- Elizabeth Bowen: Then and Now
Noting the failure of critics to place her fiction within a genre, Elizabeth Bowen countered, “[a]m I not manifestly a writer for whom places loom large? For me, what gives fiction its verisimilitude is its topography”(The Mulberry Tree 282). During her lifetime, Bowen belonged to a writing minority: as a woman and an innovative author in the early twentieth century, much of her work continues to elude traditional, canonical placement or authoritative analysis. Compounding her isolation, Bowen’s personal and geographical history complicates her placement even within the modernist canon. Born in Dublin but raised in England, for many Bowen represents the treacherous class of Anglo-Irish against whom both “true” Irish Catholics1 and the colonizing English fought during the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War.
Thus, Elizabeth Bowen’s works are both complicated and augmented by multiple legacies of her authorship. Writing on behalf of women in Ireland and England while recognizing the tensions between her many different allegiances, it is difficult to ignore the struggles of belonging in Elizabeth Bowen’s works. While Bowen’s earliest short story collections, Encounters (written in 1923) and Ann Lee’s and Other Stories (1926) focus on these tensions, they are couched in the pseudo-biographical realist musings of a young author, and are not expressed through notable or innovative form or particularly unique style. Conversely, Bowen’s first modernist novel, The Last September (first published in 1929), moves beyond her previous distillations and tackles the religious and political tensions of everyday life in an uncommon style. And unlike her realist novel The Hotel (1927), The Last September engages with modernist writing methods (e.g. discontinuity, uncommon metaphor, stream of consciousness) while confronting the relationship between identity and location.
As a member of both Anglo-Irish lineage and London’s literary elite, Bowen crossed literary, physical, and social boundaries, while maintaining diplomatic protocol as she navigated multiple identities professionally and personally. And as her literary oeuvre grew, the importance of place and physical awareness for her characters grew in importance and visibility. By the time Bowen first became interested in writing, the position of the Anglo-Irish had become precarious—the Irish Civil War was in full swing, and the Irish War of Independence loomed on the horizon. Outsiders of the contentious struggle for territory assumed that to be Anglo-Irish implied is to be both Irish and English, a balanced or impartial participant of the debate, or were even peacemakers between the Irish Catholics and English Protestants but as Bowen noted, “the nearer reality is, one is not quite either,” and subsequently suggested she was more at home in the middle of the Irish Sea (4). Bowen’s early childhood was likewise physically and emotionally divided between her family estate in County Cork and Dublin, then later between Dublin and England during a long period of familial misfortune and transience, resulting in her eventual straddling of both Irish and English identities and countries (Austin 2). Upon her inheritance in 1930, Bowen made frequent trips to her family’s estate from her home in England continuing into the Irish War of Independence, during which time the British government enlisted Bowen to report on the overall attitude of the Irish, acting as a peacekeeper between Irish rebels and the British military (3). With such a varied and wide-reaching upbringing, it is no wonder that the ideas of spaces, places, and fluctuating physical and mental belonging loom so largely in Bowen’s novels and short stories. Bowen’s works are both blessed with flexibility and almost without exception centered around discontent, displacement, and exclusion as they struggle to reconcile class and position for the colonized and colonizer while she herself does not have a place among any authorial fellows.
The worth of Bowen’s experimental work was first recognized in her initial publication of Encounters in 1923, yet nearly all of Bowen’s critics identified her texts as uncommonly difficult to evaluate and understand. As William Heath pointed out in Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to her Novels, Bowen was unfortunate with her early critics because “her achievements had been least understood by those who admired [them] most extravagantly” (Heath 152). Better late than never, Joelyn Brooke’s Elizabeth Bowen served as the first intensive study on the author, and set a tone for interpretation that would follow for the next two decades, including the contributions by David Daiches, Maud Ellman, Bruce Harkness, etc. Brooke cited Bowen as a neglected canonical author, yet was disoriented by her idiosyncratic, convoluted, and obscure stylistic choices. These stylistic choices Booth and Rigby’s Modernism and Empires namely Bowen’s stream of consciousness, seemingly mismatched descriptions, and irregular syntax—continued to frustrate and baffle scholars for decades. What seemed nonsensical or even careless was either noted as an authorial failing or simply ignored. Without any valuable stylistic interpretations, Bowen’s works slowly faded into obscurity.
