The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry – Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen – a readable story of a three cornered relationship

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

The power of writing, in particular letters, is at the heart of this very readable book. The author’s maternal grandfather, Humphry House, had a long term and variable relationship with the well known writer, Elizabeth Bowen. They communicated by letters which conveyed a sense of the time and place, as the 1920s moved through the challenging 1930s and the Second World War. The “Shadowy Third” person for at least part of the time was Madeline, Humphry’s wife and the only character who the author met. There are photographs of the people involved, the places where events took place, a terrific sense of the time when the relationships involved changed. Far more than a biography, this sensitive and well written book conveys the light and shades of very real people, as the author has deployed the letters that she found from all three parties and some friends to convey the confusion, disappointment and other emotions at the time. Parry has made much of a chance discovery of a unique set of letters written by both Elizabeth and Humphry to create a book which looks at their relationship in the context of what else was going on in their lives at the time. I found it so easy to read with a style which is easy to follow. Elizabeth’s fame as a writer is probably in the ascendant  at the moment with an increased interest in women writers of the mid twentieth century, as well as life on the Home Front during the Second World War. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual and fascinating book.

The book opens with Parry discovering then taking possession of a set of letters between Elizabeth and Humphrey written during their relationship. Realising their importance, she seeks to put them in context of the other things happening to the couple. She points out that Humphry had to support himself by some form of paid work, whereas Elizabeth had family property in the form of Bowen’s Court in Ireland. She also married Alan Cameron “to allow herself a degree of flexibility” , though apparently the marriage was not consummated. Elizabeth was determined to be a writer, eager to gain experiences to give depth to her stories of contemporary relationships. Meeting Humphry in Oxford was a memorable event in many respects, as it would lead to a connection that survived a rather uncertain courtship with Madeline, affected by that young woman’s desire for independence and travel. 

Parry visits the places that were important to those concerned with the affairs, helped by the records of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, confirmed by her letters and other writings, and indeed the blue plaques which have been appearing on her homes. Parry’s knowledge of Humphry and Madeline’s progress based on family memories and photographs makes this a unique record of their lives as they intersected with Elizabeth. This was a time when Elizabeth spent the summer months in Bowen’s Court, inviting Humphry among others, including some well known names. Their relationship was not straightforward, as Humphry struggled to make a living, spending time considering the priesthood, then being disappointed in his hopes for academic posts. Elizabeth was changeable, secretive and more, as it appears from their correspondence that their relationship was the first time she had been truly intimate with a man. The other person in the triangle, Madeline, was not Humphry’s only other female interest, as there is evidence of a broken engagement and a curious eventual wedding. Humphry was surprised when she became pregnant relatively soon after the wedding, assuming that she had been making arrangements. During her second pregnancy with Parry’s mother Helen, he goes to India to work, where Elizabeth writes to him crossly demanding local descriptions. Although by this time their relationship was virtually over, she was still a powerful correspondent. 

This book has many strengths, including the clever use of photographs taken by the author of today’s views of relevant places. She is able to give texture to her account of significant events and times in Elizabeth’s life with her family’s perspective, and also proves her academic rigour by notes of sources. She also includes a “Select Bibliography listing publications by Elizabeth and Humphry among others. Despite this scholarly approach, this is a very readable book which I genuinely enjoyed, and I recommend it to Elizabeth’s many readers and those interested in her history in the build up to the Second World War.     

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