“What is a country if it isn’t the people?” So asks Myra Naylor, the lady of the Big House in Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, The Last September (1929), which is set during “The Troubled Times”. This question has particular resonance during Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries (2012-2023), as the state’s commemorative programme continues to prompt public discussion ‑ and at times heated debate ‑ regarding who were “the key actors” in “these extraordinary events” of the past, and therefore who is worthy of inclusion in the official narrative. Irish literature played an integral part in chronicling the period of the nation’s history from 1912 to 1923, and accordingly, it has featured strongly in the centennial commemorations. However, the commemorative literary programme has had a conspicuously nationalist focus, with many unionist writers retrospectively effaced from this era of history. From 2020 through to the end of the programme in 2023, we will mark the centenaries of contentious historical moments, including the final years of the War of Independence, partition and the Civil War. A more balanced approach to commemorating these divisive events is essential in the remainder of the Decade of Centenaries. The official narrative should not excise unionist authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, whose treatment of post-conflict memory in texts such as The Last September is equally valid, and necessary to re-evaluate from our current perspective.
Just two months after the First World War ended in November 1918, Ireland and Britain were engaged in the War of Independence, also known as the Anglo-Irish War, “the Troubles”, “the Black and Tan War” or “the Tan War”, which lasted from January 1919 to July 1921. Bowen explains that The Last September “takes place during the roving conflict between the Irish Republican Army and British Forces still garrisoning Ireland”. The semi-autobiographical tale is set in her home place in northern Co Cork one hundred years ago, in September 1920. She explains that “The Last September takes its pitch from that lovely, too mortal month which gives the novel its name.” However, she also insists, “I do not idealise that September of 1920, that month in which my story chose to be set.” The dating of the action is precise: that year the British army recruited a notoriously brutal unit ‑ the Black and Tans ‑ and Bowen became engaged to a British army lieutenant stationed in Cork. She incorporates the interrelated themes of violence and romance in The Last September, one of only two novels by her set entirely in Ireland, and “which of all my books”, she proclaims, “is nearest my heart”.
Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899, making her (as she often remarked) the same age as the century, and her life and writings were shaped by its tumultuous events. She mused: “Twinship with one’s century … somehow gives one the feeling of being hand-in-glove with it.” She was a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl studying in England when the Easter Rising occurred in 1916. Elizabeth’s father, Henry Bowen, had come over to visit her, only to be called home to Ireland when he received news of the uprising. The family became the subject of a horrific scandal when Henry’s cousin, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, arrested Francis Sheehy Skeffington ‑ a pacifist who had no known involvement in the events of that week other than making an attempt to stop looting and vandalism ‑ and ordered his execution. Bowen-Colthurst was found “guilty but insane” at the court-martial and he was sentenced to indefinite incarceration at Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum (now Broadmoor Hospital), a high-security criminal psychiatric hospital in England. This appalling incident captures the Bowen family’s complicated position during a turbulent time in Irish history.
In the troubled months and years following the Rising, the amplified presence of the British army in garrisons throughout Ireland, as well as the increased activities of the IRA, were cause for silent alarm among the Anglo-Irish landed gentry, who maintained an aloof facade while inwardly worrying whether their homes would be burnt amid the conflict. Nonetheless, as Victoria Glendinning comments, this situation also “meant something quite different to the girls … in the Anglo-Irish country houses. It meant more young officers to be entertained, and endless tennis parties, dances, and ephemeral flirtations.” In The Last September, Bowen captures the paradoxes of Anglo-Ireland during the Troubles via the experiences of the protagonist, Lois Farquar, an orphaned adolescent living with her aunt and uncle, the Naylors. Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor own Danielstown, a once grand but now rather shabby country house based on the Bowen family’s home.
