- “Fumbling Along the Boundaries of the Personal”: History and Affect in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September
Most readers of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September will have been struck by its startlingly abrupt ending. Telling the story of an Anglo-Irish Big House during the Irish Rebellion, The Last September presents us with two parallel plotlines that, in important ways, never intersect. The first is the affectively rich story of the potential marriage of Lois Farquar—an orphan who lives at Danielstown with her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Naylor—to a British soldier named Gerald Lesworth, who is in Ireland to defend Lois and her family from the novel’s second plot: the Irish Rebellion, which remains largely in the background until we reach the text’s conclusion. The marriage plot has been disposed of, the houseguests have departed, and Lois has been sent to France when we find Lady Naylor talking to a neighboring Anglo-Irish lady, Mrs. Trent. “Then we see you on Tuesday,” Mrs. Trent says as she departs, and the two ladies comment upon the beauty of the house in autumn.1 Three terse paragraphs follow. The first begins banally enough—“The two did not, however, again see Danielstown” (LS, 302)—and the second tells us why: “For in February, before those leaves had visibly budded, the death—the execution, rather—of the three houses, Danielstown, Castle Trent, Mount Isabel, occurred in the same night” (LS, 303). Eight sentences later the novel concludes. Why does Bowen here emphasize the radical disparity between her two plots, particularly since she has gone to such pains throughout the text to link them metaphorically to one another?
The answer, I will argue, lies in her reading of the historical position of the Anglo-Irish, who find themselves shifting, to borrow Raymond Williams’s terms, from a dominant to a residual part of the social order.2 All of the novel’s peculiar tensions—its play between continuity and rupture, the overlap and disconnect between its two plots, and, as I will explore in depth, its idiosyncratic understanding of affect—take place within this larger historical movement.3 Indeed, many of the terms critics use to describe Bowen’s work share more than a family [End Page 715] resemblance with recent discourse on affect. As many critics have noted, Bowen is virtually “addicted to personification,” creating the “sense that every object has a psyche,” and thus elucidating “the hidden current of vitality that she sensed was coursing through the physical world.”4 Similarly, Bowen’s exploration of the inner life of her characters owes a debt to both Henry James and the inevitable Virginia Woolf, with whom she shares a sense of the fluidity of one’s inner life and the context-defining intensity of individual moods.5 And yet it is not quite right to argue that her characters “suffer an indefinite or contingent narrative presence because they are so much constituted by the intermingled thoughts of their own and those of other characters,” nor is it correct to say, as Omri Moses has recently argued of James, that her “characters are so profoundly relational that they cannot be bound to any independent—which is to say, pre-established and recurring—form of being.”6 For Bowen, at least in The Last September, relationality has its limits and these limits are due, in large part, to the particular historical position of the Anglo-Irish.
To be sure, this runs counter to the dominant trend of much affect theory, which is often motivated by the desire to escape determination. The common notion that “affects are less formed and structured than emotions” seems to offer a way out of the conceptual straitjacket of Marxist, Althusserian, or Foucauldian notions of modernity.7 Affect opens up, according to Lawrence Grossberg, “the possibility of a multiplicity of modernities,” of “other ways of thinking, built on notions of multiplicities and positivities, which would recognize the complexity of discursive effects, agencies, and mediations.”8 Similarly, for Brian Massumi, affects are about the potentiality latent in any given situation. “Having more potentials,” Massumi argues, “intensifies our life. We’re not enslaved by our...