Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile.
The Last September was published in 1929, when Elizabeth Bowen was 30. She went on writing until 1969, and died in 1973. Her best known book is probably The Heat of the Day (1949) set in wartime London.
Ireland in 1920 is the location of The Last September. This is the period when the Black and Tans, a motley collection of British armed forces, were sent to Ireland to deal with the insurgents fighting for Irish freedom. A bloody period in Irish history was just beginning. She is often described as a novelist of the inner life and likened to Jane Austen for it. A strong theme of this novel is the intrusion of the outer world into the domestic, the personal, the inner worlds of the characters in the house – Danielstown.
About six o’clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the whole country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out from a net of shadow, down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr and Mrs Montmorency produced – arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor-veil – an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors. They exclaimed, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor exclaimed and signalled: no one spoke yet. It was a moment of happiness, of perfection. (p7)
Ah, the perfection of that phrase ‘an agitation of greeting’! This is the opening paragraph, a sound of a car from beyond the boundary of the demesne, bringing long-promised visitors and a moment of ‘happiness and perfection’. And thus we are warned that it will not last, this happiness and perfection. Indeed the title of the novel has already indicated it.
Silence or circumlocution are her themes. Silence about certain topics. Notice, in the opening paragraph that short phrase: ‘no one spoke yet.’ Sir Richard leaves the room if anything significant is mentioned. Lady Naylor will not speak directly. Here, for example, she is attempting to warn off the very nice young English subaltern who is courting her niece, and whose English good manners drive her to more directness for once.
‘Oh, Mr Lesworth!’ she cried, disconcerted. She resumed firmly but with inspiration, something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess: ‘The less talk, the less indirect discussion round and about things, the better, I always think.’ (p181)
Less talk and less indirect discussion fill the remaining pages of the novel, until its concluding paragraph:
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. (p206)
There are many characters in this short novel, and Bowen has no difficulty in getting the reader to see them as individuals, often in a few deft words. A good example is the description of Lady Naylor’s tone with Gerald, quoted above: ‘something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess’.
The house is almost a character, in itself. In it live Lady Naylor and her husband Sir Richard, their respective nephew and niece, Laurence and Lois (late teens, early 20s), and their guests Mr and Mrs Montmorency, whose arrival opens the book. There are other people in their social circle, and Elizabeth Bowen’s descriptions and use of them in the plot have again reminded people of Jane Austen: the voluminous Mrs Fogarty, the unmarriageable Miss Hartigans, sharp and stylish Marda Norton. One of the sub-plots concerns Mr Montmorency’s pathetic yearning after what he cannot or does not have including the inevitable Marda. He can never be sure whether the decision not to emigrate to Canada was right or wrong, and whether to build a bungalow, or not.
Lois is the focus of the narrative, her relationships with Gerald Lesworth, her cousin Laurence, the exotic Marda, her friends in the locality and in London. In the course of the novel she develops a taste for the world beyond Danielstown, and encounters the outer world, which she cannot share with the people in the house. She moves further and further away, as young people must.
The Last September has something of the attraction of a short story, the glimpse of a small world, and over a short timescale, but everything distilled, sharp, moving us towards the denouement.
Elizabeth Bowen is justifiably celebrated for the quality of her prose, and especially for her powers of description. Inanimate objects almost take on intention, emotion, reaction and become, as the house does, part of the action. Rosalind Brown, in her Mslexia blog in January, Influence me, Elizabeth Bowen, quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s description of the dining room and then consciously models her own prose on it. There’s no higher praise for a novelist.
Since I finished this novel I’ve found her first one, The Hotel, in a second hand shop, so I have another treat waiting for me.