There is a fascinating photograph of Elizabeth Bowen apparently walking away from her house, Bowen’s Court. She is striding energetically forward, wearing her habitual tailored tweed skirt, and clearly holding an equally habitual supply of cigarettes. The house is partially masked by massed trees, but it presses into shot over her left shoulder. It looks almost as if she has dreamed it up. For her, Bowen’s Court was both an aminating myth that sustained her from her childhood ‑ even after it was gone ‑ and an ever-present drain on her capacity to earn money. She commented once that “Bowen’s Court is my next of kin”. And that house is fictionalised as Danielstown House in The Last September ‑ her second novel and the one she described as “nearest to my heart”. It was published in 1929, and set in 1921 Here she depicts what she called a “microcosmic society, isolated and outlandish” ‑ the society of her own people, the Anglo-Irish gentry.
The first few pages present the emotional, social and physical setting of the novel. The story hinges on arrivals and departures. It begins with the Montmorencys arriving along the avenue of Danielstown House, the Co Cork home of Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor, being greeted on the steps with excited talk of attenuated family ties. To travel along the avenue is to move into a space, at once precious and beleaguered, which stands at a tangent to the surrounding country, and to mount the steps is to be enfolded in hospitality.
Adults speak for the principal character, Lois. “And this is the niece!” exclaims Mrs Montmorency. And her uncle answers for her: “‘She’s left school now,’ said Sir Richard proudly.” Lady Naylor’s hospitality, her insistence on the Montmorencys having tea, is undercut by some almost throwaway questions: “No trouble? Nobody at the crossroads? Nobody stopped you?” carrying an unease about noises off, as, on another night, from the steps, they hear “a motor, straining cautiously out of the silence”.
The house and its surroundings are strong protagonists. There is menace in how “behind the trees, pressing in from the open and empty country like an invasion, the orange bright sky crept and smouldered”. And “the mansion piled itself up in silence over the voices”.
The novelist and short story writer Sean O’Faolain first met Bowen in 1937, prompted to ask for an introduction by his admiration for The Last September. In the same year, she had selected his story “Midsummer Night Madness” (about the IRA burning down a big house during the Troubles) for The Faber Book of Modern Stories. She found he “cut ice” ‑ her code for men who attracted her ‑ and described him as “astute and savage”. He considered her “farouche”. Drawn together also by their admiration for European literature, they began an intermittent but intense affair. On August 31st, 1939, when, according to O’Faolain’s memoir, Vive Moi, “we lay, passion-sated, at (2), Clarence Terrace, her London home, Alan [Cameron, Elizabeth’s husband] rings from the office to tell her that the British fleet has been ordered to mobilise, which means war.” The outbreak of war led to a change of direction in the writing lives they each pursued with such dedication ‑ for Bowen, London during the Blitz gave her the setting for one of her most achieved novels ‑ The Heat of the Day. O’Faolain however felt stranded in a cramped and censorious Ireland.
Their backgrounds were strikingly opposed: she, heir to a big house, who “had taught herself to imagine Bowen’s Court in flames”: he, the son of an RIC constable, had joined the IRA ‑ the same IRA that was burning houses like Bowen’s Court. Vividly aware of these ironies, O’Faolain urged Bowen to write about a Danielstown House that “was at least aware of its surroundings and perhaps regretted the division” and where the two worlds of The Last September ‑ Danielstown and the cottage of the Naylors’ IRA neighbour Peter Connor – “would be joined”. She was relaxed about his IRA past, acknowledging in her book Bowen’s Court how houses like hers, “ignobly gained and sustained by privilege”, were a provocation to local people. He was relaxed about her espionage activities in neutral Ireland during the war. When he learned of them, afterwards, he remarked that war did terrible things to people. Their friendship continued till her death in 1973.
O’Faolain admired how in The Last September Bowen explores complex relationships. The relationship between Anglo-Irish families like the Naylors and their neighbours, like Peter Connor’s family, on the one hand, and their relationship with the English garrison, (which includes Gerald Lesworth, a subaltern, the most junior rank of officer, who is in love with Lois), on the other, is handled with sure-footed astringent humour. This is remarkable for a novel that ends with the death of an attractive young character, and the destruction of Danielstown by fire.
O’Faolain commented that in Bowen’s fiction, “one longs occasionally for a good warm, passionate howl, like an Italian woman baying over her dead child”. Strong appetites marked Bowen’s life, and in her novels, her fastidious language encages often violent conflicts. She insisted that “life with the lid on was more frightening” than life with the lid off.
