‘He expected a past as plain as the present, simply a present elsewhere.’Elizabeth Bowen
On Writing The Shadowy Third
“Oh, God, don’t let it be a memoir!” groaned a friend of mine, rolling his eyes. I assured him that it would not be, that my book would be firmly focused on the unseen letters between Elizabeth Bowen and Humphry House. And indeed when I began work on The Shadowy Third, my sense of the importance of Bowen’s correspondence, in terms of literary history, was overpowering.
Yet it was impossible to separate Bowen’s story from that of my family. A photograph taken in 1938 of Bowen and my grandparents at Bowen’s Court (her home in Ireland) just proved that point. The repercussions of the relationship between House and Bowen had rippled through three generations of my family; I was in the narrative, like it or not.
I soon realised what a gift Bowen was for my endeavour; as a writer, she is obsessed with ghosts, letters, and the family house (or House, in my case). Most importantly, she believes in the transformative nature of travel. When I began to visit the locations in the letters, my book changed for good. Extraordinary coincidences, spooky encounters, thrilling discoveries were all mine. I could have been a character in a Bowen short story. Maybe I was.
Finding these letters changed my life. I saw immediately what a great book could be made from the material, and that, as a family member and lover of literature, I was uniquely placed to do so.