Lois is nineteen, the same age as Bowen when she came back to Ireland after living away in England for much of her life. Initially Elizabeth felt quite at home upon returning to Bowen’s Court, the family’s house in rural north Cork, despite the escalating unrest. She was preoccupied with “a succession of parties” thrown by Anglo-Irish families and attended by British soldiers, one of whom, Lieutenant John Anderson, became her fiancé. Her brief betrothal was terminated with an aunt’s help ‑ a scene which echoes in her novel when the earnest junior officer Gerald proposes to Lois, only for Lady Naylor to quietly intervene. Myra disapproves of Gerald because “money on English people shows so much and he evidently hasn’t got any”. Bowen playfully gives him the surname Lesworth (“less worth”).
The divided loyalties of the Naylors, who entertain the British army while fretting about the fate of their Irish tenants, cause the family to shield Lois from the conflict. She has yet to enter the adult world and, as Bowen suggests, “she [is] still only half awake”. Due to her naivety, Lois is confused about the national situation and her place within it. In an impassioned exchange with Gerald she exclaims, “How is it that in this country that ought to be full of violent realness there seems nothing for me but clothes and what people say? I might as well be in some kind of cocoon.” As Hermione Lee remarks, “All round her is a war she cannot understand or share.” When Lois witnesses an IRA volunteer cutting through the demesne in the middle of the night, she ponders, “It must be because of Ireland he was in such a hurry … Here was something else she could not share. She could not conceive of her country emotionally: it was a way of living, an abstract of several landscapes, or an oblique frayed island, moored at the north but with an air of being detached and washed out west from the British coast.” Lois’s sense of her country is blurred at the edges, in a similar way to her self-identity, which remains unformed.
Bowen reveals that she shared Lois’s predicament as a young Anglo-Irish woman from an isolated upbringing: “I endlessly asked myself what I should be, and when?” However, she is careful to point out that “Lois derives from, but is not, myself at nineteen.” As Patricia Coughlan notes of Bowen: “Her liminal cultural positioning between national identities, in the moment of Irish rebellion and independence, is vitally connected to the unsettled and unsettling nature of her novels and stories.” Moreover, The Last September is liminal in the sense that it portrays a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Bowen’s protagonist is poised at the threshold of independence at the same time as Ireland, and this twofold coming-of-age narrative offers fundamental insight into the complex, gendered experiences of war and self-realisation.
The author figures this violent awakening through elements of Gothic romance, by placing Lois in a mysterious country house, and caught between the British soldier with whom she is infatuated, and her vaguely erotic interest in the shadowy IRA men who lurk on the fringes of the demesne. Lois is noticeably reminiscent of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey (1817), who imagines herself to be a romantic heroine in a Gothic novel. Bowen was a great admirer of Austen, and their adolescent protagonists share a dreamy, restless longing for something thrilling to happen to them. When Lois narrowly misses a rowdy patrol of Black and Tans careening towards her on the road, she turns her pony-and-trap hastily onto a boreen and hides until they have gone. Breathless, she thinks, “to meet in this narrow way would be worse than a dream … Lois recalled with surprise that she had cried for a whole afternoon before the [Great] War because she was not someone in a historical novel.” Of course, Lois is someone in a historical novel, and in this ironic metafictional moment Bowen unsettles the expectations of both her protagonist and her reader.
However, the reality of such an encounter for a woman travelling alone during the Troubles would have been truly terrifying due to the potential risk of sexual assault or gang rape. When their visitors the Montmorencys ask whether the local patrols of armed men present a general threat, Richard and Myra are quick to dismiss the thought. The Naylors allow Lois a considerable amount of freedom to wander about the countryside unaccompanied. Bowen addresses the distinct possibility of danger in a scene when Lois’s cousin Laurence complains to Francie Montmorency about having to take Lois to a neighbour’s house:
“I often wonder whether she really would get assaulted by Black and Tans if she went alone, or by sinister patriots, or whether she might not be old enough now to look after herself.”
“I’m afraid at her age,” said Francie, blushing; “her age isn’t any protection.”
