Novel Readings

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

It was very interesting and somewhat disorienting reading The Last September so soon after Farrell’s Troubles. On the one hand, they inevitably have a lot in common. On the other hand, you almost wouldn’t know it, they are so different in tone, with Farrell’s novel so dry and yet violent, and Bowen’s so indirect and yet humming with emotional disquiet. Probably because I was better prepared for it, I didn’t find Bowen’s prose as difficult as I did with The Heat of the Day. The Last September is 20 years earlier, too, so perhaps Bowen was still discovering how she wanted her sentences to work – or what kind of (or how much!) work she wanted them to be for her readers. Still, they have the same tendency to break up or wander away before coming back around to their main parts, and as in the later novel, that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.

The title evokes a moment,  and that’s how the whole novel feels, poised on the edge of something. Lois, whose novel it mostly is, is poised on the edge of adulthood: it’s her last September as a girl, though at the same time she is already not a girl even though she hasn’t defined herself, or claimed her identity, as a woman. Those around her impede her development, offering her no meaningful guidance into what it would mean for her, or could look like for her, to move beyond her current unformed, unsettled self. “What they never see,” she says near the end, “is, that I must do something.” That desire to claim an occupation, even as she cannot see what it might be, puts in her in good company: inevitably, I thought of Dorothea (“What could she do, what ought she to do?”). In some ways Lois’s situation seems even worse than Dorothea’s, despite her being more modern, because Lois has not even an imaginative ideal to motivate her. Though Dorothea’s yearnings and fantasies of a noble life only get her in trouble, at least she has a sense of nobility, an aspiration. I guess that’s part of what marks her, and her novel, as Victorian.

Lois’s world too is poised on the brink: the novel is suffused with the threat of violence, but because it is kept so much more on the periphery than in Troubles, it is more shocking when it finally intrudes unequivocally. The tensions run throughout, and reports of “incidents” trickle through, but Lady Naylor’s attitude explains how the novel will treat them: “From all the talk, you might think almost anything was going to happen, but we never listen. I have made it a rule not to talk, either.” Neither not listening nor not talking is a useful or realistic strategy, of course, and inevitably the margins become the center of the story, though Bowen holds them off until nearly the very end.

I was surprised to find myself chuckling at many points in the novel. I don’t remember finding any humor in The Heat of the Day (though it’s possible I just wasn’t attuned to it). The absurdity of the denial exhibited by some of the characters provides from some wry amusement, but there were also moments that made me think of Wilde. “We must seem ridiculous to you, over here,” Lady Naylor says to young Gerald Lesworth, “the way we are all related”:

“Topping, I think,” said Gerald.

“Oh, I don’t know! Now you lucky people seem to have no relations at all; that must feel so independent.”

“I have dozens.”

“Indeed? All in Surrey?”

“Scattered about.”

“That sounds to me, of course,” remarked Lady Naylor, pulling her gloves off brightly, “exceedingly restless.”

The prose also, while occasionally convoluted to a point past patience, very frequently gave me a frisson of readerly pleasure – on nearly every page I marked a passage or sentence that I lingered over because I wanted to, not because I had to to make sense of it. A couple of examples:

Recollections of Laura were now wiped for him from the startlingly green valley, leaving the scene dull. Not a turn of the rocks with the river, not a break-down of turf along the brink, not the Norman keep with perishing corners (where they leaned and quarrelled till Laura had wished aloud it would fall on them) gave back to him what they had taken of that eroding companionship. He and she might never have come here; they were disowned. The sharp rocks breaking out from the turf, the impassive speed of the water, were naked and had to be seen as themselves, in some relation excluding him; like country seen from the train, without past or future. And, having given proof of her impotence to be even here, Laura shrank and drew in her nimbus, leaving only – as in some rediscovered diary of a forgotten year – a few cryptic records, walks, some appointments kept, letters received and posted.

Bowen is brilliant here, I think, about the complicated way memory and association, psychology and emotion, affect our relationship to landscape. And here’s a little bit that is more simply poetic:

An escape of sunshine, penetrating the pale sky in the south-west, altered the room like a revelation. Noiselessly, a sweet-pea moulted its petals on to the writing-table, leaving a bare pistil. The pink butterfly flowers, transparently balancing, were shadowed faintly with blue as by an intuition of death.