The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House (HH), and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen (EB), it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate one, ebbing and flowing over time, waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s; this much is clear to Parry from her initial glimpses of the letters. She is also fortunate in having access to both sides of the conversation – letters from EB to HH and vice versa – preserved by Humphry’s wife, Madeline, Julia’s maternal grandmother. There are letters from Humphry to Madeline too, adding another dimension to this intriguing dynamic.

What follows is a quest on the part of Parry to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Julia’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing.

The affair between Bowen and Humphry begins in Oxford in the early 1930s when Bowen is already a critically-acclaimed writer with a clutch of novels and short stories to her name. Moreover, she is ten years into her marriage to Alan Cameron, although their relationship, we learn, was never consummated. In effect, Alan has been adopting a kind of ‘parental’ role for Bowen, substituting for the losses she endured as a child, thereby providing security and respectability in the eyes of society.

Humphry, at this point, is also in a relationship, albeit a somewhat less formal one. He has been seeing Madeline Church – the same Madeline he goes on to marry in 1933, one year after his first meeting with Bowen at the Oxford dinner party. Following this initial connection, Bowen and Humphry write to one another regularly, and their letters reveal much about their respective personalities. Bowen – forthright and direct, particularly with emotions; Humphry – naïve, enthusiastic, and somewhat lacking in sensitivity. There are physical meetings between the pair too, and their relationship becomes sexual.

During the early years of the affair, Humphry emerges as rather foolish and insensitive in his treatment of both women: his lover, Bowen, and – more importantly – his wife, the exemplary Madeline. Not long before their wedding, Humphry makes it clear to Madeline that he may well indulge in ‘sensual acts’ with other women during their marriage, a practice that he acknowledges as ‘technically unfaithful’. Madeline is fully aware of Humphry’s feelings for Bowen at this point – this is clear from the letters she receives from HH. Nevertheless, in spite of these declarations, the marriage goes ahead.

Humphry often wandered through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him. He thoughtlessly carried his relationship with one woman into the sphere of the second. He told each about his feelings for the other – unable, or unwilling, to imagine how this might just distress them. […] Humphry’s pattern of behaviour left both women in potentially vulnerable positions. Each was to devise strategies – very different ones – to deal with the man with the open-plan heart. (pp. 66–67)

There is a real lack of self-awareness on the part of Humphry here, compounded by a dismissal of Madeline’s intellectual capabilities. In the early years of the marriage, Madeline – who studied English at Royal Holloway – is never allowed to shine, firmly relegated to the positions of wife, mother and homemaker. Naturally, this is partly a function of societal attitudes at the time, frequently confining women to the domestic arena. Nevertheless, Humphry’s vanities and his lack of consideration of Madeline’s aspirations and feelings are also important factors here. At this stage in his life, Humphry is struggling to establish himself professionally, unable to secure a suitable position in the academic hierarchy, despite his ongoing research into the work of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This initial, rather clouded view of Madeline – one reading of the ‘Shadowy Third’ of the book’s title – is reinforced by the impression she makes on Bowen. Elizabeth is cutting about Madeline in her letters to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, describing her as perfectly nice, but rather dull and mediocre. A visit by Bowen to the Houses’ marital home in Devon in 1935 strengthens this perception for Bowen – so much so that she sends Madeline a tea service as a ‘thank you’ gift, reinforcing her status as largely domestic.

Contrary to these perceptions, Madeline is very bright, a woman with strong moral and ethical values – her honesty, simplicity and goodness are clearly evident from the start. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she agreed to marry Humphry in the knowledge of his ongoing infidelities – a reflection of the lack of realistic options for women in the 1930s, I suspect. Thank goodness the situation is very different today. More of Madeline later, but for now, I’d like to return to Bowen, whose energy and artistic temperament pulse through Parry’s book.

In some respects, the affair with Humphry enriches Bowen’s life with new experiences, a new level of emotional depth and intensity that she subsequently draws on for her fiction. (The House in Paris, which I’ve yet to read, seems particularly significant here.) Interestingly, Bowen can compartmentalise her affair with Humphry, keeping it separate from the relative stability of her home life with Alan – who seems, for his part, to be turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s peccadillos. As such, Bowen expects Humphry to do the same, a demand that creates a notable degree of tension in their relationship.  