Currently, Irish modernism, once deemed an oxymoronical approach for its inherent nationalist perspective on an international movement, is now gaining popularity as international and national contexts are no longer considered mutually exclusive in Modernist criticisms. Due in large part to Booth and Rigby’s Modernism and Empires, the Irish Revival is now aligned with the modernist aesthetic as a catalyst for radical form and context. These more complex reevaluations of twentieth century Irish authors suggest certain historical acts2 precipitated Irish modernism and contribute to its legacy.
Harnessing these historical influences, complex readings of religion, nationality, and class reveal the importance of geography and space rooted in Bowen’s modernist writings that have been explored within the last two decades. Phyllis Lassner’s Elizabeth Bowen opens up Bowen’s discursive connections to women’s self-expression and autonomy in the early twentieth century. And in The Shadow Across the Page (2003), Maud Ellmann attends to the clashing literary forms and the way in which punctuation produces unexpected ethical concerns within a feminist context. Armed with Irish modernism, in the last decade special interest has developed in the decoding of Bowen’s problematic passages and bizarre stylistic choices that gave initial readers such trouble.
Concurrently, as space theory has moved from the social sciences into the humanities, novels can now be understood “not just as story-delivering tools, but as ways of examining, representing, and changing the world,” as cited in Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Modes for a Literary Theory (Moretti 18, 25). Space theory, a facet of geocriticism and closely related to ecocriticism, focuses not only on “the life and times of the author, the history of the text, or the story, but also on [the] spatial” and forms a frame that focuses on the spatial representations within the text, specifically the territories of “actual, physical geography and an author’s or character’s mental mapping in the literary text,” as described in the groundbreaking 2007 publication of Robert Tally’s Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies (Tally 22, 28). This still-developing framework has close ties to a novel’s architectural, geographical, and mental domains. In other words, a geocritical approach recognizes the transgressive nature of literary spaces, which crosses and often reestablishes the preexisting cultural norms.
With this in mind, it seems as if Bowen’s complicated placement as a writer and a citizen of Ireland and her convoluted criticisms converge in The Last September, a wartime novel that explores the national, personal, and stylistic territories of twentieth-century Ireland. In short, The Last September is a big house novel3, set in the Naylor home in Danielstown, Cork during the Irish War of Independence. Divided into three parts, The Last September focuses on the social compunctions and formalities of a weekend gathering of Anglo-Irish, Catholics, British soldiers, and Irish fighters. Lois, the protagonist, struggles to choose between British and Irish suitors, and serves as the readers’ witness to the events in the text, culminating in her presence in the burning of the Naylor family home as the novel concludes. Apart from its straightforward assessment of the Irish class system, The Last September offers insight into the mental and physical territories that result from these class divisions.
In exploring Bowen’s conflicting linguistic choices surrounding physical, emotional, and national territories and within spatial theory’s parameters, readers can better understand Bowen’s need to create jarring and seemingly nonsensical concurrent descriptions, among her other stylistic choices. By making these conflicting linguistic choices, Bowen not only calls attention to these differing territories, she places them in an unfamiliar and therefore de-stigmatized context, beyond her previously outlined literary legacy. The linguistic debate over Bowen that seemed settled now has a new lens with which to understand Bowen’s motivations as a writer and a citizen: through spaces, places, and territories.
