The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen
By Julia Parry
What it’s about?
A sudden death in the family delivers Julia a box of love letters. Dusty with age, they reveal an illicit affair between the celebrated twentieth-century Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and Humphry House – Julia’s grandfather.
So begins an intriguing quest to discover and understand this affair, one with profound repercussions for
Julia’s family, not least for her grandmother, Madeline. This is a book about how stories are told in real life, in fiction and in families.
Inspired by Bowen’s own obsession with place and memory, Julia travels to all the locations in the letters –
from Kolkata to Cambridge and from Ireland to Texas. The reader is taken from the rarefied air of Oxford in
the 1930s, to the Anglo-Irish Big House, to the last days of Empire in India and on into the Second World War.
The fascinating unpublished correspondence, a wealth of family photographs, and a celebrated supporting cast that includes Isaiah Berlin and Virginia Woolf add further richness to this unique work.
The Shadowy Third opens up a lost world, one with complex and often surprising attitudes to love and sex,
work and home, duty and ambition, and to writing itself. Weaving present-day story telling with historical
narrative, this is a beautifully written debut of literary and familial investigation from an original and
captivating new voice.
What I think:
This book is something a bit different- partly biography and partly a journey of discovery.
Clearing out her uncle’s attic, writer Julia Parry finds a box of old love letters dating from the 1930s. The letters were between her grandfather Humphry House and writer Elizabeth Bowen. Usually the stacks contain both sides of the correspondence. They revealed a complicated and passionate affair as Humphry navigates his relationships with his lover and his wife Madeline.
There is so much that is fascinating about the story which is reveals through both the letters between the people involved and their friends, Bowen’s writing and Parry’s journeys to revisit the places mentioned and former homes.
The central love triangle explores relationships that are complicated and yet co-dependent – surprisingly modern attitudes to sex and marriage.
Elizabeth is married – her marriage provides her with companionship, security, respectability and an element of freedom. She surrounds herself with intelligent and interesting people and travels between Oxford, London and Ireland.
Humphry comes across as a young man who is lost and trying to find himself. Church, teaching, academic research – he is trying to find his passion. He’s also torn between his love for two women. Elizabeth captivates him and stimulates him intellectually; Madeline is a woman he can marry and have a family with.
Madeline is the “character” I found most interesting. She knows about Humphry’s flaws and selfishness and yet still agrees to marry him. Elizabeth is a part of their marriage thatbshe has to accept even when it is clear it makes her unhappy.
Both of women are jealous of each other and their differing relationships with Humphry and yet are civilised and respectful. As Humphry and Madeline have their own family and travel and he experiences success with his own writing, his relationship with Elizabeth changes but the friendship endures.
I particularly like the way that Julia Parry narrates her own experiences with the research and writing of this book. Her travels ti the various homes and locations bring them alive. The reader feels a part of her own journey of discovery.
This is such an interesting book and the writer weaves personal reflection, letters, biography and literary criticism in such a captivating way. You do not need to have read Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction or the literary criticism of House to enjoy this multi-layered work.
About the author:
Julia Parry was brought up in West Africa and educated at St Andrews and Oxford. She teaches English literature and has worked as a writer and photographer for a variety of
publications and charities.
She lives in London and Madrid. This is her first book.
Thank you to Duckworth Books for the gifted copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to be a part of this fascinating blog tour.