Indiana State University | Published: 15 March, 2010
ISSUE 5 | Pages: 119-128 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2010-2247
2010 by James F. Wurtz | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The recent scholarly focus on Elizabeth Bowen’s modernism tends to reinforce a false dichotomy between Bowen as an Ascendancy Big House novelist and Bowen as a literary modernist. In keeping with Jameson’s argument that the colonial experience is at the root of Western modernism, I propose that her representations of Anglo-Irish Big House culture, in The Last September in particular, are in fact focal points for understanding Bowen as a modernist, and I argue that the Gothic, with its unavoidable political and colonial resonances, is fundamental to Bowen’s Irish modernism.
La crítica académica reciente en torno al Modernismo de Elizabeth Bowen tiende a reforzar la falsa dicotomía entre Bowen como novelista de la élite dirigente de la “Big House” y Bowen como modernista literaria. Subscribiendo el argumento de Jameson de que la experiencia colonial está en la base del Modernismo occidental, propongo que la representación de la cultura anglo-irlandesa de la Big House que nos ofrece la autora, particularmente en The Last September, es en realidad un aspecto clave para comprender a Bowen como modernista, a la vez que sostengo que el elemento gótico es fundamental en el Modernismo irlandés de Bowen.
Bowen; modernismo; lo gótico; Big House; The Last September
Literary modernism has been stereotyped as essentially apolitical, turning inward to focus on the psychological construction of the subject and elevating an aesthetic ideology that venerates Art as a self-enclosed, unitary end. Critical discussions of Irish modernist texts have played a large part in overturning this stereotype, with scholars rightly recognizing that the formal innovations of Irish modernism cannot be divorced from the social upheavals of its early twentieth century context. A primary interest in Irish Studies has often been to analyze writers who engage with issues of Irish politics, and their relation to nationalism in particular. Thus, while the focus on exposing the political and national elements in Irish modernist writers such as Joyce, Yeats, or Elizabeth Bowen inherently challenges the notion of modernism as apolitical, it also distances them from the wider realm of transnational modernism. The interest in identifying a literature as belonging to an international category (“modernist”) runs counter to the impulses of a field that claims a specifically national status for its literature. The tension that this creates is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the case of Elizabeth Bowen.
Early criticism of Bowen described her as a writer of ghost stories and “middlebrow” women’s novels (Miller 2007: 354). With the rise of Irish Studies in the early 1990s, Bowen’s work was examined through a lens largely influenced by the need to define and categorize a canon. As a result, scholars identified Bowen as an Anglo-Irish Big House novelist, focusing on her novel The Last September and her memoir Bowen’s Court.1 Aligned with this identification, she is frequently placed in the tradition of the Anglo-Irish Gothic, following Le Fanu in particular. In the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, W.J. McCormack describes Bowen as a Gothic writer whose Protestant identity rendered her ambivalently Irish and stresses her “Big House inheritance” and “her reading of Le Fanu and James” (McCormack 1991: 853).
More recently, there has been an increasing critical focus on her work as modernist. This perspective gravitates to her short fiction and her writing around the time of the Second World War in making its claim for Bowen as a modernist writer. Sinéad Mooney sees Bowen’s absence in “standard accounts of modernist literature” as stemming from Bowen’s “insistent self-identification with her Anglo-Irish ‘race’”(Mooney 2007: 246). Brook Miller argues for her work as “a hybrid of modernist detachment and Victorian thematics”, while Keri Walsh tracks Bowen’s engagement with Surrealism through her short fiction and claims a space for her “in the context of a modernist avant-garde” (Miller 2007: 363; Walsh 2007: 127).
However, this recent awareness of Bowen as modernist tends to reinforce a false dichotomy between Bowen as an Ascendancy Big House novelist and Bowen as a literary modernist. In keeping with Fredric Jameson’s argument that the colonial experience is at the root of Western modernism, I want to suggest that Bowen’s representations of Anglo-Irish Big House culture are in fact focal points for understanding Bowen as a modernist (Jameson 1990: 64). Her deployment of Gothic tropes like the ghost and the haunted house not only places her in an Irish Gothic tradition but also indicates her modernism. To take one particular example, The Last September, though most often read in an Ascendancy context, carefully links the modern with the Gothic, thereby collapsing the dichotomy and more broadly indicating the nexus of associations between Irish modernism and its colonial context. Through a preoccupation with internal and external ghosts, Bowen’s modernism is centrally tied to her reinvention of Gothic conventions.