I propose that, when integrated, Bowen’s irregular language and physical and mental territorial explorations break down encoded conventional representations of the realistic and the fictional. In other words, I argue that Elizabeth Bowen’s lexical and stylistic irregularities and conflicts in describing the physical and mental landscapes break down otherwise natural correlations and associations common to physical representations in literature, and instead force the reader to explore linguistic and imaginative fluidity in terms of nationalism, faith, literature and inclusion. By showing what is not, Bowen shows what can be. I intend to outline Bowen’s pattern of stylistic irregularities and the breakdown of the natural literary correlations in exchange for more flexible discourse less limited by the political, social, and religious spaces that limited Bowen herself.
In order to best navigate Bowen’s physical and literary geography, I intend to position The Last September in conjunction with a post-colonial and spatial understanding to explore Bowen’s record of the Anglo-Irish experience and her possible motives for writing in such a unique style. Bowen’s territories can be delineated into the realms of physical and literary (read: stylistic) spaces, and how the current literary conversation can be improved upon by a spatial interpretation of the fluidity of Bowen’s physical and stylistic spaces. These stylistic spaces, understood as the spaces created by Bowen’s stylistic choices (ellipses, stream of consciousness, etc.) integrate the importance of spatial theory with her text. Elaborated with the help of spatial theory, readers can better understand Bowen’s need for fluidity as it relates to ellipses, physical setting, and ambiguous metaphors. This reading highlights the importance of exclusion for Bowen, her writing, and her community.
- Subjugated Spaces
In a letter to Graham Greene entitled “Why Do I Write?” Bowen discusses societal expectations of literature versus her own concepts of what she expects from her writing, and what she hopes to achieve as a result of sharing her work. Delving into ideas of agency, realism, and narration, Bowen continues, “[i]sn’t the average thinker simply trying to trace out some pattern around himself? Or, to come on, detect, uncover a master-pattern in which he has his place?” (1986, 224). This letter, one of her last to Graham Greene, dissolves into unsteady and unfamiliar territory for writers and readers of the time that later became main thematic concerns of modernism. Specifically, these ideas are later represented by stream of consciousness, unconventional descriptive representations, and the breakdown of social norms, and pointed toward the work with which Bowen tasks herself in The Last September. This fixation on place, echoed throughout Bowen’s writings, is a starting point for understanding Bowen’s use of fluidity in representing territories.
Armed with existing contributions to spatial theory, we can define spatial fluidity as it works in The Last September as Bowen’s authorial agency to adjust physical and literary spaces from a place of subjugation to break down encoded conventional representations. These physical and literary spaces are made fluid through Bowen’s stylistic and thematic choices, and are most present in her use of ellipses, physical setting, and ambiguous metaphors.
Yet these ideas—questioned in her post-war letters to Greene, Woolf, and countless others—predate the impending questions of space theory outlined decades later by Tally and his peers. Further, in her 1945 essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Bowen dedicates an entire section to discussing the importance of a novel’s scene. Likening the importance of scene to the importance of characters, Bowen writes, “Scene must, like the characters, not fail to materialize. In ‘setting the scene,’ the novelist directs, or attempts to direct, the reader’s visual imagination” (The Mulberry Tree 40). Here, Bowen aligns the necessary flexibility of scene and character as they materialize.
The questions Bowen raises in her letters, essays, and novels break down otherwise natural (i.e. conventional) correlations and force the reader to explore linguistic and imaginative fluidity in terms of space, nationalism, literature and inclusion. By placing Bowen’s work in this linguistically and imaginatively fluid context, Elizabeth Bowen’s lexical and stylistic irregularities of landscape description break down otherwise natural correlations and instead force the reader to explore a less barriered reading both stylistically and thematically.
