‘[The Last September] is a novel nearest to my heart, and it had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source…It is a work of instinct, rather than knowledge…a recall book.’ — Elizabeth Bowen
There is a green-ness to this novel from Elizabeth Bowen—the damp green-ness of mists upon an Irish landscape, a green-ness of youth, and the eery greenish tints of sunless glades.
The Last September (written 1929, covers events of around 1919) is considered a modernist novel. It is abstruse in parts and requires a thoughtful perusal, but the reader is well-rewarded.
Bowen’s comment, quoted above, makes this story of interest to me. I didn’t fall in love with the characters of the novel, or particularly relate to them, but with this second reading of it I was much more in tune with the plight of young Lois. And, as ever, one loves the beautiful prose of Elizabeth Bowen.
There are many facets to this novel, many approaches to writing an overview of it, so with an attempt at brevity….yes, attempt…this post will highlight a few things that resonated particularly with me. There are some lovely reviews on other blogs, and if you’re interested in the political aspect, the romantic, coming of age aspect, etc. there are links to further reading provided at the end of the post.
Lois Farquar is the young girl around whom the story is centered; merely eighteen when we meet her, lovely, innocent, hesitant, full of self-doubt. To feel her sense of loss and loneliness throughout the novel, is to empathize with, to some extent, the absolute desolation of bereavement Elizabeth Bowen felt in her own youth.
‘Lois stood at the top of the steps, looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look, like other young girls, and clasping her elbows tightly behind her back tried hard to conceal her embarrassment.’
Her mother died when she was twelve, there is no father in the picture, and for years Lois has been living at the family home in Ireland with her Anglo-Irish relations, Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra. The older couple are rather stereotypical British gentry, remote and tradition bound, passionate about nothing. Sir Richard comes alive for a moment when worried about his corn crop or guns being planted on the grounds, Lady Myra has her say at brief points in the book, but for the most part they exist as backdrop.
‘Sir Richard was very much worried about visitors who came down early for dinner.’
There is a cousin Lawrence, a bloodless young man, who also shares the austere Danielstown roof. He is a scholarly type, isolated unto his dislikes, with his self-confessed ‘no emotional life’. This house with sightless eyes has also given refuge to the Montmorencys; a drifting pair of no hope and no ambition, content to feed from the hospitality of others. Occasionally the Montmorencys talk of what might have been, they talk of getting their stuff out of storage and living in their own place, but nothing comes of it.All maintain a casual disinterest or vague disbelief in the changing political climate around them, and the growing evidence that their fragile hold on a caste system is crumbling around them. It’s that, or they just don’t want to talk about it.
Marda: “How far do you think this war is going to go? Will there ever be anything we can all do about it except not notice?”
Hugo: “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.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the callous indifference to the ‘few hundred deaths’ who are dying to protect a vague idea, the vague idea continues on in the form of tennis parties, a jazz band, tea in stuffy rooms, and visits from other gentry who are equally blasé. There are handsome soldiers in uniform—from this soil springs the love interest for Lois—and a few comic episodes given by the young British wives of some of the soldiers. If you are looking for a Jane Austen moment or two, you will find it in the superbly done inane chatter of Mrs. Vermont, a possible candidate for another Lydia Bennet. Her dialogue is given special treatment, with such words as ‘nummy-nummy, hoity-toity, and piggy-wig’.
‘Mrs. Vermont ate more hot cakes than she cared to remember because they were so good and nobody seemed to notice. She went on to chocolate cake, then to orange layer cake, to which she returned again and again. An idea she had had that one should not eat very much when invited out languished; she finished up with a plate of raspberries. She put all thought of her figure resolutely behind her. Mother, of course, had filled out terribly, but oneself mightn’t.’
Beyond a few brief flurries of delightful humor, (usually at the expense of the encamped British) the emotional power of this novel lies in the sense of looming tragedy. It smothers like wool felt, it encrusts like old stone, it wafts through rooms like peat smoke, it flutters at gauze curtains ruffled by inner sighs. The scene setting is superbly done. Elizabeth Bowen was a keen observer of the outer world; she could communicate feelings more effectively through objects and landscapes than through people. For her, the best way to reveal inner dynamic was by indirect means.
‘The room smelt…of ten days’ emptiness; curtains in a draft by the door made a pale movement.’
Or, in the drawing room—that great iconic emblem of stately living—this brilliant description sets a tone for the entire novel:
‘Mrs. Montmorency and Laurence were in the drawing room. They looked anxious, nothing showed the trend of the conversation. The pale room rose to a height only mirrors followed above the level of occupation; this disproportionate zone of emptiness dwarfed at all times figures and furniture. The distant ceiling imposed on consciousness its blank white oblong, and a pellucid silence, distilled from a hundred and fifty years of society, waited under the ceiling. Into this silence voices went up in stately attenuation. Now there were no voices: Mrs. Montmorency and Laurence sat looking away from each other.’