On a call to the Connors’ home, Lois shows both warmth and tact. She enquires about Peter’s sick mother – “give her my love”. When her question “any news about Peter?” brings an evasive answer, she is sure he is on the run and hopes he won’t be caught. Later, as Sir Richard decides to send some grapes to Mrs Connor, Gerald is horrified. “His duty, so bright and abstract, had suddenly come under the shadowy claw of the personal.”
Bowen gives the younger Anglo-Irish characters ‑ Lois and her allies, her cousin Laurence and the sophisticated Marda (another visitor to the house), a fuller awareness of the world beyond the steps and the avenue than the elder Naylors. After a fatal attack on an RIC barracks, Lois questions “why when life should be so full of such violent realness, there seems nothing for me but clothes and what people say”. Laurence loves to shock and comments that he “should love to be here when this house burns, and we shall all be so careful not to notice”. When Marda and Lois surprise a sleeping IRA man in the ruined mill, they speak afterwards not of his bitter greeting, “you had better keep in the house while y’have it” but rather of their having sworn not to give him away, and with characteristic bravado, Marda laughs off the slight wound to her hand from his pistol, calling it an accident.
Sir Richard and Lady Myra mostly resort to denial. Concerns surface, but in oblique and therefore hilarious commentary. Sir Richard protests at “a thing like a coffee-pot I saw backing into a gate, just when we’ve got the horses accustomed to motors”. Having so many soldiers around is, he claims, “unsettling to the people, naturally”, and he fears for his plantation if they start digging for weapons. He believes that things will “settle down when the evenings draw in more”. Lady Myra, more astute, describes a conversation with Mrs Gregan (who supplies them with apples): “I said to her this morning ‘some of your friends would like us to go, you know,’ and she got so indignant she nearly wept. ‘It’s the way the young ones do be a bit wild, that’s all.’ And I really agreed with her.” Danielstown relies on the postman’s arrival each morning for news of offensives and raids. Almost offhandedly, as if looking the other way, the Naylors question Gerald, who simply quotes the Morning Post ‑ unpopular with them because it is thought to exaggerate the scale of the Troubles. At the tennis party, where, someone comments, “half Ireland is here”, perfunctory discussion of the deaths in the RIC barracks takes place only “at tea, between tennis”.
A very different Irish character, Mrs Fogarty, a Catholic and an ardent unionist, is a comical yet endearing figure. Her house, with her collection of hideous Union Jack cushions and photos of young officers dead in the Great War, is a place for the garrison and the Anglo-Irish families to meet, and it is here that Lady Myra confronts Gerald about Lois.
Bowen relied on her loyal and long-serving Bowens Court cook, Molly O’Brien, and her assistant, Mary Dwane. The Danielstown cook, Kathleen “infers much of any situation from her mistress’s manner”. When Lady Myra announces that there will be an officer coming to tea, Kathleen, “refolding her hands royally, asked would she slap up a sally-nun? On the whole, Lady Naylor thought drop-cakes. Kathleen immediately placed the officer.”
One of the ceremonies at Bowen’s Court was the annual settling of accounts with the local shopkeeper, Mrs Cleary. The order was invariably a hundred cigarettes every three days, delicious food and lots of drink. Bowen saw her Anglo-Irish tribe as having been “sustained by style”, which she honoured in the unfailingly generous hospitality remarked on by her English visitors and bravely maintained from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The fictional counterparts in The Last September have the same proud code of welcoming guests. Lady Myra is troubled by a shortage of raspberries at the Danielstown tennis party, because Lois invited so many people without telling her. She gives instructions for the shortfall to be made up with peaches.
Bowen is described by some biographers as hosting a salon at Bowens Court. She relished the company of writers and intellectuals, including Maurice Craig, Iris Murdoch, Eddy Sackville-West, Hubert Butler; from England ‑ to mention but a few ‑ Virginia and Leonard Woolf, LP Hartley, Isaiah Berlin, Cyril Connolly, Humphrey House, William Plomer; and from America Carson Mc Cullers, Eudora Welty and May Sarton. The Danielstown set has no such interests, being generally wary of Laurence as “intellectual” and Marda as “cosmopolitan”. However, Marda and Lady Myra, also love intrigue and gossip, as did Bowen.
Bowen wrote that her tribe seemed “to live at a higher pitch” than English people. The Naylors show an ambivalence towards England, a country which strikes Lady Myra as having “become more common since the (First World) war”, and where “all seems to be new”. Lois speaks of Irish “irritation at how the English are always so moral”. Bowen remarks in Bowen’s Court that the waste and nonchalance of the Anglo-Irish seem an irritant to English people. Silly, baby-talking Betty Vermont ‑ “your scrumptious Irish teas make a perfect piggy-wig of me” ‑ is a target of satire. When she turns up uninvited at Danielstown with other garrison wives – “What is the good of being in Ireland if one isn’t a bit unconventional?” ‑ intending to spy out “what do they do all day?” and confirm how “they [the Naylors] are going down in the world”, instead of the customary Danielstown hospitality they encounter the equally characteristic Danielstown absent-mindedness: nobody can be found to admit her party, and the key to the garden is conveniently lost.