In his most recent work, Spatiality: The New Critical Idiom, Richard Tally cites what he calls the “spatial turn” that followed the Second World War, and how it functions in terms of the literary turn away from structuralism taking place at the same time. This spatial turn, when placed in a literary context, creates new interactions among readers, writers, texts, critics, and spaces as they overlap and interact. Put simply, Tally offers an overview and introduction to spatial theory as a new means of interpretation in literary and cultural studies of places, spaces, and the room we occupy, which focuses on the interdisciplinary nature of spatiality rather than its typical placement as a cultural tool. Tally divides his attention among what he calls literary cartography and establishing the author as a mapping individual. He writes, “Like the mapmaker, the writer must survey territory, determining which features to include, to emphasize, or to diminish” (2013, 45). This argument for the author/mapmaker’s agency contributes to the notion of fluidity that is essential to understanding Bowen and The Last September in that agency of physical space, a previously unexplored concept, supersedes agency of characters.
This spatial turn defined in Tally’s book is supplemented by Edward Soja’s work on spatial theory and cultural geography in Thirdspace and his most recent work, Seeking Spatial Justice. Soja’s theory of Thirdspace is defined as an indeterminate location in which everything is unified, from “subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable,…mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious…everyday life and unending history” (1996, 57). Thirdspace is defined as a new way of understanding and reacting to “change the spatiality of human life, a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness that is appropriate to the new scope and significance being brought about in the rebalanced trialectics of spatiality—historicality—sociality” (1996, 57-58). So, in a specific critical theory (that is, spatiality, defined loosely as the interdisciplinary union of space and society) Thirdspace is equivalent to the inclusivity of the constantly multiplying others of cultural history and critical theory. Soja argues, “thirding produces what might best be called a cumulative trialectics that is radically open to additional otherness, to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge” (1996, 61). In other words, Thirdspace is continuously growing to include multiple “others,” and can be put into practice to reassess and navigate cultural identities based on physical and mental boundaries4.
A third major player in spatial theory integral to understanding fluidity is Franco Moretti, and his scientific approach to literary studies. Franco Moretti argues in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History5 that literary scholars must start mapping and graphing books, rather than simply reading them. This interdisciplinary approach develops what Moretti calls “distant reading,” or the charting of noncanonical literary genres to focus on “fewer elements, and…a sharper sense of their overall interconnectedness” to the canon, rather than the traditional literary approach of “the big picture” (2005, 1-2). Put another way, Moretti argues that by focusing on the connections between fewer things, scholars can gain a better sense of interconnectedness than by looking at the work as a whole. Further, Moretti argues that scholars can expand their knowledge of literature by applying statistical techniques “within and across multiple texts” (2005, 12). From here, he proposes the necessary separation between data and interpretation and the imminent influence of graphs, maps, trees, and other data on literary studies.
This argument translates nicely to The Last September and a study of the structural, political, and physical boundaries of its characters during a territorial war. Moretti’s argument that an assessment of the places in novels “possess emerging qualities, which were not visible at the lower level” and “offer a model of the narrative universe which rearranges its components in a non-trivial way” can be used to better understand the emerging quality of fluidity in The Last September and how it works as a literary component of spatiality (2005, 54). This model, Moretti argues, extends into the social geography of a text, as one of many “kindred forms” (2005, 63). From here, we can deduce that Moretti’s understanding of social and physical geography of maps helps readers understand the larger relationship between social conflict and literary form.
When grouped together, these three theorists not only help to narrow the conversation in terms of what literary spaces can do as they work in a novel, but provide an outline for understanding spatial fluidity as it works in The Last September. As Bowen records this Anglo-Irish experience as a historical contribution yet as a subjective and personal marker of territorial shifts, the fluidity of style and lexicon are reinforced by spatial theory.