Here Bowen suggests that women faced the threat of sexual assault from men on both sides of the conflict: the Black and Tans and “sinister patriots”. As Linda Connolly contends, sexual violence against women was a “dark secret” of the War of Independence which has been largely “forgotten” by history, “with men presumed to have experienced the worst atrocities of the revolution”. Connolly states: “During armed conflicts, women’s bodies also become battlefields and Ireland’s revolution was no different. Transgressive violence was perpetrated against women but it disappeared from public discourse after the Civil War due to conservative attitudes towards women, sex and sexuality in the new State, combined with a desire to forget the worst atrocities of the war.” In The Last September, Bowen explicitly references the pervasive threat of gender-based violence during the War of Independence – a fact which has remained hidden from history and which should not be suppressed during the centenary commemorations.
The war itself is undefined; for it haunts the novel throughout as a menacing force which occasionally erupts into the narrative. If they talk about the conflict at all, the Anglo-Irish characters downplay it in conversation: “Something said in the English press has given rise to an idea that this country is unsafe.” The Naylors attempt to ignore the Troubles, their visitors are often bewildered and nervous, and the British soldiers stick to practised understatement. During a tennis party at Danielstown, Gerald chats with a neighbouring Anglo-Irish family, the Hartigans, about the nature of the conflict:
“Well, we shall all be leaving you soon, I dare say; all we jolly old army of occupation.”
“Oh, one wouldn’t like to call you that,” said Miss Hartigan, deprecatingly.
“As soon as we’ve lost this jolly old war.”
“Oh, but one wouldn’t call it a war.”
“If anyone would, we could clean these beggars out in a week.”
“We think it would be a great pity to have a war,” said the Hartigans firmly. “There’s been enough unpleasantness already, hasn’t there?”
This juxtaposition of the Anglo-Irish and English perspectives in the novel reflects a longstanding historical discord, which reached its height during the War of Independence. Bowen explains that the position of “Anglo-Irish land-owning families” such as the Naylors and the Hartigans during the conflict “was not only ambiguous but was more nearly heart-breaking than they cared to show. Inherited loyalty (or at least, adherence) to Britain … and to which they owed their ‘Ascendancy’ lands and power – pulled them one way; their own temperamental Irishness the other … [Their] ambivalent attitude to the English … is a marked Anglo-Irish trait.”
The only direct discussion of the war in the novel takes place between two disenchanted visitors to Danielstown, the glamorous Marda Norton who is, as Lee puts it, “a sophisticated, professional house guest, about to make a rich London marriage, quite cut off from Irish life”, and Hugh Montmorency, an old friend of the Naylors who is “likely” related to most of the other Anglo-Irish families in the area. Marda inquires:
“How far do you think this war is going to go? Will there ever be anything we can all do except not notice?”
“Don’t ask me,” he said, but sighed sharply as through beneath the pressure of omniscience. “A few more hundred deaths, I suppose, on our side – which is no side – rather scared, rather isolated, not expressing anything except tenacity to something that isn’t there – that never was there.”
Marda is the only adult Anglo-Irish character in the book to explicitly call the Troubles a war, while the others adopt a strategy of “not noticing” since it would be “impolite” to mention the word, especially in company. As Roy Foster argues, “Bowen’s adherence to Irish modes of manners was a recognition of the historical difficulties and social antipathies evaded and negotiated by codes of politeness and other collusive stratagems.” At tea during the Naylors’ tennis party a hilariously gauche officer’s wife, Mrs Vermont, blurts out: “I do think you’re so sporting the way you just stay where you are and keep going on. Who would ever have thought of the Irish turning out so disloyal – I mean, of course, the lower classes! I remember mother saying in 1916 ‑ you know, when that dreadful rebellion broke out ‑ she said: ‘This has been a shock to me; I shall never feel the same about the Irish again!’” Her outburst is at once shocking and very funny, and Bowen uses humour as another disruptive mode which cuts through the decorous surface of the text in order to reveal an underlying truth.
