House On Fire: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), J.G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970) and The Irish War For Independence

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and J.G. Farrell’s Troubles share very similar structures and even end on virtually identical notes.  They are both set against the Irish War for Independence.   In both novels, Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy carries on largely oblivious to their pending irrelevance.   Both novels conclude with the burning of the buildings against which their respective plots revolve, a hotel in one case, a mansion or “big house” in the other.

The Irish War for Independence was a guerrilla war that took place between 1919 and 1921. Under Michael Collins, the Irish Republican Army, the military arm of Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party,  carried out assassinations of British officials and ambushes of British patrols using deft counterintelligence that not only gave them a head’s up about troop movements but also nullified British informers. Nationalists refused to supply the British with goods or services or  pay  taxes.   These activities were met by vicious reprisals from British forces, including the mainly Catholic armed policemen known as  the Royal Irish Constabulary, and a British auxiliary force,  the Black and Tans, consisting of demobilized troops from the Western Front, who rapidly acquired a reputation for viciousness and drunkenness.  The war ended with a treaty that split the country, with Northern Ireland remaining under the Crown.

It’s not a coincidence that both novels end with a fire. The big houses were symbols of Anglo-Irish domination.  At least 76 were burnt during the Irish War for Independence.  One hundred ninety-nine more were destroyed during the civil war  that erupted between opponents and supporters of the treaty that divided the country.

Troubles opens with Major Brendan Archer traveling to Ireland following his discharge and treatment for shell-shock  to claim or preferably disclaim a bride that he may have acquired while on leave in Brighton. Angela Spencer resides with her family in the Majestic Hotel, a crumbling fortress of Anglo-Irish ascendance.  It’s now populated by a handful of permanent guests, chiefly ancient widows and spinsters. The Majestic is a heavy-handed symbol for a decaying empire.  The symbolism extends to a statue of Queen Victoria by the front entrance.  Despite reports of ambushes and assassinations, the guests continue spending the ends of their days with no fear that their part of the empire is reaching its own end.  Periodically, reports of other global disorders surface.  The massacre at Amritsar, India that spells another step toward  Indian independence (, unrest in Egypt, and the triumphs of the Bolsheviks intrude as passing headlines but leave little impression on any of the characters, who reflexively believe that the Crown will prevail.  At one point, the Majestic’s owner, Edward Spencer,  leads a cohort of the old ladies into a neighboring pub to lead a chorus of God Save The King.

After Angela succumbs to leukemia, the Major, so recently come from the trenches,  entrenches himself at the Majestic.  On the one hand, he’s an observer of the hotel’s decline.  The hotel becomes infested by cats; wings are closed; the M in Majestic falls from the facade;Queen Victoria herself is violated by Sinn Feiners   The Major also witnesses the Spencer family’s own decline beginning with Angela’s death.  Her brother Ripon impregnates a wealthy Catholic girl, is compelled into a shotgun wedding by the girl’s father and is disowned by his own father, Edward.  Angela’s twin sisters lustily flirt, and go beyond flirting, with the intoxicated and rough-mannered British troops.

On the other hand, the Major is a foil for Edward’s rabid anti-Irish feelings.  The Major views the surrounding poverty with compassion,  the product of lack of schooling and opportunity,  although he stops short of embracing Irish self-government: “The English undoubtedly knew more about running the country.  The priests would presumably take over if the English were not there to see fair play,” he reflects. Edward regards the Irish as inherently inferior.  He sees them as “monkeys,” experiments on his elderly servant Murphy, and constructs fortifications around the Hotel although his prejudices do not prevent  an affair with Sarah Devlin, a neighboring Catholic girl for whom the Major also carries a torch.  Members of Edward’s club make decidedly politically incorrect jokes about the Irish, but begin to carry rifles in their golf bags as the situation deteriorates. Edward shoots a nationalist in retaliation for the slaughter of his pet piglets.  The Major’s thoughts after this murder sums up the sorry state of affairs in Ireland:

Edward probably did not see Sinn Feiners as people at all. He saw them as species of game that one could only shoot according to a very brief and complicated season (that is to say, when one caught them in the act of setting off bombs).

“It was perfectly fair!” Edward said for the third time and the Major thought: ‘No, it wasn’t that at all.  It was an act of revenge. Revenge for his piglets. Revenge for Angela. Revenge for a meaningless life. Revenge for the accelerating collapse of Unionism. Revenge for the destruction of the sort of life he’d been brought up to. Revenge for the loss of Ireland.’ He didn’t see Sinn Feiners as human beings at all.  And after all, would the Sinn Feiners be any more likely to see Edward as a human being and take pity on him?

As for the Major, his shell-shock literally shocks him into paralysis.  He plants himself as a guest for years, an odd place for a war veteran in his twenties.  He’s repressed and passive and does not combat Edward for Sarah.  Sarah ends up rejecting both men and heads off with an abusive Black and Tan.  The Major is ultimately implanted by the IRA in the sand in the beach abutting the Hotel, left to die  with the incoming tide.  He’s saved by the old lady battalion, unlike their King whose place in Ireland has been swept aside.

