An extraordinary love triangle revealed in trove of passionate letters

‘I do not love her in bed. It is you I love’: A literary legend, a betrayed wife and an extraordinary love triangle – as revealed in a trove of passionate letters between novelist Elizabeth Bowen, her lover and his wife Madeline, found after 90 years

  • Teacher Julia Parry uncovered her grandfather’s letters to his wife and his mistress in an old box in the attic
  • Humphry House’s mistress was the renowned Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen
  • For decades they were locked away but are now being published in a new book that reveals a fascinating, and at times painful, literary love triangle

The words sizzle on the page: ‘I do not love her in bed. It is you I love.’

And their explicitness is, at times, eyebrow-raising: ‘Why did you not tell me when we first slept together that you were a virgin? . . . had I known, with what more tender slowness I would have come to you!’

Just imagine, for a moment, finding letters like these in an old box in the attic — then realising the author was none other than your grandfather. And that he wasn’t writing passionately just to his wife, but also to his mistress.

That was the extraordinary situation in which Julia Parry found herself. And the papers of her grandfather, the academic Humphry House, are even more tantalising because they also contain the ardent replies from his mistress, the celebrated novelist Elizabeth Bowen, as well as wounded missives from his wronged wife, Madeline.

Presumably Humphry, who died in 1955, did not foresee for a moment that his wife — who outlived him — would one day read all his soul-searching letters, never mind that, nearly 90 years on, his granddaughter would also read of his personal exploits.

Yet so it came to pass. For decades the letters were locked away in the loft of Humphry and Madeline’s son John, before being passed on to Julia in 2012 when he died.

Pictured: Humphry House (centre) with Elizabeth (left), his wife Madeline (second from left) and Elizabeth’s cousin Noreen Colley

Now she has published these electrifying billets-doux in a book which reveals a fascinating, and at times painful, literary love triangle.

‘When I first opened the box, I was greeted by a chaos of paper,’ says Julia, a secondary school teacher. ‘Once I’d sorted through, I discovered we’d ended up with both sides of the correspondence.

‘Elizabeth had left Humphry’s letters behind during a house move and the new homeowner had returned them to my uncle John. The whole relationship, for so long the stuff of family whisperings, was there at my fingertips.

‘My grandfather, who had died before I was born, became a tangible presence. I was starstruck by Elizabeth — one of my favourite novelists — but felt for my grandmother, who died over 40 years ago. I have childhood memories of her wearing a tweed suit, smoking, her eyes bright behind her glasses. What impact did the affair have on her? And why did she preserve her rival’s love letters?

‘My concerns were for my grandmother. And reading her letters, I had the unsettling feeling of reading over her shoulder.’

Humphry was 24 when he first met Elizabeth, who was married and nine years his senior, at an Oxford University luncheon in 1933. The letters begin just after then.

Over the course of that year — and indeed the following two decades — the pair orchestrated illicit meetings in London, Oxford and at her family home in Ireland. All the while, Humphry maintained his relationship with the forbearing Madeline, whom he would marry in December 1933.

Humphry, it’s clear, is something of a cad, promising Madeline at one point that, regardless of marriage, he will indulge in ‘violent and casual physical attraction to all kinds of women’.

‘I find some of the letters both gripping and awful,’ says Julia. ‘I’m struck by Humphry’s selfishness and insensitivity — and his frankness about his infidelity. My grandmother was expected not just to tolerate it but to understand. He even demanded that the two women meet each other.’

Pictured: Elizabeth at her ancestral home in County Cork, Ireland in 1962

The affair was at its most intense between 1933 and 1935 — with Madeline and Elizabeth painfully aware of each other’s existence —but rumbled on for years, with the meetings becoming gradually more platonic and less frequent until Humphry’s early death at the age of 46.

While tales of Humphry’s liaison with a famous writer were passed down the generations, it was only when Julia set out to piece the story together in full that all the details emerged.

Here, this extraordinary tale of love and betrayal is told through the letters themselves. So which woman do you sympathise with: the betrayed wife, or the helplessly romantic mistress?

August 1933

Madeline darling, 

I am on the way towards two things: (a) being drunk for the first time for months; (b) being angry with you for not writing to me . . .