Bowen quipped that “the Anglo-Irish were only really at home in mid-crossing between Holyhead and Dún Laoghaire”, and this was true of her personal experience, since she lived between England and Ireland for most of her life. She was, as her old friend and former lover Seán O’Faoláin astutely described her, “heart-cloven and split-minded”. There is an enduring critical dissensus about the perceived “Irishness” of the author and her body of work, which has been the case since she began her writing life in the 1920s. It seems that as a unionist Bowen is habitually considered to be the “wrong” type of Anglo-Irish, unlike her contemporaries who were ardent nationalists. This perception was exacerbated in the 1980s when it was revealed that she had been, as Foster phrases it, “a kind of spy” for the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War on the issue of Irish neutrality. A peculiar instance of anti-Bowen sentiment occurred in 1993, when Brendan Clifford and Jack Lane of the nationalist Aubane Historical Society treated her rather injuriously in their co-edited volume The North Cork Anthology. Although they included a few passages from The Last September in the collection, Bowen’s name was typed with a strikethrough in the table of contents to mark her exclusion from the north Cork canon.
As Patricia Laurence observes, “At the same time that she and her writing are present, she is denied status as a North Cork resident … or even an Irish author, asserting that her themes and characters were drawn from English culture.” Such exclusionary treatment extended to the classroom in Ireland, where her work was omitted for decades. At a dramatic reading of The Last September, Cork-born actor Fiona Shaw argued that the novel “was absolutely wiped off the curriculum, largely because … it’s a story of the privileged upper class in Ireland. In the ‘new’ Ireland, there was very little room for someone like Elizabeth Bowen.” Correspondingly, Laurence states that the “contretemps” continued into the 2000s, when “a debate about Bowen’s wartime activities surfaced again in the Irish Examiner as English and Irish writers and politicians took sides. Declan Kiberd in a radio broadcast charged Lane and Clifford with being ‘awful Neanderthals,’ for which he later apologised.” Clifford and Lane also attacked Roy Foster “in a pamphlet, ‘Aubane vs. Oxford,’ in which they pitted academics against ‘the little men’ of Ireland like themselves.”
What of Bowen’s canonicity today? A feature film adaptation of The Last September appeared in Ireland and Britain in 1999 (and in America in 2000), with a screenplay by Dublin-based novelist John Banville and directed by Deborah Warner. It starred a standout cast, including Irish actors Michael Gambon and Fiona Shaw, alongside Jane Birkin, Keeley Hawes, Maggie Smith, David Tennant, and Lambert Wilson. The film captured the intense visuality of Bowen’s writing and it revitalised interest in her work, producing a tie-in reissue of the novel. The text became a fixture of university Irish Studies curricula, where it remains today. However, Coughlan stresses that “[w]hile a more informed understanding of the nature of [Bowen’s] Irishness has emerged, she is still in the process of admission to the Irish canon”. This is probably due to the inherent ambiguity of her writing, which registers the ambivalent nature of Anglo-Irishness and which, therefore, does not fit neatly into the narrative teleology of the Republic. Nonetheless, in a 1942 interview for O’Faoláin’s magazine The Bell, Bowen claimed Irish nationality as a writer and as a citizen:
I regard myself as an Irish novelist. As long as I can remember, I’ve been extremely conscious of being Irish – even when I was writing about very un-Irish things … All my life I’ve been going backwards and forwards between Ireland and England … but that has never robbed me of the strong feeling of my nationality. I must say it’s a highly disturbing emotion. It’s not – I must emphasise – sentimentality.
