editor's choice






Stop worrying about your heart and try and have a better brain.”

—Elizabeth Bowen


If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Bowen, The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry is totally unmissable. Drawing on the letters that Bowen and Parry’s grandfather, Humphry House, exchanged from 1933 onwards, the book is a lyrical look at love and infidelity and the secrets that families hold close. The ‘shadowy third’ in question is Madeline, the author’s grandmother, whose presence is noted not just in the letters themselves, but on them, some bearing annotations in her ‘spidery hand’.

In a story one really couldn’t make up, Parry came across a box, in her uncle John’s attic, containing manila envelopes with the initials HH to EB and EB to HH. Six months later following her uncle’s death, Parry took possession of the box and its truths and so began the journey which led to this book, taking us – and Parry literally – to the places Bowen and House inhabited, Oxford, Cambridge, Norfolk, London of the 1930s, the Calcutta (Kolkata) of the dying years of the Raj, Texas and beyond. Along the way, we’re introducd to a host of characters, some familiar, some not, including literary luminaries like Virginia Woolf and Rosamond Lehmann.

This is an extraordinary tale, full of rich detail and historical import, but while House and Bowen’s story is fascinating, the intimate details of their affair mixed in with casual detail about the period, it’s Parry’s writing which weaves it together, interspersing the correspondence between Bowen and House with other research that puts their affair in a greater context and turns the book into something extraordinary.

We’re huge fans of literary biography, but The Shadowy Third is more than that: it’s memoir, history, social commentary, bringing a specific period and three people in particular – Bowen, House and Madeline – into focus. We can’t recommend it enough.


The Shadowy Third | Julia Parry | 25 February 2021 | Duckworth | hardback | £16.99

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Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the virtual book tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours, as always, and to the publisher for sending us a book proof. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Please check out the other wonderful reviewers on this tour and please share them.


Also of interest: ‘’Alice Walker and the power of poetry‘; ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Sylvia Plath on poetry‘; ‘WB Yeats, “The Journey of the Magi“‘; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Remembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

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