It is stereotyped that modernism, being essentially apolitical, focuses on the psychological construction of the subject and glorifies the aesthetic ideology. However, the critical discussions of the Irish have played an important role in defying this stereotype. The analysis of the writers engaged in the issues of the Irish politics has always been of primary interest in the Irish Studies. The interest in the literature as the unit that belongs to an international category disagrees with the idea that requires a special national status for the respective literatures. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen should be considered as the representative of modernism as it contains some of its most common features such as the strong reaction against social and political views.
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Elizabeth Bowen was first described as a writer of the middlebrow women’s novels or ghost stories. Nevertheless, after a thorough analysis of her novel The Last September, Bowen was named an Anglo-Irish Big House novelist. Recently, her works have been under a critical focus, being determined as the representatives of modernism. This point of view has been proven by her short fiction and her writings about the period of the Second World War. In her works, the representations of Anglo-Irish Big House culture are supposed to be the central points in characterizing Bowen as a modernist writer.
The central theme in The Last September is the ruin of the country estate. The destruction of Big House parallels with the demolition of the Anglo-Irish aristocratic class. The Big House becomes the center where all issues of the past focus. Furthermore, it becomes the place where everything that has died stays forever and never really passes away. It is a matter of fact that this house moves all the Gothic machinations around it. In this theme, Bowen finds the prospects to revise the Anglo-Irish history with regard to the modern experiences and questions that cannot be settled.
The anticipation of the house, around which the images of decay and death harden, is present from the very beginning of the novel. When the Montmorencys arrive at Danielstown, “the vast facade of the house stared coldly over its mounting lawns” (Bowen 7). Shortly afterward, Lois feels a sense of inspection when she sits in the ante-room:
How the high windows were curtainless; tasseled fringes frayed the light at the top. The white sills, the shutters folded back in their frames were blistered … a smell of camphor and animals drawn from skins on the floor by the glare of morning still hung like dust on the evening chill (Bowen 9-10).
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This passage is full of decay; the skins of dead animals glorify the past adventures and tense the atmosphere of death, at the same time. Moreover, these trophies also are a symbol of the imperial past that degraded the same way these skins did. Subsequently, Lois’ ironic comparison of the colonial legacy of the ante-room and the Anglo-Irish last days represents Bowen’s modernism, as this moment presupposes the loss of meaning. The story recognizes the novel’s attribution not only to the modern life but also to the colonial discourse that settles its characters as mutually colonized and colonizing.
The Gothic image of a ruining house is not new; it is best recognized in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Elizabeth Bowen uses this imagery not only because it is an allusion to Poe but also because it suggests that the ruin and decay are inalienable from the notion of the Anglo-Irish Big House. Moreover, the Gothic is also present at the characters’ level, especially in the relationships of Lois, Daventry, and Gerald, “Between bursts of laughter she had felt him look at her lips, at her arms, at her dress, like a ghost, with nostalgia and cold curiosity” (Bowen 158). For Bowen, the ghosts have become an integral part of the connection between the Big House tradition and her modernism.
Bowen represents the incomprehensible emptiness at the center of life, by putting the ghost in the focus of the book. It is the dominant image in the book as various characters are depicted as ghosts, and the adjective ghostly is one of the most widespread in the novel. The citizens of Danielstown are so involved in their daily routines and averse to realize the flurry around them that it is complicated to consider them alive. This detail shows how the novel’s ghostliness interlocks with the Gothic definition of the Big House.
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Bowen personified the house and everything it contains; consequently, it also becomes one of the vital characters of the book. Moreover, the mansion becomes even a more living character than any other person; however, it keeps voiceless about the outward conflict. The other characters notice “something unremembered about the face of the house, some intensification of the silence surrounding it” (Bowen 15). However, the house in death remains “hospitable, as a silence that was to be ultimate flowed back, confident, to the steps” (Bowen 206). Finally, despite the facts that, throughout the novel, the objects of the house possess the energy that some of the characters do not have, in the end, the house is portrayed as the one that sentence its settlers to an illusory existence. The burning of the estate personalizes the burning of the Anglo-Irish family.
Bowen’s Gothic depicts the Big House and all the objects in it as provoking the ghostliness that determines the situation of the Anglo-Irish community in the 1920s. Therefore, the declaration and isolation of the characters implies both a colonial heritage and a modernist perspective. The fact that The Last September can be read either as a chronicle of the Anglo-Irish sensitivity or a novel of manners indicates the interchange between the Anglo-Irish family and the Big House. One more function of the house is that of continuance that links the past with the present. Danielstown is an apparent marker of the contradiction between yesterday and tomorrow, in or out from the outward scenery. The modernist writing is also concerned with the complicated relationships between the past and present.