In The Last September, Bowen takes as a central theme the ruin of the country manor. The decaying Big House touches upon primary concerns of the Ascendancy, as the crumbling of the house parallels in many ways the crumbling of the Anglo-Irish as an aristocratic class. In a sense, the Anglo-Irish perceived themselves to be under siege from the increasingly vocal Irish Catholic majority, and as targets of insurgent violence, the houses symbolized the perilous position of the Anglo-Irish. At the same time, the Act of Union reduced the influence of the Ascendancy, and as it concentrated power in Britain, the Anglo-Irish slipped into irrelevancy. Unsurprisingly, the destabilizing of Irish Protestant identity found a natural outlet in Gothic modes of expression. The Big House became the main site where these issues concentrated, an uneasy repository of the past, neither crypt nor monument, where what has died can never really pass and what lives cannot escape the grasp of the dead. Little wonder, then, that the Anglo-Irish Gothic revolves around a family house or seat as the center of its Gothic machinations. In the theme of the Big House, Bowen finds the potential to reevaluate the Anglo-Irish in relation to the unsettling experiences of modernity.
From the very beginning of the novel there is something foreboding about the house, around which images of death and decay crystallize. When the Montmorencys arrive at Danielstown, “the vast facade of the house stared coldly over its mounting lawns” (Bowen 1998: 7). Shortly thereafter, Lois sits in the upstairs ante-room, where she feels a sense of surveillance as she observes 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…Exhausted by sunshine, the backs of the crimson chairs were a thin light orange; 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 (9-10).
The “blistered” shutters show the sense of decay in this passage, and the “curtainless” windows with their ragged tassels that “fray” the light passing through give even the sun the appearance of being worn-down, over-used and nearing the end. The chairs are “Exhausted”, the room smells of camphor (an anesthetic and a substance used in embalming), and the primary decorations in the room are the skins of dead animals (10). These skins represent the gloried past by virtue of their existence as trophies of past expeditions while at the same they add to the sense of “vague depression”, claustrophobia, and impending death which permeates the room. Significantly, like the camphor chairs, they also refer to the imperial past, trophies from the colonial wilderness which bring to mind in particular the history of the Anglo-Irish in India. These skins “hung like dust”, dead, depleted, and like the house itself, decomposing and lifeless, both political symbol and monument to a bygone resplendence.
Further, this colonial context signals one place where, in Jamesonian terms, Bowen’s Gothic descriptions feed her modernism. Jameson identifies the legacy of imperialism as creating a “spatial disjunction” between Third World colony and First World metropolis (1990: 51). In other words, imperialism produces a blankness at the center that cannot be imagined by a national literature, for nothing “can ever be enough to include this radical otherness of colonial life, colonial suffering, and exploitation” (51). As a result, “daily life and existential experience in the metropolis … can no longer be grasped immanently; it no longer has its meaning” (51). If modernism is the form of art that recognizes this loss of meaning, then Bowen’s ironic pairing of the colonial legacy of the ante-room with the last days of the Anglo-Irish is a modernist moment in the text. The spatial disjunction that Jameson sees is felt as an emptiness, a lack inscribed at the core of the text. What is modernist about the novel is its recognition of this blank space and its attribution of the resultant loss of meaning and fragmentation not simply to life in the modern world, as the stereotype of an apolitical modernism would have it, but rather to an explicitly colonial discourse that locates its characters as simultaneously colonizer and colonized.
Crucially, Bowen uses the Gothic to do this. In an image that foreshadows the cataclysmic burning at the end of the novel, Bowen describes nightfall over Danielstown:
The sky shone, whiter than glass, fainting down to the fretted leaf-line, but was being steadily drained by the dark below, to which the grey of the lawns, like smoke, as steadily mounted. The house was highest of all, with toppling immanence (30).
The crumbling house is a familiar Gothic image, most recognizably in Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (which she references explicitly later in the novel). Bowen’s use of the imagery suggests not only an allusion to Poe, but that decay and ruin are inherent in the very notion of the Anglo-Irish Big House itself. Both the exterior and the interior of the house convey a sense of menace, claustrophobia, and an atmosphere of death and decomposition appropriate to the Gothic.
