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  • “Fiction with the Texture Of History”: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September
  • Julia McElhattan Williams (bio)

Early in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Lois Farquar, the novel’s adolescent heroine, has a strange encounter. She and the other residents of and visitors to Danielstown, the Protestant Ascendancy home of her aunt and uncle, are sitting out on the front steps of the house after dinner, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the night. Their enjoyment of the evening is interrupted, however, by the sound of a truck, the nightly patrol of British soldiers making their way along the road that borders the demesne. For this is the year 1920, and even in the simple act of sitting out, these characters are not allowed to forget that Ireland is in a state of war.

Motivated by either the reminder provided by the “furtive lorry” or the chill in the air, everyone moves indoors. Everyone except Lois, that is, who, with adolescent defiance, declares she will “walk up the avenue,” where once, tempting retribution from the Irish rebels, she danced with a British subaltern (The Last September 32). 1 Tonight she wishes to test her courage again, but this time she anticipates a supernatural, not a political, threat:

A shrubbery path was solid with darkness, she pressed down it. Laurels breathed coldly and close: on her bare arms [End Page 219] the tips of leaves were timid and dank, like tongues of dead animals. Her fear of the shrubberies tugged at its chain. . . . She went forward eagerly, daring a snap of the chain, singing; a hand to the thump of her heart, dramatic with terror.

(TLS 33)

In the next moment, Lois reaches the holly bushes where her path crosses with another’s, and it is here that her dark, delicious fears seem about to be realized:

First, she did not hear footsteps, and as she began to notice the displaced darkness thought what she dreaded was coming, was there within her—she was indeed clairvoyant, exposed to horror and going to see a ghost. Then steps, hard on the smooth earth; branches slipping against a trench-coat. The trench-coat rustled across the path ahead, to the swing of a steady walker. She stood by the holly immovable, blotted out in her black [dress], and there passed within reach of her hand . . . a resolute profile, powerful as a thought.

(TLS 33–34)

The man she sees is not the apparition she both longed and feared to meet, and she feels moved to speak to him, “in gratitude for [his] fleshliness” (TLS 34). But this is 1920, and Lois quickly deduces the trespasser’s purpose: “It must be because of Ireland he was in such a hurry; down from the mountains, making a shortcut through [the] demesne” (TLS 34). And so, as he passes her, she cannot make the contact she wishes to. She cannot speak, and she cannot be seen. Finally she concludes, “[h]ere was something else she could not share. She could not conceive of her country emotionally” (TLS 34). The rebel moves on in what Lois believes is “contemptuous unawareness” of her, his intentions burning onto “the dark an almost visible trail” (TLS 34).

To begin with, I have labeled this moment in Bowen’s novel strange, an assertion that is, perhaps, not immediately self-evident. Its peculiarity does not lie in the close proximity of an Anglo-Irish young woman and an Irish man at a crisis point in modern Irish history, for in fact Anglo-Irish estate owners often crossed paths with the rebels who agitated for independence in their counties. The anomaly that I wish to examine, and which will serve as the controlling metaphor for this [End Page 220] study of The Last September, is the eclipse figure that lies at the heart of the encounter. The rebel, moving down his path in the dark, is visible, his “resolute profile” distinguishable against the black bushes, and he even leaves a trail of light behind him. In contrast, Lois, moving along her own path and passing closely to the rebel, is “blotted out” by her black dress against the black bushes, almost as if the...

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pp. 219-242
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