Modernism, in its traditional understanding, is interested in prospecting for meaning in the modern world; it questions the human in terms of upheaval, great change, and fragmentation. According to this understanding, the similarity with the Gothic can be apparently observed. The origin of Gothic in the period of crisis and its accent on the fragmentary make it a substantive feature in comprehending the ways, in which the Irish modernism operates in its cosmopolitan and colonial contexts. The Gothic, in Bowen’s understanding, acquires the meaning of something more than simply a received tradition that connects her with the genre’s convention. She rather uses it as a group of images and tropes that convey a series of historical connections. One can clearly observe it when Bowen describes how the Anglo-Irish personality is attached to his/her possessions and houses.
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When one reads the novel as exploration of the personality’s hunt for order and meaning at a time when the culture is ruining, the novel’s interior aspects can be noticed; they associate it with more general interpretations of modernism. This hunt for meaning continues along the colonial conflict, which is a kind of a coming-of-age story for Lois and her country. The attempt to reach a new subjectivity and the breakdown of character are the core features of both modernism and Gothic. The presence of the colonial situation in the novel shows the consolidation of the Gothic and modern models of writing as it withdraws the reader’s attention from the aesthetic realm and makes him/her concentrate on the peculiar historical realities of the Ascendancy’s last days. The outer world seems to break in inevitably upon the allegedly magic world of the self.
In addition, The Last September asks the question about what is meant by to be modern and arrives at the conclusion that to be modern means to be illusory. When the character of Lois first appears and greets the Montmorencys, she is depicted as “looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look” (Bowen 7). However, later, she is identified by the guests not as fresh but as modern. “I had no idea how to talk to him. I suppose you’d never find that difficult. I expect now, Lois, you’re very modern.” (Bowen 8) Lois is the representative of newness and youth and contrasts very sharply with the aging characters she encounters throughout the novel. Although she is the first representative of the modern in the novel, the text contains one more vivid example of it. Marda Norton, despite her age, is also considered reckless and young by the household. Her femininity, brashness, and disconnection from the society of the Big House serve to ruin the comfortable frames of the Anglo-Irish reference. Being modern walls her off the Naylors’ culture, which is regarded as a bygone era. When Marda is preparing to leave, Francie offers her some cologne but ruffles that, as she is modern, she might not like it. Modern here is applied to personalize the disconnection between the present and past, as cologne is common for the Victorians, who consider it something of a luxury. However, it does not appeal to Marda, who is modern and independent from what the Anglo-Irish culture expects from her.
The notion of a gap between the present and past is complicated because it is depicted in the Gothic form. The characters labeled modern are depicted as the ghosts throughout the novel. At the tea party, Betty Vermont, the wife of an English officer who considers war a delightful holiday, says, “Things do run in families, don’t they? Now I am sure you’ve all got ghosts” (Bowen 46). In the text, it is used to create a comic situation, but the notion that the Big House is cursed is the Gothic tool that one can notice at several levels.
Moreover, being modern, in The Last September, mean more than being new and divorced from the past. Bowen offers a rigorous evaluation of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy; she sets the characters of Lois and Marda to both the ghostly and the modern. The author draws the reader’s attention to the immateriality of modern Lois and Marda and, thus, supports the Anglo-Irish ghostliness as a whole.
The encounter at the ruined mill is the most prominent Gothic scene in the novel that brings the connection between the Gothic and Bowen’s modernism to its climax. Here the question of the Anglo-Irish future is asked more vividly; the mill is the site where the author links the concerns about being Anglo-Irish and modern with broader political struggle that is the backdrop of the story. The mill, as well as the house, is personified, “The mill startled them all, staring, light-eyed, ghoulishly, round a bend in the valley” (Bowen 122). The mill represents the ruined political space that betrays the issues that Ireland faces.
The mill, like the Big House, portrays blight and serves as a physical sign of the reflection of the past on the present. This blight is identified as the deformation of the Irish economy under the influence of the Act of Union. Although the decline presented in the novel is more linked to the Gothic, as the dead mill enters the democracy of eeriness; it equals the broken manors in sadness and futility.
