Parry is an intrepid narrator, with a mostly beguiling style (the odd heartfelt outburst aside). She marshals her facts and impressions with energy and assiduity. She reveres the novels of Elizabeth Bowen and cherishes the family connection, but her ultimate loyalty is to her grandmother Madeline, whom she reinstates as a person of sterling character and intellectual capability (Madeline helped to complete her husband’s work on the letters of Charles Dickens after Humphry’s premature death at the age of forty-six). Julia Parry is also sympathetic to Bowen’s definition of love – not married love, indeed, but exhilarating, wayward love, as “a system of doubts and shocks”, with all its attendant stirred-up feeling.
The chronology is somewhat confusing at times as we leap around between letters and time frames, but Parry is an engaging writer, deliciously alert to the echoes and parallels that sometimes feel like ancestral instructions on how to approach the material. Obsessed with hauntings, journeys and houses, Bowen might even approve of this book. Humphry, on the other hand, might not.
Even the most cynical rationalist might suspect this to have been a message from beyond, albeit one that could be variously interpreted. Parry took it as a positive sign of an “electric connection” with her subject and an invitation to explore and expose the truth of something long buried. The result is an essay of rare sensitivity and intelligent reflection, as meticulously composed as it is elegantly written. More robust tastes might find its analysis of personal feeling excessively quivering with self-consciousness – a quality it shares with Bowen’s fictional manner – but at its heart is a fascinating clash of complex characters, and Parry is alive to all its implications and ramifications.
The story of Bowen’s affair with House was under wraps for years. Bowen’s first biographer, Victoria Glendinning, wasn’t allowed to name him. Subsequent biographers have done more with the affair, and now House’s granddaughter, Julia Parry, has given the fullest account yet in an original book that’s partly an edition of their letters and partly a description of her travels in her grandparents’ footsteps. Parry is a spirited narrator who is clearly a great admirer of Bowen’s fiction but isn’t blindsided by this, remaining admirably nuanced as she gives a judicious moment-by-moment account of these complicated characters over the decades.