Patricia Craig notes that “Bowen’s oblique approach to her central ideas has often brought down on her the charge of evasiveness”. However, whilst the impressionistic quality of her writing in The Last September ‑ what Bowen calls “verbal painting” ‑ captures the fleeting imagery of a lost time, it also registers an abiding, deep-seated terror. As Bowen reflects, “The Troubles troubled everything.” Hairline fractures disturb the polished veneer of Bowen’s fiction, as narrative tensions crackling underneath break through to the surface, splitting the world of the text asunder. In this novel it is Lois’s last September, and it is also Ireland’s; for the Government of Ireland Act which passed two months later on December 23rd, 1920 cleaved the island in two. Bowen’s preface to the 1952 reprint of the novel discloses several personal insights that underscore her profoundly psychological attachment to the book. She remarks, “This novel had a deep, clouded, spontaneous source,” and indicates that it emerged directly from repressed traumatic memories buried within her unconscious. As Glendinning recounts: “One spring night in 1921, three Anglo-Irish houses in the immediate neighbourhood of Bowen’s Court were burnt” by the Irish rebels, and the British army retaliated by “burning the farms of putative Sinn Feiners, some even nearer home”. Bowen was away in Italy when her father wrote to warn her: “I am afraid that, as things are now, there can only be one other development. You must be prepared for the next news, and be brave. I will write at once.”
Although a number of critics maintain that Danielstown is an “unaltered” rendering of Bowen’s Court, there is a key difference: the former house burns, whilst the latter never did. Significantly, Danielstown burns down the same night as two other country houses, the neighbouring Castle Trent and Mount Isabel, in what Bowen describes as an “execution”. The author fictionalises her worst nightmare – the thought that Bowen’s Court could have been one of the three houses which were burnt in north Cork on the same night. Bowen distances herself somewhat from this horrifying image in the text by making Lois the niece of the house, rather than the daughter: “She was niece only, not the child, of that house. I am the daughter of the house from which Danielstown was drawn. In real life the house has survived.” In the novel Lois is abroad when Danielstown goes up in flames, and she does not see what the Naylors see, their front door standing “open hospitably upon a furnace”. Bowen states: “Nevertheless, so often in my mind’s eye did I see it burning that the terrible last event in The Last September is more real than anything I have lived through.” The “violent realness” of the conflict became lodged in her traumatic memory, and it found visceral expression in Bowen’s war fiction.
Bowen wrote what she called in her preface to The Last September, “fiction with the texture of history”. As Glendinning contends, “History tended to be played down, in Anglo-Ireland.” Consequently, Bowen asserts that the Anglo-Irish lived mainly “under the strong rule of the family myth”. In the novel, she undermines the notion of family myth by revealing the misty-eyed nostalgia of the Anglo-Irish characters to be not only absurd, but dangerous; for their habit of “not noticing” the encroaching violence leads to their ruination. They do not realise this until it is too late: “Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for in the light from the sky they saw too distinctly.” The accusation by critics and fellow authors that Bowen’s “mannered” writing style does not allow history to impinge on her fiction is completely unfounded. The Last September is a powerful record of cultural memory which conveys the historical trauma of war.
Bowen needed distance from the War of Independence in order to process it in her writing. She composed the novel while living away from Ireland, in Oxford, in 1928 – eight years after the period in which the book is set. Bowen recounts this experience: “The writer is like the swimmer caught by an undertow; he is borne by it back to those scenes of his own life most steeped in subjective experience which he did not know of. Sensation accumulates where it is not sought; meaning flows in, retrospectively, where we were blind to any. One is captured by the mysterious, the imperious hauntedness of a period not understood in its own time.”
Eschewing straightforward historical accounts, she posits that her fictions are “more studies of climate, war-climate, and of the strange growths it raised. I see war (or should I say feel war?) more as a territory than as a page of history; of its impersonal active historic side I have, I find, not written.” The personal, psychological territory of her novel’s war climate tells us as much about Irish history as it does about post-conflict memory, violence, trauma, nationhood, gender, and identity. The Last September ends with “the too clear form of the ruin” of Danielstown, and the sound of “the thin iron gate [which] twanged (missed its latch, remained swinging aghast),” followed by “the first wave of a silence”. We must not perpetuate this historical silencing by omitting certain Anglo-Irish voices from the national narrative during the Decade of Centenaries. The gate remains open for us to revisit the territory of war in Bowen’s masterful historical fiction – let us enter in.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (Dublin: New Island Books, 2017). She tweets @drdawnmiranda.