice for the time, but evidence of Elizabeth’s voracious interest in the genre. Humphry explains that the problem lies in the quality of translation before telling her he is going to attempt a translation of one himself – not bad for someone who had only been learning the language for a few months. Humphry rhapsodises about the Bengali language, and peppers the page with colloquialisms from Bengali English. Two words he writes out in Bengali to show her the shape and strokes of the script. One can understand why he might choose the word ‘Darling’; the word for ‘Printing Works’ less so.

These letters also cover Humphry’s spell in hospital with dysentery (discussed at the beginning of Chapter 12). Nothing, not even severe illness, would stand in the way of his desire to communicate. Nor, it seems, was any topic off-limits: ‘While this was in writing I had an enema, the effects of which laid me out into a flat expansive and exhausted sleep. I think a good enema now and then is very satisfying and delightful.’ The last letter sees Humphry restored to health and his old ways: ‘I am recovering from a thick night spent true to type; and before breakfast and since drank brandy which is conveniently among my medicines.’

There is talk, inevitably, of mutual friends such as William Plomer and Maurice Bowra, and Humphry responds to news of Elizabeth’s summer visitors to Bowen’s Court. More intriguingly, Elizabeth had clearly told Humphry of her attraction to Goronwy Rees and asked him his opinion of Rees. Humphry writes: ‘His waywardness irritates me […] but even at the surface level on which I’ve known him I’ve felt his attractiveness in gusts.’ Humphry goes on to explain that he can’t give a definitive judgement of Rees’s character because ‘oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him drunk’.

Though Humphry may have thought he was being magnanimous, one senses subtle hints of jealousy in his words. Of Elizabeth’s interest in Rees, Humphry concludes: ‘I’m glad this sudden turn has happened with him and you because I do think he can be remarkably good company on the right day: whether he has “integrity” or not I don’t know.’ Elizabeth was to find to her cost, just a couple of months later, that integrity was not Rees’s strongest suit: overnight, the wind changed direction and Rees began his affair with Rosamond Lehmann under Elizabeth’s roof at Bowen’s Court.

bowen's court 1930s
Bowen's Court in the 1930s

Lehmann herself makes an appearance in the correspondence thanks to a photograph Elizabeth had sent Humphry of a house party at Lehmann’s house (one that took place well before the debacle with Rees): ‘How does Rosamond – who I think is beautiful – come to have such a screwed up crusty-looking little daughter? or was it the camera?’ Humphry tells Elizabeth how much he enjoyed Elizabeth’s review of Lehmann’s novel The Weather in the Streets, before giving his own opinion of it. He deplores Lehmann’s use of ellipsis, complaining that it causes him ‘physical pain’, though he goes on to praise her subtle narrative style: ‘I found that queer feeling one has with some plays; what critics call the “necessity” of what happens happening. […] The situation fills out over night, but you don’t have to exclaim next morning.’

Another letter gives an engaging critique of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s play The Ascent of F6, which he has read in proof copy courtesy of John Auden, to whom it is dedicated. He was ‘deeply and impersonally impressed’ rather than moved by the play because he felt there was ‘little emotion in it one could vicariously feel’. The protagonist, a mountaineer, he describes as ‘a man of absolute and self-contained ambition entirely insulated against the world except as giving him problems to solve: he solves the main problem of the mountain, & it kills him’. That this character struck a chord with Humphry is, perhaps, unsurprising: he could almost be describing himself. Events yet to come in his own life are painfully foreshadowed.

The detailed discussion of literary texts found in these letters is one of the key differences between what Humphry wrote to Madeline and to Elizabeth in the summer of 1936. Though one can understand that the Lehmann correspondence was of particular relevance to Elizabeth, the same cannot be said for The Ascent of F6. This is possibly further proof of his underappreciation of Madeline’s intelligence. That she had taken an English degree and had an active interest in literature seems to have escaped Humphry on many occasions. Humphry was probably also aware that what remained of the shared feeling with Elizabeth lay in the world of literature and ideas.

madeline house
Madeline House

Running like a vein under the skin of every letter is something of psychic importance to both Elizabeth and Humphry: her home, Bowen’s Court. Humphry admits to being besieged by memories of Ireland which arrive ‘in my mind without warning or reason, like images out of childhood’. Seeing her in his mind’s eye in the sun-sprinkled rooms of Bowen’s Court, he conjures a shared space: ‘looking out of my window here now the sky might be yours, blue and clear with thin white clouds that might collect and make rain.’

And it is Bowen’s Court itself, the house he had fallen in love with on his first visit to Ireland, that fittingly fills the final paragraph of Humphry’s last letter of this newly unearthed cache. Humphry undertakes a thought-journey, sending one of his roving selves off to Ireland, letter in hand. He goes as far as picturing himself as the letter. In his imagination, he walks up the drive towards her home. The trees of the long avenue billow loosely in the breeze; rooks scratch the air overhead. He closes: ‘So I must project one film of myself, a separate layer dismissed, & let him go there by this: he is a responsible deputy to the place: but send love separately, from me complete. Humphry.’

When I received news of these fresh letters I was thrilled, even more so when they arrived as digital photographs. Humphry’s beautiful tight handwriting, with its open ‘b’ and willowy ‘f ’, lay in front of me again. There were his customary long sentences; the beauty of his descriptions; his liking for the absurd; his penchant for semi-colons. His intellect and insecurity, his pedantry and prejudices. To read this treasury of letters was wonderful and moving. I am more familiar with the contours of my grandfather’s writing than of his face.

The contents of the letters were similarly exciting. Though Humphry covers some of the same ground in the letters to Madeline, these new letters add depth to his life in Calcutta. They also confirm that, after the bristling barbs of their break-up, Humphry and Elizabeth settled into a solid epistolary friendship in the summer of 1936.

elizabeth bowen letters
The Letters

But even as this new find fills in lacunae in the story, it also serves to question the very narrative I have constructed. Humphry’s letters to Elizabeth of the period are not all lost as I have stated. This fact does not worry me; indeed, I relish it. I have tried to honour the idea of there being different versions of a story, even in my own telling of it. I like the way that my version is subtly altered by this new discovery, as much as it is by every different reader. As I see it, through these whisky-coloured pages Humphry has added a latenight shot of vibrancy both to his tale and mine.

Looking back on all the years of this book – its inspiration, its gestation, its crafting, its polishing – I can see that one of the most meaningful journeys I have taken is in my relationship with my grandfather. Initially, I had allowed myself to adopt a single story about him, one defined by his behaviour towards women. ‘You’re very hard on Humphry,’ commented a dear friend of the early drafts. But little by little the mist of judgement lifted, and I was able first to appreciate him, then to feel for him, and finally to love him. The road I travelled with my remarkable grandmother was far less rocky; my heart chimed with hers, I held her hand from the beginning.

That these letters, like the box I inherited, arrived at ‘the hour arranged’ I do not doubt. As Elizabeth says, only when the sensibilities of the recipient are fully in tune with those of the writer can a letter be fully felt. These missives weren’t meant for me, but I receive them, welcome them, inhabit them as though they were. No longer hearts left to beat unheard.

The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen
Julia Parry
Publication date: 17 February 2022
Paperback
ISBN: 9780715654491