‘Pale’ is one of Bowen’s favorite descriptions; it is used in many applications throughout the book, as though life itself has been bleached of color; sterility has crept in with the damp. She makes many evocative references to the age of the house, and the lives that have come before; alluding, of course, to the current set of occupants being its last.
The dialogue is often awkward, elliptical and obscure; characters have a difficult time finishing sentences, or saying what they really mean.
‘The style of her works is highly wrought and owes much to literary modernism’. (wikipedia)
The scene in the ruined mill is one of the places where this ‘highly wrought’ style leads to some frustration for the reader. There is finally a bit of action, actual face to face conflict with the unrest of the land, and it is strangely dealt with. It would appear to be fraught with implication, and there is even a brief flash of real menace. The violence is quickly passed over—it happens off-site, (usually a no-no for writers) and the fact that Marda, a character with great presence of mind, faces down a foe, a gun goes off, she is grazed in the hand by a bullet; all of these key events are blown about like confetti for the reader to piece together.
There is more to this scene than meets the eye…it is just left murky in the reader’s mind. The episode finishes with:
“Shan’t we be late for dinner?”
And off they go…feeling strangely ‘splendid’, Mr. Montmorency now ‘looking pleasant’, whereas moments earlier he had been—impotently—terrified and angry.
A crushed snail on the path, later in the book, is given much more emotional significance. These are intrigues that perhaps might be explained by Bowen’s own reference to Antoine Watteau, as the episode in the ruins begins to unfold.
‘But the [ruins] scene seemed strangely set for a Watteau interlude.’
Artist Antoine Watteau was known for creating what was called a ‘fragile, elegant world dominated by a lyrical mood with just a touch of elegiac melancholy’.This description fits that enigmatic scene rather well.
“I should like to go over there,” [Marda] said, looking across the water to where trees began on a skyline and went down steeply, powdered yellow with light on their tops.
“We can’t,” he said, triumphant, “the stepping-stones are covered.” He showed her a line of faint scars, a hesitation across the current.
“I never thought of there being stepping-stones. I only wanted to cross because we couldn’t. Why does one always seem to be on the wrong side?”
“I should have thought you never were—don’t you even make rather a point of that?”
She was exasperated past caution. “Mr. Montmorency, what is the matter?”
Seeing that he had over-reached himself, been absurd, he raised his eyebrows in courteous mystification (“Matter?), did not reply but began talking about his travels—the greenest river he knew was the Aine, he said…’
Conversations such as this almost always trail away into nothing…The landscape, however, goes on communicating.
‘A shrubbery path was solid with darkness, she pressed down on it. Laurels breathed coldly and close: on her bare arms the tips of the leaves were timid and dank, like the tongues of dead animals. Her fear of the shrubberies tugged at its chain, fear beyond reason…In her life, deprived as she saw it, there was no occasion for courage, which like an unused muscle slackened and slept.’
There is, as well, the strong presence of another character. She is not typically included as one of the characters, yet in a sense, she dominates the book; a character more real than those moving passively through the narrative, living their congealed lives.
It is Lois’ mother—Laura—who died when she was only twelve.
And since this novel is the book of Bowen’s heart, ‘a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source’, this would make the references to Lois’ mother in the book a key to understanding Bowen’s own mother, and help understand her own sense of loss.
Find the fictional Laura in the narrative, and you find Bowen’s mother. Perhaps not exactly, but surely there, in ‘something like recall’.
This, to me, is the core of the tragic mood in The Last September, this poetic transmutation of remembrance. Bowen’s own mother died of cancer when she was thirteen; according to her biographers, she never wanted to talk of her childhood, or the pain of those years. Directly after her mother died she developed a controlled stammer, but one word she could never say was the word ‘mother’ without a pronounced stutter.
A hint of this appears in the references to portraits of dead ancestors who are ‘a crowd’ staring down on the living. There is a fabulous, lengthy paragraph describing how these ‘immutable figures’ dominate the room, making everyone else at the table—the living—seem ‘over-bright, unconvincingly painted, startled, transitory.’
A stirring contrast, and one that reminds us of the drawing room description, where ‘figures and furniture were at all time dwarfed’ by the imposing mirrors. Such references that diminish the living prepare us for the symbolic entry of Laura Farquar.
I began to realize that Laura Farquar is everywhere—she crops up continually in the narrative; in people’s memories, their conversation, she is one of those portraits on the wall, she is there in Hugo Montmorency’s lost love and sense of injury, she is dreamed of by Laurence, who stares out the ‘flawed panes’ of windows where Laura had once scratched her name with a diamond. And Hugo’s wife wistfully thinks of her as:
‘The ever-living Laura.’
Most strikingly, Laura appears in the character of Marda Norton.