Lady Myra envies her English acquaintances their electric-lit houses, yet shows an aesthetic disdain for their habit of talking excessively about money and their insides, and for how, in contrast to the close-knit connections of her Anglo-Irish society, “Gerald seems to have no relations”. He is from Surrey and she remarks: “Practically no-one who lives in Surrey has ever been heard of.’’
One source of misunderstanding between Lois and the upright Gerald is a matter of language. “His life was a succession of practical adjustments.” His loves are simple: “his mother, country, dog, school, a friend or two, now crowningly – Lois”. To her, he is “so facty and solid”, while he pleads “you seem so complicated”. She reckons: “Gerald is so matter of fact. Nothing could make him into a tragedy.” This callow comment resonates later with terrible irony.
Marda has the quality of dandy ‑ in the style of Oscar Wilde – a quality that Declan Kiberd detected in Bowen herself. In portraying Marda as a mentor and confidante for Lois, Bowen clearly draws on her own enjoyment of the admiration of younger women, as for example, when she was interviewed by Sylvia Plath for Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Incidentally, readers of The Bell Jar will recall how thrilled Plath (like her main character, Esther Greenwood), was to land this summer job in Manhattan, and also, poignantly, that a few months later, Plath herself, like Esther, was undergoing ECT for a severe mental breakdown.
Generally, Bowen’s female characters outshine her male ones, and here Lois and Marda can be seen as two selves of Bowen. They are two types that recur in her fiction, Lois ‑ dislocated, naive yet disillusioned, watchful (like Portia in Death of the Heart and Henry James’s Maisie, she both knows and doesn’t know what the adults she observes are up to). Marda has much of the Bowen adult persona ‑ glamorous, cool, worldly. Lois and Marda have in common hardiness, bravery and imagination, and aspire, though without hope, to lead lives that could offer more scope for those qualities. Lois’s rather flat acceptance of the inevitability of an engagement to Gerald is at once confirmed and undermined by how Marda is on the point of moving to England “to get married in a mechanical way”. Bowen was not romantic about marriage.
No doubt in a more settled period Lois would simply have been apprenticed to the life of her aunt, but while she is required to do the Danielstown flowers, she gives perfunctory attention to this daily task. When Gerald arrives for lunch and the parlourmaid cannot be found she admits that she doesn’t know where the forks are kept. Interestingly, Lady Myra herself has vague stirrings of regret at not having had the opportunity of a career.
Facilitated by the strange layout of the house, both Laurence and Lois eavesdrop a great deal, further feeding their restlessness and irresolution. She overhears offhand comments about her being sent to art college (she is aware, and Marda confirms, that she has no talent) and in the meantime she is alternately told to study either German or Italian. She feels that she “can’t live if it all has to be arranged”. And “She didn’t want to know what she was; she couldn’t bear to: knowledge of this would stop, seal, finish one.” As for Gerald, “she would love to have loved him” but “something would have to be transmuted”. In a telling gesture, she breaks off a crucial discussion with him to go inside and write a description of his good looks for her English schoolfriend
Just as she decides that she will marry Gerald, as if to get the matter out of the way, Bowen introduces a plot device from fairy tales, Shakespeare and Jane Austen ‑ how an aunt-figure (Lady Myra) high-handedly and deceitfully thwarts the hopes of young lovers, by a sharp reminder to Gerald of the realities of his meagre career and financial prospects.
Conversation at Danielstown consists of gossip, recitals of well-known family folklore ‑ about the disasters that marked every one of Marda’s visits ‑ as a child she cut her foot on a foot-scraper and bled profusely, as a young woman she lost her engagement ring, this time she has managed to lose one of her suitcases. There are wistful references to what didn’t happen: Mr Montmorency didn’t marry Lois’s mother, the Montmorencys didn’t go to Canada. Sir Richard is especially exercised by how “poor John Trench lost his money in a lawsuit”. The set pieces ‑ the tennis party in brilliant sunshine and to a lesser extent, the dance in the barracks hut buffeted by wind ‑ both stand as assertions that, despite the evidence, this way of life can continue. When news of Gerald’s death in an ambush reaches Danielstown Lady Myra responds, correctly though also hypocritically, with a letter to his mother: “Lois and he had played tennis so often and were beginning to be quite friends … I said it must be some consolation to think how happy his life had been. And she wrote back ‑ I did not think tactfully, but of course, she would be distracted, that it was her first consolation to think he died in so noble a cause.”
