Ritchie was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 23 September 1906. His father, a lawyer and 25 years older than his mother, died when he was 10. He was educated at a series of schools, at least one in England, before moving on to spend a considerable amount of time at universities in Halifax, Oxford and Harvard. While still a teenager, he had received an unexpected letter from Sir Robert Borden, then Canada’s Prime Minister and his father’s former friend. In the letter, Borden explained that he was hoping to set up a Canadian foreign service, and he suggested that Ritchie might like to consider working there. Thus, in mid-1934, Ritchie joined the Department of External Affairs. His first posting abroad came in 1936, to Washington, and then in early 1939 he was transferred to London.
According to Ritchie (in The Siren Years - see below), wartime London was a forcing ground for love and friendship, and so it proved for himself. In 1941, he met and fell in love with the writer Elizabeth Bowen. She had been married for 18 years, and was seven years older than Ritchie who had never been married. Their relationship would last more than 30 years, for the rest of Bowen’s life, surviving past the death of Bowen’s husband and through Ritchie’s own marriage (to Sylvia Smellie), though they would never spend more than a week or so together at any one time. After the war, in the mid-1950s, Ritchie was promoted to ambassador in Germany.
Subsequently, Ritchie served as Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1958-1962), as ambassador in Washington (1962-1966), and as High Commissioner in London (1967-1971). On retiring he returned to Ottawa though he continued as a special adviser to the Privy Council. He also began editing his diaries for publication. He died in 1995. There is a very little detailed information about Ritchie readily available online, despite his prominence as a Canadian diplomat and diarist, but see Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Independent’s obituary, or this Robert Fulford article.
The first collection of diary extracts Ritchie put together was published by Macmillan (as were all his diaries) in 1974 under the title The Siren Years: Undiplomatic Diaries, 1937-1945. See Googlebooks for a preview and The Captive Reader for a review and extracts. An Appetite for Life: The Education of a Young Diarist, 1924-1927 followed in 1977 (see Googlebooks for a preview), as did Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962 in 1981, and Storm Signals: More Undiplomatic Diaries 1962-1971 in 1983. A compendium of the undiplomatic diaries was brought out in 2008 by McClellan & Steward - see Amazon. Also in 2008, Simon & Schuster published Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries, 1941-1973, as edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson. See The Guardian for an article by Glendinning on her book.
In his foreword to The Siren Years, Ritchie explains how he came to be a diarist: ‘It was with adolescence that the diary addiction fixed its yoke on me - a yoke which in the succeeding fifty years I have never been able entirely to shake off, although there have been merciful intervals of abstinence. The habit had begun even earlier - had sprouted furtively when I was a schoolboy. Its seed was perhaps already sown when I would write on the front of school books, Charles Stewart Almon Ritchie, King’s Collegiate School, Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada, North America, The World, The Universe, September 23rd, 1918, 3:17 p.m. - an early compulsion to fix myself in space and in time. Once given over to this mania there was no cure for it. With obstinate obsessiveness I continued to scribble away. Now the toppling piles of my old diaries are mountains of evidence against me, but I still postpone the moment to destroy them. Their writing and subsequent concealment were intentionally secretive - to have them discovered and read would have meant to be caught in the practice of “solitary vice.” ’
The following extracts from Ritchie’s diaries are all taken from Love’s Civil War except the first, which comes from The Siren Years.
28 September 1938.
‘We are now on the very edge of war. Already my feelings have changed since I last wrote. Perhaps I am already beginning to suffer from war blindness. I feel more and more part of my generation and my country and less an individual.
The war offers us no ideal worth dying for - we make no sacrifice for a noble cause. We fight with no faith in the future. It is too late to pretend (though we shall pretend) that we are defending the sanctity of international obligations or the freedom of individuals. We are fighting because we cannot go on any longer paying blackmail to a gangster. Whoever wins, we who belong to what we call “twentieth century civilization” are beaten before we start. We have had our chance since 1918 to make a more reasonable and safer world. Now we have to go and take our punishment for having missed that chance. We have willed the ends but we have not willed the means to attain those ends. That must be our epitaph.