Marda Norton is yet another houseguest at Danielstown. She is an intriguing young woman who pops in, unaccountably, to stay just a few days. A free-spirited sophisticate of about thirty, unmarried, but regularly engaged, disengaged, and engaged again. You’re not quite sure what she is doing there, what she really wants, or how she fits in to the family. She seems rootless, but there is something vital about her. She has the most life of anyone in the novel, and her very presence is like an inoculation of freshness.
‘Miss Norton herself had only just arrived. The hall was full of suitcases, a fur coat sprawled on a chair, there was a tennis racquet, a bag of golf clubs.’
Though much older, Marda is riveting to the impressionable Lois, and indeed, even the remote Laurence is affected by her. Her fur coats, her manicures, her sophistication, her wit, her hair brushes, her ornate picture frames, her dresses…everything Marda says and does fascinates Lois, who is soon following her about like an adoring puppy.
‘Marda sat on the writing-table, engaged in manicure. Little pots, pads and bottles paraded; a chamois leather spread on her knee. A sweet smell of varnish, like peardrops, was in the air.
“The most I can do,” said Lois, intent, “is to keep mine clean.”
“Quite enough. It’s just this habit of making up every part of one that’s exposed at all—Lois, have a cigarette?”
“Oh….thanks. You don’t mind my coming?”
“My dear, why?”
“What lovely brushes! What a…what an uncommon photo frame!”
And on…Lois exclaims over her dresses…touches them, shows her, shyly, her drawing books, asks in a fit of anxiety…
“Am I pawing things?”
‘Marda laughed and began screwing on the lids of her little pots. In the light of her brilliant life, her deftness seemed to Lois inimitable. One would have had to have lived twenty-nine years as fast, as surely and wildly, to screw pink celluloid caps on to small white pots with just that lightness of fingertip, just that degree of amusement, just that detachment of smile and absorption in attitude. And the pink smell of nail varnish, dresses trickling over a chair, flash of swinging shoe-buckle, cloud of powder over the glass, the very room with its level stare over the tree-tops, took on awareness, smiled with secrecy, had the polish and depth of experience. The very birds on the frieze flew round in cognizant agitation.’
That description is palpably brilliant…and how clear it is that Bowen wrote directly from her sense memory. How often, surely, had she sat and watched her mother perform this feminine ritual. This is one of the most touching scenes in the book.
It has been suggested that Lois was nursing a schoolgirl crush on Marda, and certainly one can see a kind of infatuation. But the longing, in this case, was the simple longing for a mother figure. The affection-starved Lois craved, not sexual attention, but acceptance, advice and approval. The kind of warm hugs and solace only a mother figure could give. Someone with whom she could be her gauche and silly self—adolescent merging into adult—and still be loved.
Marda was beautifully non-judgmental, and encouraged Lois to talk, to open up. She enjoyed her company, and the reality of that gave Lois confidence. When Marda left, our hearts broke for Lois.
It is from the exceedingly negative Mr. Montmorency that we get a description of Lois’ late mother, Laura, and thus realize the purpose of Mr. Montmorency in the book. He is a conduit for remembrance of the beautiful Laura.
“She was always lovely. But she was never happy at all, even here. She never knew what she wanted, she was very vital.”
How else would we know of the wild, romantic element that had been a part of this dead woman’s life? Montmorency had been terribly in love with Laura; there had been talk of an engagement. But Laura had suddenly, unaccountably, married someone else.
‘She never knew what she wanted….’
Montmorency, still half in love with Laura, cannot look at Lois without thinking of what he lost.
‘Laura’s response had been irradiation, a quiver of personality. She was indefinite definitely, like a tree shining, shaking away outlines; a bay, a poplar in wind and sunshine. Her impulses—those incalculable springings-out of mind through the body—had had, like movements of branches, a wild kind of certainty.’
Shades of Marda. In fact, when Marda arrives, Montmorency quickly forgets the dead Laura and falls in love with the living Marda.
Once again, Marda and Laura are linked by suggestion. And to make this an even more convoluted menage a trois, Lois imagines, briefly, foolishly, that she is in love with Hugo Montmorency. It is the emotional connection he had had with her mother that makes her feel a curious closeness to him. It is he, looking at her, and seeing her mother’s likeness, that makes her feel strangely alive.
There are many conundrums….and many beautiful passages. It is a novel that, though not always understood, can be enjoyed as Walter Pater once wrote about the observer’s perception of beauty:
“A sudden light transforms some trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing fan, the dust in the barn-door. A moment—and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.”
***********This is an excellent review if you want more of the political back story.
The house and estate in the novel is called Danielstown, and it is modeled very closely after Elizabeth Bowen’s own beloved family home, Bowen’s Court. This, to her great grief, was torn down almost directly after she was forced to sell it, in 1959.
A lovely scholarly review here; she mentions ‘the readerly pleasure’ we get from Bowen’s writing