The Love-charm of Bombs, by Lara Feigel

lovecharmthumbnailThe Love Charm of Bombs is a personal and literary history of five writers — Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke, Rose Macaulay and Hilde Spiel — and how they lived and loved during the Blitz on London during World War II.

Bowen and Greene became air raid wardens, Yorke a firefighter and Macaulay an ambulance driver. Spiel, an Austrian refugee and young mother, was frequently alone and despondent at home in Wimbledon and Oxford, where he husband dispatched her and their child for safety from the bombing.

Author Lara Feigel draws upon an exhaustive review of the authors’ letters, diaries and novels in her treatise, which moves fastest when placing the characters within historical events and is sometime tedious while scouring, at length, the authors’ novels for autobiographical insights into their tortured love lives.

A character in one of Yorke’s novels lamented that “war, she thought, was sex.”

And they had a lot of sex, with anybody but their spouses, it seems.

The men dispatched their wives and children to places like Oxford, ostensibly for their safety. Not coincidentally, however, this also cleared the way for their affairs.

“Liberated by the atmosphere of unmarriedness,” Feigel writes, “wartime Londoners fell in love quickly and passionately” as death “became a real and constant possibility” during night after night of German bombing.

Macaulay’s affair with Gerald O’Donovan at least predated the war and was a life-long affair.  But O’Donovan was married, and when he died the only way she could publicly express her brief was in an anonymous obituary she wrote for The Times, signed “a friend.”

Bowen married Alan Cameron in 1923, when she was 24 years old.  By all accounts, he was kind and sensitive, but they never had sex.  Bowen was still a virgin 10 years into their marriage when she began an affair with literary critic Henry House in 1933. Later she would have affairs with Goronwy Rees, Sean O’Faolain and then the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie.

Although she remained married to Cameron until his death in 1952, Ritchie, whom she met during the war, was the love of her life.  Unfortunately, Ritchie floated from mistress to mistress, though he regularly floated back to Bowen until he married a cousin and the relationship with Bowen gradually lost its allure years after the war.

Greene was a tormented writer, so convinced of his inevitable death in the war that he fearlessly prowled the streets as an air raid warden during the bombing, sometimes with one of his mistresses. Greene was incapable of any sort of fidelity. He even cheated on his mistress. 

Eventually he was so miserable, he confessed all to his wife and to his first mistress because he wanted to cleanly put them behind him for a relationship with Catherine Walston, an American in an open marriage to a fabulously wealthy Brit and no intention of ever divorcing him.

Yorke’s wife, Dig, which might well have stood for dignified, had been brought up to be an upper-class hostess and was well prepared to tolerate her husband’s affairs, even to the point of appearing the graciously welcome his mistresses into her home and at parties.

Yorke, whose pen name was Henry Green, remained loyal to Dig in a pliable sort of way.  When one of his mistresses, Mary Keene, turned up pregnant, he withdrew and passed her off on a friend. Late in life, he would write to that same friend that the past turns “one’s blood into a pile of, in my case, guilt and regret and shame.”

The relationships of these five writers and their friends are as complicated as the map of the London Underground.  Think of each character as a rail line, interesting other lines at regular intervals.  Fortunately, if, as you read this book, you’re having trouble keeping it all straight, you can flip to the index, which includes a section on “relationships” under each author’s name.

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