My distaste for Elizabeth Bowen and Lois, the self-obsessed protagonist of her novel, <i> The Last September </i>, set in the face of the anti-colonial turmoil of the War for Irish Independence, is not misinformed. The character’s Anglo-Irish superiority and willful...
My distaste for Elizabeth Bowen and Lois, the self-obsessed protagonist of her novel, <i> The Last September </i>, set in the face of the anti-colonial turmoil of the War for Irish Independence, is not misinformed. The character’s Anglo-Irish superiority and willful obliviousness outrages me because Bowen portrays it as entirely natural and without irony, even with an elegiac wistfulfulness that sets my teeth on edge. Lois, one could argue like the rest of her family who are all virtually unaffected by the violence outside the walls of their estate, prefers her own fantasies to reality. Am I guilty of similar transgressions when I become immersed in my work, my life, at the expense of all else? The idea makes me shudder. Bowen seems to take in stride, as if silly girls are destined to become silly women, as if that is the proper way of the world and there are no other possibilities for them.
Lois is infatuated with Gerald, a British Black and Tan, but she also briefly imagines being in love with a married friend of her uncle’s, Mr. Montmorency, who literally could have been her father as he was once in love with Lois’ mother. She is fond of making outlandish pronouncements such as, "I hate women. But I can''t think how to be anything else," and dreaming up romantic, idyllic European tours where she can travel unfettered and alone (unheard of for a lady in that day) to places where people “don’t care for politics.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with those repressive and delimiting attitudes, but nevertheless, I can still resent the naïve and ridiculous mindsets they foster in these pale, privileged, delicate but useless women. (I have more respect for Molly Bloom, and as anyone who reads my work knows, Marion and I are hardly bff, because Joyce uses her as a tool to valorize an anti-intellectual purely sensual (not to mention slutty) and chauvinistic portrayal of women.) Calling Lois insufferable really doesn’t cover it. While she and her friends are obsessing over petty social slights, houseguests, the weather, and tennis parties, Gerald and his fellows at-arms are out capturing and murdering rebels and innocent civilians in the name of God and Empire without so much as a second thought. I wish I could maintain the guise of critical objectivity, but I find Lois and Bowen, as her creator, utterly abhorrent. I want to smack their smug, Ascendancy faces.
So, Gerald ends up murdered in an ambush after dumping Lois, who heads to Tours. In February, after her departure, Danielstown and the two other local Big Houses are burned to the ground. I can’t call it an entirely satisfying conclusion because Lois doesn’t seem genuinely devastated or irrevocably altered by Gerald’s death, or if she is, Bowen doesn’t do an effective job of portraying her as such. In fact, there is very little of Lois’ inner turmoil; she flees to the garden to see the last place she and Gerald spoke, but she is not weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably. She seems to stoically endure in a rather uncompelling way. Trust, I am the queen of subtlety and can find a way to rationalize pretty much any turn on a dime conversion. As previously stated, I have a very forgiving heart but there was no perceptible change.
I think the whole project of the novel is a strange one and crystallizes in Lois’ cousin, Laurence’s dreams of an alternative past, present, and future with different outcomes. Laurence is the standard laze-about abstract Oxbridge type, reminiscent of Tibby in E.M. Forster''s <i> Howards End </i>. Lois, too, from her romance with Gerald to her friendship with Marda Norton is full of fantasy. The Naylors and the Montmorencys seem likewise willfully unaware of the conditions of violence that surround them, even if they are ostensibly offended by the actions of the army—they do nothing and barely react at all beyond some brief complaining— until one of the other officers comes to Danielstown to announce Gerald’s death. The whole environment of <i> The Last September </i> with its focus on minor social dramas and privileged malaise with national conflict as merely a minor annoyance in the backdrop, a ripple that barely troubles the placidly banal surface of their lives until smack-bang at the novel''s end, seems to function as Bowen’s own dream of alternative universe unmarred by struggle. Yet ignorance is not bliss, but ennui.