The action in The Last September occurs in Danielstown, a big house, occupied by Lord and Lady Naylor, Lord Naylor’s niece Lois, and Lady Naylor’s nephew Laurence.  The novel opens with a set piece reminiscent of Downton Abbey: the household stands on the steps awaiting the arrival of guests: the invalid Francie Montmorency and her husband Hugo, a man with a wandering eye   In the movie version of The Last September, Lady Naylor is played by the Dowager Countess herself, Maggie Smith.  She’s a daunting woman  who clings to older notions of class,  but ahead of her time in believing careers are available to women.

In The Last September, the war is less visible than in Troubles. It’s chief emissaries are the British troops in the nearby barracks, who head off on patrols and raids but are frustrated by the absence of a pitched battle they can win. The subalterns make good dancing and tennis partners although the officer’s wives are mocked and snubbed by the Anglo-Irish ladies for their lack of polish in exchanges so icy that they cut. Otherwise the war scarcely interferes with the daily routines of entertaining and visiting. As Lois states, “How is it that in this country that ought to be full of such violent realness, there seems nothing for me but clothes and what people say? I might just as well be in some kind of cocoon.”  Lois hears rumors of arms buried on the estate by the IRA, but Lord Naylor prefers letting the sleeping weapons  lie.  There are rumors that girls have had their hair cut for going out with British soldiers.  Lois encounters what is surely an IRA soldier passing through the estate one night.  A short time later, she and another guest, Marda Norton,  are held at pistol point  by an IRA soldier hiding on the estate, but swear secrecy. There’s news that a neighbor’s son was picked up in a raid by British patrols.   The Naylors are not Edward Spencers: they voice patronizing and paternalistic concern for the family. It’s as if proper behavior and burying one’s head in the sand will fend off destruction.  The Majestic Hotel is an emblem of decrepitude. But Danielstown is a fossil.  It’s well-preserved but it’s day has come and gone.  The pointed absence of electricity, the gothic aura lent by the constant lighting of candles, create a stasis that will ultimately and literally lead to the immolation of an entire class.

The subalterns, meanwhile, have begun to set their sights on the local girls, and Gerald Lesworth, eyes Lois. Lois is 18, late from school in England, an orphan without a trajectory.  She has no occupation but to gather flowers for the house, entertain at tennis parties, venture on walks with the house guests or her boy-crazy friend Livvy or write to her equally boy-crazy friend Viola in London.  She briefly thinks she has a crush on Hugo but then decides to return Gerald’s advances.  Gerald brings definiteness.  He’s certain about what he wants. As she watches Livvy become engaged, hears about Marda’s upcoming wedding to an English stockbroker, with her own future wispy and unclear, Lois searches for an anchor.  It helps that Gerald is talkative, lively, and plays in a jazz band.  It helps even more that he kisses Lois. Unlike the lustful girls that populate Troubles, Lois is an innocent, and the kiss spurs a sexual awakening that cements Lois’ attraction to Gerald.

Lady Naylor gets wind of the romance.  What would the Dowager Countess do? Besides making plans for Lois to attend art school in another country, Lady Naylor, mistress of manipulation, travels to the barracks town, using Francie as a cover.  She arranges a meeting with Gerald sending him a  sublimely worded if you happen to have time message.  She indelicately breaks the news that not only is Gerald looking above his station, but Lois doesn’t love him. He’s indignant about the first, but his indignation wanes as he realizes the second is true. He loves Lois, but for Lois he’s ballast.

A day or so after, the news breaks that Gerald’s been killed in action. I was reminded of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s description of the Buchanans could apply equally to the Naylors, ““They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”  With Lois off to France to be finished, both Danielstown and two neighboring big houses burn to the ground.  Sometimes the rich get smashed too and misfortune literally hits home.

The Last September brings chiseled writing and wonderful portraits of even the secondary characters: from Laurence, the too intellectual Oxford student, to Francie, an invalid who sees and understands everything, to Marda, a spirited woman on the verge of spinsterhood who settles for a stockbroker.  It’s a novel of manners.  Troubles, for its part, is satirical and wry,  on occasion lapsing into overdone British humor, but still filled with marvelous scenes: the seduction of the twins, the upper-crust girl who could not possibly be pregnant,  and the pistol- packing Spencer granny, who in her senescence thinks she’s holding the fort in India.

Both novels deserve a second chance.  Bowen wrote at least a half dozen novels that have stood the test of time.  Farrell was renowned for his chronicles of colonial conflict.  Troubles, in fact, has already gotten its second chance.  It received the Lost Booker Prize in 2010.  No Booker Prize was awarded to a novel published in 1970, because under current rules, awards went to books published the previous year, 1969.  The rules changed, and in 1971 only books published in 1971 were eligible.  Troubles won by popular vote from a shortlist of six novels, culled from a long-list of twenty-two. Troubles recurred in Ireland shortly before Troubles was published continuing through 1998.  Let’s give no further chances to troubles of that sort.



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