Here in America it is “business as usual.” Tonight I have been listening to the radio for hours. It reflects the stream of normal American existence, the advertising, the baseball games, the swing music, but every few moments this stream is interrupted by a press bulletin from Europe. More mobilizations. Hitler may march before morning. These warnings from another world give Americans shivers down their spine, make them draw the curtains closer and huddle around their own fireside thanking God that they are safe from the storm outside.’
18 October 1941
‘My bed smells of her over-sweet violet scent. It is queer that she uses such an obvious scent - the perfume that goes with blondes and floating veils and sentiment . . .
I am reading The Death of the Heart in her special edition. It is an exact description of her house and of her husband. The position of the sofa in the drawing-room, the electric fire in his ‘study’ are all described exactly as they are. What is alarming is the husband is an unsparing portrait of A. I read this novel with most curious feelings as ‘a work of the imagination’; it has been destroyed for me by my knowledge of the particular circumstances. . . . She took that from here, she copied that turn of speech, that must be so-and-so, these thoughts go through my mind as I am reading. It is like eating an elaborate dish after seeing the materials of which it is made up lying about in the kitchen, or being so near the ballet that you can see the make-up.’
20 February 1947
‘V happy with E. We have spent the weekend huddled over the weak radiator and the whiskey bottle or on the enormous ‘made for love’ bed. It’s like life on board ship, we sally out on the windswept deck-like boulevards for a ‘blow’ and are glad to be back in this cabin-like flat - which more than anything else is like a suite on a luxury liner.’
16 October 1949 [Hotel de la Paix, Geneva]
‘To understand one’s own destiny, to have some framework in which to see this floating shifting mass of experience, to chart these currents, these shocks and depths and dangerous rocks, not to die without knowledge. Oh E, how can I live separated from you? What have I done to us? If I stopped caring, I should never care for anything. If I stopped fearing this, I should fear nothing again. . . In a dim way I like this feeling of being alone and taking up this monologue. I miss my wife. I want her. I am waiting for her. Yet this time of recuperation is quietly, sadly pleasant.’
9 February 1952
‘I think that part of my reaction of boredom and distaste for Spender’s book comes from being reminded by it of countless pages of similar self-absorption in my own diaries. When I first knew E, I was surprised and rather disconcerted by her lack of concern with her own ‘interesting personality’. I found it difficult to accept when she, the leading psychological novelist of the day, told me that she was not interested in people and their motives and characters. I now understand what she meant. The exercise no longer amuses me. In fact it is only from obstinacy that I write this private diary at all.’
18 August 1952
‘With me love for a woman is always linked with a need to betray that love; a compulsion which I dread and desire. But there are times when that interminable dialogue of marriage seems interminable. It gives one a feeling of pure pain to think that it must go on and on and on. I am pretty sure that I should feel that whoever I had married.’
17 June 1956
‘Sad, lonely, undemanding letter from E. The truth is that I am anaesthetized to this existence, even quite enjoy it. Someone said I look ten years younger. I am all right if I keep going - much more cheerful than this diary shows.’
11 March 1957
‘I cannot describe the state I was in yesterday (can it have been only yesterday?) when I flew back from Ireland - the hallucinatory depression, the complete undermining of all confidence, the corroding guilt and sorrow. I never expected to feel all this again. E says that it is a ‘natural’ consequence of our parting, but it went much deeper than that. . . She says she can’t bear to think of me sealed away from life. I can’t bear to think of that myself, and it is true; but if that last day is life, can I bear it? She says she feels it is some deficiency in her love which drove me to it, but isn’t it some deficiency in me? No, this strain was too great. I cannot forgive myself for my impatience, my unlovingness, my dry irritability, my inability to accept. Yet I can entirely forgive myself. I understand and must never forget that all my cut and dried plans are the amusement of a bored man and bear no relation to reality. No, it was heart-breaking. How can I bear the memory of that last morning at the Shelbourne. How can I ever forget it. Surely I can’t go on as I did before, yet I feel that is just what I will do; that the scales will form over my eyes, that merciful banality will set me off from life in my Cologne Nursing Home. Oh Elizabeth!’
The Diary Junction