In her creation of the atmosphere of the house, Bowen evokes the power of inanimate objects: when Lois hears of her aunt’s interference “a predicament must have become noticeable, even to the room”. After Gerald s death, “some new music for his jazz band, caught in a draught, flopped over and over”. When Lois treads on a board, a bedroom door swings open, enabling glimpses of hidden, often puzzling scenes, and when she bangs down her china basin, she knows that “every time, before the water clouded, she would see the crack, every time she would wonder: what Lois was ‑ she would never know”’ Outside, the landscape is sweet and menacing by turns. “The house seemed to gather its trees close in fright and amazement at the wide, light, lovely unloving country, the unwilling bosom whereon it was set.” The laurel shrubs strike against walkers on the paths, and not long after the tennis-party the rain has washed the markings off the court.
Bowen extended the poetic dimension of the novel, in tune with Virginia Woolf, who announced in her 1927 essay “Narrow Bridge of Art”. that the modern novel “would attempt to embody the attributes of poetry, its ambiguity and intensity”.
The language of The Last September is rich and startling: it serves to distinguish the Anglo-Irish, the Irish and the English, but beyond the detailed notation, it is really the integrated whole that conveys the unsettledness of the place and time, where meaning is often obscured or cut off. To the question “You live round here?” Lois answers “more or less”. Speaking of Gerald, Lady Myra’s grief comes out in “He was so.” answered by ‘Yes, he was, wasn’t he?’ People use euphemisms: Gerald talks about “the jolly old war” and that “we all feel a little rotten about the barracks”. Lois, after hearing of his death, goes up the steps “to meet what was waiting”. Odd word inversions slow down the reader, draw attention to the oddness of the world: Laurence anticipates taking his turn at tennis: “A wiry tenseness and setting of teeth there would be.”
Conversation can isolate as much as connect: the “little party”, sitting at lunch under “the immutable figures of ancestors”, are “each so enisled and distant that a remark at random, falling short of a neighbour, seemed a cry of appeal”. The unusual word ‘enisled’ could also apply to the house in its landscape. Bowen warned visitors that Bowen’s Court was “eighty years behind the times, and thirty miles from the nearest railway station”.
There is broader comedy in the random reminders of empire at Danielstown: the tiger-skin rug that Lois trips over, the file of graduated wooden elephants, the books on cultivation of rubber, the man whose name no one can remember who might go to Ceylon, and perfunctory references to how men at a loose end may find jobs running “coffee or orange places” in Africa.
Lois had said of Gerald “He is so matter of fact. Nothing could make him into a tragedy.” But it is she who, on the steps, is the first to be told of his death by Daventry, the saturnine senior subaltern, who arrives like the messenger in a Greek tragedy.
Early in the novel, Lois had “a thought that fifty years hence, she might well, if she wished, be sitting on the steps ‑ having penetrated thirty years deeper into Time than they [her elders] could, gave her a feeling of mysteriousness and destination”. Though she may indeed be “twice as complex as their generation” this adolescent moment will lead away from the steps, to another, unspecified, destination. Though neither of them witness it, for her, and for Laurence, the passing of Danielstown opens into a kind of liberation,
Laurence has returned to Oxford, and Lois has left for France by the time the avenue and the steps finally feature as witness to the “execution” of Danielstown ‑ a fictional event that Bowen felt was more real than if Bowen’s Court had actually burned. “By next year, light had possessed itself of the vacancy, still with surprise.” With exact and pitiless reference back to details in the first pages, we have: “At Danielstown, half way up the avenue under the beeches, the thin iron gate twanged (missed its latch, remained swinging aghast) as the last unlit car slid out with the executioners bland from accomplished duty. The sound of the last car widened, gave itself to the open and empty country and was demolished. Then the first wave of a silence that was to be ultimate, flowed back confident, to the steps. Above the steps, the door stood open” ‑ then come words of devastating irony – “hospitably upon a furnace.” Sir Richard and Lady Naylor have been hurled out of a social comedy of denial and decorum into desolation.
The epigraph to The Last September comes from Proust, one of Elizabeth’s favourite writers. “Ils ont les chagrins qu’ont les vierges et les paresseux …” I translate as “Theirs are the sorrows of the virginal and the lazy.” This I take it to refer with both tenderness and asperity to her Anglo-Irish characters.
This article is an edited version of a talk given recently in Dublin.