A thing I meant to talk about in one or other of my earlier letters, but did not mention because I was shy (and now the shyness is gone because I am towards being drunk) — is — are you consciously jealous when I talk of my attractions to other women?

Chiefly, at present, are you jealous of my feeling for Elizabeth? This is a solid and extremely valuable thing for me, and I think a permanent one; the history of it you know, but you have not commented on it, so that I do not know what your attitude is.

Inevitably you will meet her. I have already told her that you and I are going to be married, and she says it makes her extremely happy. I want to know how you feel.

Secondly, I cannot cure myself, even now our marriage is settled, of violent and casual physical attraction to all kinds of women whom I meet or see. I may even do sensual acts which are technically ‘unfaithful’ but would you be jealous of those? To me they will not be betrayals or falsifications, but trivial and regrettable incidents . . .

Good night, darling. I wish we were together tonight.

My love, Humphry 

Humphry was then appointed Classics lecturer at the University College of the South West of England, Exeter. Away from both women, he encouraged them to meet each other — which they did, over a glass of sherry, in London. For Humphry it was important that the triangle had, as far as he could see, no sharp edges.

October 25, 1933

Elizabeth my dear, 

I am going to write you a hurried note . . .

First about Madeline . . . You are right in finding her ‘moral’ qualities — courage, simplicity, honesty, etc — her strongest.

It is these things that make her (apart from the charm, which is very real) so much a worthwhile woman; but hitherto she has lacked the best sphere for them and squandered them on second-raters. Instinctively, she has always gone with people inferior to herself: it is difficult to understand.

The lack of ‘social personality’ is difficult: she rarely contributes anything to a general conversation which is of real value. I think it is marriage she needs.


In the 48 hours before his marriage, which took place in Exeter on December 21, 1933, Humphry wrote to both women.

December 19, 1933

Madeline darling, 

What hotel are you staying in tomorrow night? . . . There’s still a fearful muddle about times . . .

The quite definite things are these:

1. I have arranged the wedding here at the Registry Office for 2 o’clock on Thursday. You must catch the 9 o’clock train from Paddington on Thursday morning, arriving Exeter 12.35. I will meet you at S. David’s Sta.

2. Between then and lunch you will have time finally to decide what wedding ring you are to wear for life, as I shall have made a provisional selection. I am choosing very thin gold ones: no platinum or thickness.

3. About 1.0 or 1.15 we have lunch at the Clarence: 2.0 wedding.

4. Short gap for love-making.

5. We catch 3.25 for London, arriving 6.50 Paddington.

6. Arrangements separate dinners, later call by me as already suggested . . .

I love you a very great deal: I look on this as the confirmation of your everlasting mistresshood: you may be a mother as often as you care to arrange: but do not ever be a wife! But it may be I sometimes want a wifely mistress! Darling, I love you.

Today Elizabeth wrote to bless us . . . I was glad, because in some odd way I seem to have come into her life rather. I do not love her in bed. It is you I love.

Dear, Humphry 

December 20, 1933

Elizabeth my dear,

Your excellent letter reached me yesterday morning . . .

Yes; I am sure I am doing a good thing. We shall be happy. All the strains and changes of our relationship have left few gaps: we both know what this marriage will be like . . .

In a few months I shall be very changed. But I shall not be changed in my feeling for you. All along you have known that would not really change from its first quality and direction: we are complementary in many things. I admire you, love you admiringly, deeply.

Good night, my dear; Good night Humphry 

Early on in their marriage, Madeline asked Humphry whether he wanted a divorce so he could marry Elizabeth. Humphry roared with laughter and exclaimed, ‘Good heavens, no!’ He wanted the best of both worlds. By summer 1934, Madeline was pregnant with the first of what would be three children, much to her rival’s distress.

July 23, 1934

My dear Elizabeth, 

Your letter came today, and must have an immediate answer: I do not like, and do not wholly understand, the charges against me for lacking ‘simplicity’ because I did not tell you that Madeline was having a child.

To begin with, you are right in thinking that one of the reasons I did not mention it was I thought you would be hurt . . . You did not like to be reminded of my marriage . . .

When I married Madeline we agreed we should have no children for two years: we took a flat (on an agreement until next March) which could not be lived in by more than two people. All contraceptive arrangements were in Madeline’s hands, and she said they were good enough: yet a child was begotten — a child I had not intended to exist, nor provided to house . . .