If you cannot emerge imaginatively from your daily life enough to meet me imaginatively and to keep up this imaginative communication between us, then you and I have no future. But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own. If you did let me go, if later your home life and your marriage ever ceased to satisfy the whole of your nature, then you would have nothing to fall back on but petty muddles and lusts – unless you had found meanwhile, as I should like you to find, another and better Elizabeth. (Letter from EB to HH, Nov 1934, pp. 141–142)

Humphry, it seems, is less able to do this than Elizabeth, and the opportunity of an academic post in India for three years soon takes him overseas, separating him from both Madeline and Elizabeth. It comes at a difficult point in the lovers’ relationship, with Elizabeth taking umbrage over Humphry’s passing attraction to ‘B’, the sister of Elizabeth’s agent, Spencer Curtis Brown. At first, Madeline (pregnant with her second child) stays behind in England, India being no place for a wife or mother. Nevertheless, following the baby’s birth, Madeline leaves the two children with her parents and joins Humphry in India for five months, a trip that results in a rekindling of their relationship. By the time Humphry returns to England in 1938, the affair with Elizabeth is all but over, although their friendship and professional collaboration continue for many years. Madeline too ultimately reconciles her feelings about Humphry’s connection to Bowen, no longer allowing the relationship ‘get’ to her as it did in the past. Consequently, she feels more secure in the marriage, a reflection of her intelligence and an underlying steeliness.

Sadly, Humphry dies suddenly of a heart condition at the age of 46, not long after he has finally gained recognition as a successful writer and an inspirational teacher. (His students in India and elsewhere are full of praise for his lectures, viewing him with a combination of professional respect and immense fondness.)

Somewhat perversely, the loss of Humphry presents Madeline with an opportunity to shine. Her role in cataloguing and editing a definitive collection of Dickens’ letters is widely recognised, bringing the professional appreciation she so richly deserves (ten years after Humphry’s death). It’s a very gratifying picture for Parry to hold on to, one that reflects the steely determination of ‘Linny’, the grandmother she knew and loved.  

Parry has written a beautiful, thoroughly absorbing book here, capturing her travels across the world to reconstruct the emotional landscape of her grandparents’ lives. It’s a journey that takes her to several locations – from the academic circles of Oxford to Bowen’s Court in Ireland to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Bohemian London in the 1930s is vividly evoked, as in the Irish country-house milieu of Bowen’s heritage – not only through the extracts from various letters but via Parry’s elegant commentary too. In summary, this is a fascinating account of a complex tangle of relationships, exquisitely conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity. A truly captivating read for Bowen fans and newbies alike.

The Shadowy Third is published by Duckworth; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

  1. Cosy Books

    My pupils dilated a little bit when I first found out about this book in a review in the Times Literary Supplement. I’m glad you enjoyed it….and you’re in for a treat once you find a copy of The House in Paris!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is quite an astonishing story, all told. And a fascinating puzzle for Julia Parry to piece together – she really has done an excellent job with it. I’m very much looking forward to The House in Paris – my next Bowen, for sure!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I’m glad you like the sound of it. A highly fascinating book from multiple perspectives – not just the story of Humphry and Bowen’s affair but the whole process of constructing the book too. I think you’ll find it interesting from a technical perspective (alongside the lure of the content, of course)!

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Although I hesitate to describe myself as a Bowen fan, it seems that I’ve been slowly but steadily working my way through her novels (I agree that you’ll probablylove The House in Paris). I very much enjoyed the review of this unknown (to me) aspect of Bowen’s life and her involvement in a triangular relationships, the dynamics of which I always find interesting. Although HH doesn’t sound very appealing to me, he certainly must have had something, to attract two such women! While reading your review I kept think that Madeline sounded like a version of Mildred in Pym’s Excellent Women, i.e., the incredibly decent, intelligent and unappreciated partner to a rather selfish, self-absorbed spouse! It’s great to think she finally came into her own!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a great reference point for Madeline! An excellent connection on your part as she *is* sidelined at the beginning through Humphry’s attraction to Bowen. And, as you say, Madeline conducts herself with the utmost grace, refusing to allow any bitterness to fester despite the various indignities and slights she endures. It’s hugely cheering to see how much she achieved in the end though – such a lovely note on which to finish.

      (PS As for Humphry, despite his many failings, he was a highly respected lecturer and tutor. His students in India and elsewhere were full of praise for him, viewing him as engaging and inspirational in ways that other tutors were not. So, maybe some of that allure flowed into his ability to attract the opposite sex? Again, as you say, he must have had something going on to snare two very bright women back in the day!)

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    My goodness, this sounds excellent. I have read all Bowen’s novels, though not her short stories,and she is such an intriguing figure. To have those letters in one’s own family must be quite incredible. I love that first quote,it really emphasises Humphrey’s attitude to the women in his life. It does make you wonder why Madeline put up with it, but as you say, women’s options were more limited then. I think you will love The House in Paris.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a wonderful quote. The notion of Humphry wandering through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him is such an evocative way of expressing it. His approach to relationships with women was clearly problematic from quite an early stage in his adult life. It pains me to think how devastating it must have been for Madeline back then, the difficulties of holding her family together in the face of such dazzling opposition from Bowen.

      EB doesn’t come across as a particularly pleasant person, I have to say – quite cutting and needy in many respects. Although it won’t stop me from reading her fiction – there’s still so much of it for me to discover. And yes, I’m very much looking forward to The House in Paris. It’s great to hear that you think I’ll love it!