The notion of a democracy of eeriness has several functions in the book. First of all, it fits the debilitating feelings that the characters experience towards the Big House. Furthermore, it foreshadows the probable doom of Danielstown. The image of the mill, in its turn, points to the crucial role in pondering the position of the Anglo-Irish. It also symbolizes the political and economic domination of the Ascendancy.
One more critical moment for Bowen’s modernism is the scene at the mill; here, the mill magnifies the radical imperfection. In the mill’s simultaneous interrelation with the Big House’s indictment, it shifts from a nationalist-aligned Third World position and a British-aligned First World status, occupying neither of them. The mill is a physical personification of the mundane disjunction understood as the core symptom of the influence that the imperialism has on the modern. The joining of Bowen’s modernism with the Anglo-Irish political reading cannot be possible without the Gothic.
Elizabeth removes the vertex from its natural sources and centers its attention not on the power of nature or the grandeur, but on the power and terror that is present in the incendiary, potentially frantic, and corroded space of the mill. It evokes an allied dialect between the revulsion to industry and fascination with it.
On the other hand, the ruin describes not the Ascendancy’s fall, but the decay of the middle class. It is not an estate but manufacturing site; without respect to who may have profited from that industry, the disrepair itself is dishonorable. The fact is confirmed by the mill’s status as a shelter for the IRA. This perspective gives another view of the mill, like the one belonging not to the Big House but the political impacts of the Big House’s culture.
Beyond its wicked and claustrophobic interior, the Gothic character of the mill is revealed in the presence of the gunfighter and the danger that he displays to Lois and Marda. Hugo stays outside of this encounter (the contact with a forbidden political area seems limited to those who are modern). While officially encoding the blankness into the story, the text does not consider the real shooting; rather, Lois and Marda find the gunman, who notifies them about the forthcoming demolition of Danielstown, “‘It is time,’ he said, ‘that yourselves gave up walking. If you have nothing better to do, you had better keep in the house while you have it” (Bowen 125). Bowen then relocates immediately to Hugo outside, smoking and thirsty for Marda. When he hears the shot of the gun, he hurries to the front of the mill, but does not come in, anticipating for the women to appear. Marda has been wounded when the bullet hit the door jamb, and she appears sucking the blood from her injury. In this personification, the Anglo-Irish become both victim and vampire, avatar of the modern and representative of the past, sinning and sinned against. Marda does not answer Hugo’s questions, focusing her attention on sucking the blood from her wound.
The functions of the vampire’s image can be observed at multiple levels. If the Anglo-Irish bear some liability for the eeriness of the mill, in sucking own blood, Marda demonstrates the Anglo-Irish to be feeding upon themselves, as well. Just as the heritage of the Ascendancy has neutralized the Catholic population, the Big House diminishes its inhabitants to ghosts. As a promiscuous vampire, the culture of the Big House dries all alike, constructing both metaphorical and literal bloodsuckers, who are the prey and predators at the same time. The vampire trope connects the First and Third, smoothing the differences between them. Therefore, Marda-as-a-vampire shows the incapability to speak of or even depict the moment of violence within the mill that foretells the final execution, the volition for the prescribed future while being locked in the wearisome culture of the Big House. It joins these concerns about the future and past in the primordial Gothic image of a vampire.
The novel is divided into three sections: “The Arrival of Mr. also Mrs. Montmorency”, “The Visit of Miss Norton”, and “The Departure of Gerald”. The Montmorencys and Miss Norton are both Anglo-Irish; Gerald is English, and his departure is very emotional. The events in The Last September happen here and now. Although the events are small, their influence on the inner lives of the citizens is enormous. When the reader meets the characters in the novel, he/she gets acquainted with them through the inner monologues, and they prove to be the fully rendered human beings.
The critical deliberation of Bowen as a modernist writer has permanently focused on her short fiction and later novels while The Last September is as an example of the Anglo-Irish Big House writing, from a Gothic tradition. However, Bowen’s work objects to the classification, at least in part, because of the ways in which she applies these older agreements that arise out of Ireland’s colonial history. The Gothic portrays of space and revenants, as well as the Gothic figures of ghosts, are fundamental elements of her short fiction, adjacently more investigational modernist techniques. This fact is distinguished by the critics engaged in establishing Bowen as a modernist. Nevertheless, the presence of Bowen’s modernist trends in her earlier Ascendancy writings implies that her use of the Gothic is not occasional to her more direct modernist texts, but rather is a key component of her modernism. Containing such modernism features as the opposition to political and social views, The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen can undoubtedly be considered the representative of modernism.