I do not resent the child. I look forward to it. I have a full share of fatherly instincts . . . But for ‘simplicity’ — directness, why, Elizabeth, did you not tell me when we first slept together that you were a virgin? I thought you had some malformation. For you said only: ‘I am as difficult as a virgin.’ I could not know you were one: and had I known, with what more tender slowness I would have come to you, and how much less gloom would have sat across that breakfast tray!

My dear Humphry, 

The above letter and the reference to his lover’s virginity exposes his lover’s marriage to Alan Cameron, later Secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting, as a sexless union — something Elizabeth, unsurprisingly, was loath to discuss. At the end of the month, Humphry contrived to bring his two loves together yet again. It did not go well, and later letters show Elizabeth’s resistance to any familiarity with Madeline.

November 8, 1934

Dear Humphry, 

I do not want to stay with you and Madeline because your daily life with her is something which it would be most insincere of me to pretend to have any part in . . . But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own . . .

If you cut away our sensuous feeling for one another, there would be nothing left. While this sensuous feeling exists I cannot be your and Madeline’s family friend . . .

Write soon, Elizabeth

When war broke out in 1939, Humphry considered becoming a conscientious objector, but instead became a trooper in the Tanks Corps of the Royal Armoured Corps in 1940 and was initially stationed in Salisbury. Madeline remained in London, but contact between husband and wife in the early part of the war was fitful. One of few letters in this time shows Madeline’s angst.

April 1941

My dear,

You’ve read in the papers, I expect, that Wednesday night’s raid on London was the biggest of the war: and we realised it very clearly while it was happening. Planes started coming over before 9pm, and there wasn’t a moment’s pause till 1.30am.

It wasn’t just that as the sound of one plane faded away to the north another could be heard coming up from the south, but that the whole sky seemed full of them the whole time. I’ve never heard anything like it. It was horrifying.

I hadn’t any real fears for our own personal safety, for it was obvious the bombs weren’t intended for us; but the horror lay in sitting helpless under that roaring stream as it went northward to work destruction and death. And all the next day seemed blackened and awful. But I’ve recovered now . . .

Love, Madeline 

Humphry was made an officer in 1941, only for his army career to grind to a halt a year later. An attack of lumbago (lower back pain) put paid to any chance of active service. On his way home, Humphry stayed with Elizabeth in London, and later made an extraordinary suggestion to Madeline.

March 17, 1942

Dear Madeline, 

Saturday and Sunday at Elizabeth’s were splendid. Good talk and good company I do need . . . She is a really great woman, and there is now no possibility of anything in my friendship for her affecting relations with you in any way. She suggested that when it’s possible we should take the children with her to the zoo and then to tea at Clarence Terrace. A great plan for my next seven days’ leave.

Love Humphry, 

The affair between Humphry and Elizabeth was over, and he saw no reason why they couldn’t all just be friends. Months later, Madeline addressed the matter in a letter for the first time.

May 28, 1942

My dear,

I’ve not taken steps to see Elizabeth in the last six years for the simple reason that I’ve not had the slightest wish to, nor supposed that she had the slightest wish that I should.

This last meeting with her was the first I’ve ever really enjoyed. And I enjoyed it because I had got out of the old pattern in my ways of thinking of her. I admire her a lot; but I don’t consider her faultless; and I know where I get on and off in any relations I may have with her. Yet you talk as if I were a simple, impressionable, flatterable child who is bowled over by another woman… I did like seeing her that zoo day.

But your remarks on the meeting belong to the sort of attitude which buggers things up.

Love, darling Madeline 


After the war, the relationship between Elizabeth and Humphry thinned to an occasional lunch in London and, in 1948, Humphry was awarded a lectureship in English at Oxford. Elizabeth’s last surviving letter to Humphry came weeks after her husband’s death. She thanked him for his letter and ‘kindness’, expressing a hope to see him again.

Less than three years later, Humphry died of a heart attack aged 46, survived by Madeline and their children: Rachel, then 20, Helen, 18, and John, nine. Julia Parry is one of nine grandchildren he never met. But his passionate spirit lives on in his letters.

  • The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen, by Julia Parry, is published by Duckworth, £16.99

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