Second Thoughts: Cracks in the crust of life: Victoria Glendinning looks back on her portrait of Elizabeth Bowen (Phoenix pounds 7.99)
Saturday 18 December 1993
I had written only one previous book, and had read few biographies. I had given little thought to the theory, practice or ethics of the genre. I was inexperienced as a researcher, and under Curtis Brown's unpleasant thumb.
Elizabeth Bowen had been in her grave only two years when I began, and her friends were protective both of her and of themselves. The Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, who loved her very much, found it hard to talk about her and felt able to give me only a few selected passages from her letters to him. Sean O'Faolain, a former lover, was dramatically cagey. The widow of Humphry House, another lover, drove a hard bargain with me, which I meekly accepted.
I do quite like the sharpness, clarity and and economy of the end result. But the texture is thin. I had not yet learnt to question and evaluate my subject's autobiographical writings, or others' accounts of her; I should have spent more time with her Irish family and friends, and found out more about her husband. I did not seek out every possible informant and 'survivor', or go to America to interview her friends there. Luckily some of them contacted me spontaneously.
Bowen, an urbane and civilised woman, a 'lady', wrote from deep knowledge about 'life with the lid on', and about the chaos that was revealed when the lid came off. She wrote about 'the cracks in the crust of the surface of life', and the terror beneath. I did not raise that lid high enough, or look deep enough into the cracks in that crust. At the time, my personal life was in disorder. Order and continuity were what I needed - as, on one important level, did she.
There has been some order and continuity, in that I went on writing biography, and other things, learning the trade on the hoof. Roy Foster, who first suggested the book to me in a pub on Gray's Inn Road, remains a great friend, as does Hermione Lee, then unknown to me, who treated it astringently in what was her first published review. Elizabeth Bowen now seems to me sufficiently lively and readable - and a typically Seventies mixture of naivety and confidence, qualities we all have less of in the Nineties.
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