      Reply
  4. Rohan Maitzen

    Thanks for this detailed account: this really does sound fascinating! I find Bowen difficult but usually rewarding to read, which reminds me that I got The Death of the Heart as a gift earlier this year and haven’t read it yet!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I loved The Death of the Heart, such a complex yet beautifully structured novel – it’s my favourite Bowen so far! I’m glad you found this an interesting read, Rohan. It really is a fascinating book – not just for the deep dive into Bowen’s affair with Humphry but as a story of reconstruction too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s quite the find, a box of letters including correspondence from someone of Elizabeth Bowen’s stature! As literary discoveries go, it’s a pretty tantalising one. And Parry’s book is beautifully written, too – very engaging and thoughtful, which is not always the case with this kind of account.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    As a Bowen fan, I’ve been wondering about this one, and so I was very keen to see what you thought of it – and I think you’ve sold me! The fact that all three participants are represented is very important, and really you have to feel sorry for Madeline – what a piece of work Humprhy was (and in some ways Bowen was very naughty too, although Madeleine knew what she was marrying and I think perhaps shouldn’t have – as you say, nowadays hopefully women’s expectations are higher). Your post chimes in with what I’ve been thinking about biography generally lately, what with my reading of Rose Macaulay’s biographer and all – and I’m rather glad it’s a family member who took on the writing of this book. It does sound as if it was done with great sensitivity which is admirable. And Parry’s description of her grandfather as “the man with the open-plan heart” is just wonderful!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? A brilliant way of encapsulating Humphry’s mindset…

      I’ve been thinking about you (and Ali) in relation to this book, wondering whether to actively recommend it to you both as Bowen fans – and my answer to that would be ‘yes’. I think there’s just about enough of Bowen in here to keep you engaged from a ‘favourite writer’ POV. And, as you rightly say, given your recent enthusiasms for Dreaming of Rose, I think you’d find it fascinating from a ‘process’ perspective, i.e. the art of piecing together a biography. The fact that Parry is a member of the House family is a pretty significant factor here, but she doesn’t let that emotional attachment to her grandmother get in the way of presenting the broader story with as much sensitivity and objectivity as possible. Plus, it’s really beautifully written. This woman can write! Something that makes all the difference when you’re reading an account like this. It could have been quite ‘dry’ and distant, but Parry has made these individuals come alive for us on the page. I’d be fascinated to hear your take on it!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    I first came across the story of Elizabeth Bowen and Humphry House in ‘The Love-charm of Bombs’ where Madeline was a very peripheral figure and I came away with mixed feelings about EB and HH, but I’d love to know more about Madeline who sounds like a most intriguing person.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, how fascinating that you’ve mentioned The Love-Charm of Bombs! Funnily enough, I’ve had that book on my TBR shelves for a couple of years, so maybe it’s time I gave it a go. It does sound like a fascinating read. Returning to Madeline for a moment, there’s quite a lot about her in here, so I think you’d find it really interesting from this perspective, should you be tempted to discover more.

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        That’s a book I’ve actually posted about but looking at the book again though HH is mentioned I’m running two figures into one. If that makes any sense. Madeline doesn’t appear, but I’m still interested in reading about her!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, interesting! I shall make a mental note of the fact that you’ve written about The Love-Charm, with the intention of saving your piece for later. (Like many bloggers, I tend to avoid reading other reviews of books in my TBR, especially if they’re calling me! :) )

          Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    Although I enjoy Bowen’s writing and she was the reason I noted this biography, your review has me most interested in Madeline. She sounds such an intriguing person, and I’m fascinated by the choices women made in that period.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was a revelation to gain so much insight into her life. Not a woman I would have known very much about without the benefit of Parry’s book. Like you, I’m really interested in the lives of women from this period of British history – the options open to them, the constraints on their liberties, the views of society on their aspirations vs expected roles. It’s a fascinating book, and beautifully written, too.

      Reply
  8. Liz Dexter

    This sounds fascinating, and I’m drawn to the idea of the story of the construction of the book being part of the book. What an amazing resource to find and be able to put together in this way!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a fascinating book from so many different perspectives. And Julia Parry is a very engaging guide to follow on this journey, which makes it all the more pleasurable!

      Reply
  9. gina in alabama

    Also Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie by Victoria Glendinning, and Ritchie’s own memoirs, The Siren Years and several other volumes, might add additional input to the picture. Must add the Parry to my wish list!

    Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    How fascinating. At first glance, I was reminded of the older autobiography of Elizabeth Jane Howard (Slipstream). Not having grown up reading these writers, I tend to get their images confused, especially when there are so many Elizabeths! (Speaking of which, I am reminded of the letters included in Elizabeth Taylor’s biography via the research by Nicola Beauman, but I won’t say anymore as it would reveal some details that might be best enjoyed through the bio directly, although technically I know one can’t say “spoiler” with NF hee hee.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, both of those books — Slipstream and Beauman’s biography of Taylor – have been on my radar for a while. I really must get around to acquiring copies! You’ve made the Beauman sound particularly enticing with that teaser about the letters – just the right amount of information without revealing the crucial content!

      Reply

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