Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Elizabeth Bowen's Last September.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a descendant of Henry Bowen, one of Cromwell's colonels in the Invasion of Ireland of 1649. She wrote about ten each of novels, volumes of short stories, and belles lettres of essays, memoirs, and travel writings. She was born in Dublin, lived from 1907 to 1952 in England, and was an outrider of the Bloomsbury Group, where she is associated most with Rose Macauley and Sean O Faolain. She is considered a novelist of the 30s, possibly her most well-regarded novel is The Death of the Heart (1939), although her widest fame is probably as the author of "The Demon Lover" (1945), a short story depicting the mental trauma of the London Blitz. The Last September (1929), her third novel, combines two of her signature themes.

It is set in County Cork in the year 1920, the height of the Irish War of Independence, at Danielstown, the ancestral home of the Naylors, landed members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. In 1930 Elizabeth inherited the real Bowen's Court of County Cork, her family's property for over 250 years, and she retired there in 1952. Unable to make a go of it, the house was sold and rased (as the English say) in 1959. During the war years Bowen reported for the War Department on Ireland, and she published a memoir, Bowen's Court, in 1942.

The novel is also an example of her most central theme. Bowen's father suffered mental illness in 1907 and her mother passed away in 1912. Bowen was seen to by her aunts and sent to boarding school. She believed that the fundamental emotional experience of her life was the upper-class reserve that prohibited frank talk with a young Edwardian girl. Her novels are inhabited by wealthy but innocent young women who badly need guidance to navigate the complex and highly formal social world around them, but who receive none and must learn harsh lessons on their own.

The Last September depicts a world of tennis parties, long country-house visits, and young people's dances, and the incongruity would be even more obvious to an English or Irish reader of the 30s than it is to us today. Lois, orphaned ward of the Naylor's, is a self-conscious woman of nineteen or twenty. She and her few friends (she is used to a somewhat isolated life in the Irish countryside) are the romantic interests of the young English officers who are garrisoned in the town, searching poor homes for weapons and pursuing known guerrillas, while the Black and Tans make the countryside unsafe for anyone. The novel juxtaposes the detached mannerisms of the local gentry against the undercurrent of violence and threat.

The Anglo-Irish residents of Danielstown are lost in confusion as their Irish identity comes out from under them. For example,the Naylor household is nonplussed when a married house guest develops a crush on one of Lois's girlfriends. They are people who can only speak with an arch indirectness. In this most autobiographical of Bowen's novels Lois is a mixture of inchoate realization that she must make fateful decisions on her own and a deep girlish innocence about the romantic narrative of life.

Bowen is an ambitious stylist who generally makes good effects when she elevates her writing. She is not quite as modernist as many of her contemporaries but she does share the modernist penchant for internal monologue and oblique observation. I would say Henry James seems as big of an influence here as anyone.

Two other novels that depict the end of the Anglo-Irish world are the subjects of previous posts. One of the most famous is William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (1983), a very good book, but my personal favorite is J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970). Neil Jordan's 1996 movie Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, is an interesting (but violent) attempt to depict the period.