The Gothic also works on the level of character. Neil Corcoran argues that “beneath the surface realism of Lois’ relationship with Gerald and Daventry in The Last September there is the shadow of a Gothic plot in which Daventry is Gerald’s doppelgänger other” (2001: 331). In the uncomfortable scene at the dance when Lois goes off with Daventry, who is drunk on whiskey, she feels herself the object of his desire, just as she is the object of Gerald’s affection. Strikingly, Bowen uses the Gothic as the medium for this feeling: “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” (1998: 158). The reading of Gerald and Daventry as Gothic doubles is bolstered here not only by their parallel treatment of Lois, but by the reference to Daventry as a ghost, whose desire is nostalgic rather than immediate.
For Bowen, ghosts serve as an important point of conjunction between her modernism and the Big House tradition. Existing between the borders of life and death, the ghost is an actual spatial disjunction; literally the presence of absence. The radical otherness that adheres to the colonial experience in Jameson’s account is akin to the experience of the ghost: just as it is impossible to fully grasp the extent of colonial suffering, one cannot know what lies beyond death. Bowen represents the unknowable void at the center of life by making the figure of the ghost, a blank space, central to her novel. The ghost is the most prevalent Gothic image in the novel, for it continually reemerges–“ghostly” is one of the most common adjectives in the book–and various characters throughout the course of the narrative are described as ghosts. If Daventry is Gerald’s doppelgänger, then it makes sense for some air of ghostliness to adhere to Gerald as well. Indeed, during the dance, just before Lois encounters the drunk Daventry, she dances with Gerald. “‘You do dance divinely.’ ‘What?’ he said, like the ghost of Daventry. Someone stopped the gramophone, they looked at each other, shocked” (151). The connection between Daventry, the veteran who “had been shell-shocked
- For instance, in Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals, the only mention of The Last September comes in a discussion of Yeats and Anglo-Ireland (1987. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest U.P. 31-32). InWriting Ireland, David Cairns and Shaun Richards mention The Last September in the context of the Big House tradition (1988. Manchester: Manchester U.P. 121). These books, which laid the foundation for postcolonial analyses of Irish writing, each devote less than one sentence to Bowen. Declan Kiberd gives an entire chapter to Bowen in his Inventing Ireland, but examines her within the same frame as a chronicler of Anglo-Irish sensibility in The Last September and Bowen’s Court (1995.London, Jonathan Cape). [↩]
- In arguing that the Gothic represents the disintegration of the subject, Robert Miles actually uses a metaphor that joins the Gothic with the modern and the Anglo-Irish: “the self finding itself dispossessed in its own house, in a condition of rupture, disjunction, fragmentation” (1993: 3). [↩]
- Bowen explicitly aligns the mill with Poe’s House of Usher: “Cracks ran down [the walls]; she expected, now with detachment, to see them widen, to see the walls peel back from a cleft–like the House of Usher’s” (1998: 124). [↩]
Backus, Margot Gayle. 1999. The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order. Durham: Duke UP.
Bowen, Elizabeth. 1998 (1929). The Last September. London: Vintage.
Coates, John. 1990. “Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September: The loss of the past and the modern consciousness”. Durham University Journal. LXXXII.2. 205-217.
Concilio, Carmen 1999. “Things that Do Speak in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September”. Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Ed. Wim Tigges. Amsterdam: Rodopi Press. 279-292.
Corcoran, Neil. 2001. “Discovery of a Lack: History and Ellipsis in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September”. Irish University Review. 31.2. 315-333.
Ellmann, Maud. 2003. Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page. Edinbugh: Edinburgh UP.
Jameson, Fredric. 1990. “Modernism and Imperialism”. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Ed. Seamus Deane. Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P. 43-66.
McCormack, W.J. 1993. Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats and Bowen. Manchester: Manchester UP.
_________. 1991. “Irish Gothic and After (1820-1945)”. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol II. Ed. Seamus Deane. Derry: Field Day Publications. 831-854.
Miles, Robert. 1993. Gothic Writing 1750-1820: A Genealogy. London: Routledge.
Miller, Brook. 2007. “The Impersonal Personal: Value, Voice, and Agency in Elizabeth Bowen’s Literary and Social Criticism”. Modern Fiction Studies 53:2 (Summer 2007). 351-369.
Mooney, Sinéad. 2007. “Unstable Compounds: Bowen’s Beckettian Affinities.” Modern Fiction Studies53:2 (Summer 2007). 238-256.
Walsh, Keri. 2007. “Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist.” Éire-Ireland 42:3-4 (Fall/Winter 2007). 126-147.