To summarize thus far, Tally’s argument for authorial agency as a mapmaker contributes to the idea that agency of special theory supersedes other complimentary or connected forms of agency in a literary text. Additionally, Tally suggests that it is the mapmaker’s prerogative to alter or adjust the spaces as he or she deems appropriate. This flexibility and fluidity of space outlined by Tally pairs nicely with Soja’s work on the flexibility and fluidity of thirding, or his idea of the growing and shifting “otherness” that is “radically open to additional otherness, [and] to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge” (1996, 61). Tally’s and Soja’s spatial fluidity extends to the idea that otherness in The Last September is both universal and spatially relative in the Irish-Catholic and Anglo-Irish contexts. Additionally, Moretti’s work on maps in terms of spatial literary understanding contributes to the physical fluidity of The Last September. Specifically, an examination of the exchanging territories during the Irish War of Independence in conjunction with the location of Cork, Ireland (as the primary setting for The Last September) in the Southern region—far from England and poised for the Irish Civil War—elucidates England’s need for, and Bowen’s subsequent description of, martial law in Ireland’s southern counties. Further, the constant shifts of physical territories are clarified by military and historical maps while elucidating readers’ understanding of Bowen’s manifestation of fluidity of meaning in her writing style.
Armed with these scholars’ contributions to spatial theory, we can define spatial fluidity as it works in The Last September as Bowen’s authorial agency to adjust physical and literary spaces from a place of subjugation to break down encoded conventional representations. This breakdown of normative and traditional representations explores fluidity beyond the primary text itself, and confronts fluidity in terms of nationalism, faith, and canonical literature.
In conjunction with my thesis, this working definition of fluidity can be applied to existing scholarship of Bowen’s stylistic irregularities in a new light, and to The Last September as a primary text. Bowen’s stylistic scholarship has long been an area that was initially ignored for its irregularities or misinterpreted for its complexity. Currently stylistically-focused scholarship on Bowen and The Last September, having recently blossomed, still persists without considering the importance of spatial fluidity, or its possible effects on ecocritical and postcolonial understandings of territory in The Last September. In order to best position The Last September as a dismissal of subjugated space represented by physical and literary fluidity, I will next explore and expand upon the current stylistic discussions, focusing specifically on Bowen’s use of ellipses, physical setting, and ambiguous metaphors. For the aims of this argument, subjugated space is defined as the stylistic and literary spaces Bowen writes in and of as an author from a marginalized and subjugated literary lineage.
- Bowen’s Literary Fluidity and its Origins
In the last fifteen years, a resurging interest in The Last September and Bowen’s stylistic methods have aligned with spatial theory. Cochoran’s The Enforced Return focuses on Bowen’s The Last September from a larger discussion of Bowen’s work as a whole, and its function as an “enforced return,”6 a phrase taken from one of Bowen’s nonfiction essays and one which Cochoran uses in his book to describe Bowen’s reading and writing psyches. Cochoran furthers this claim by situating Bowen as “her own kind of historical novelist,” one who focuses on the interim between events and thoughts and the unresolved conclusions to emphasize thematic significance (46-47). Cochoran argues that Bowen raises these questions of space only to turn from them, but in a way that makes them even more insistent and present. The work Cochoran started further complicates this idea of physical, mental, and (now further) stylistic territories as harnessed by Bowen to break down encoded conventional representations.
Additionally, Brown’s “Strange Associations: Elizabeth Bowen and the Language of Exclusion” focuses on her language of exclusion, and its use to disorient both the reader and the novel’s figurative language from historical events. Citing ellipses, euphemism, rumor, overheard conversations, lies, and digressions as tools of exclusion, Brown explores the resulting exclusions in dialogue with sexual desire, alliances, and “the linguistic prohibitions of decorum” (Brown 4). Yet this comprehensive reading stops before reaching any larger conclusions about these strange associations, or the physical and literary spaces they inhabit.
Citing specific examples from The Last September, Brown points to Bowen’s “fascination with the language of the novel…and Bowen’s language of exclusion, matched as it is to an emerging sense of transnational feeling, [it] is also searching for hospitable accommodations in the literary sphere” (20). Simply put, Brown aligns Bowen’s national manifesto with a literary one, and reminds us of Bowen’s need for literary acknowledgement and inclusion within the Irish literary canon. Brown argues that these evasions go beyond simple nationalistic affiliations, and speak instead to the disturbed and transformed workings of the novel as a stylistically unique and proto-modernist piece, and to Bowen as an emerging author of merit.
Published most recently, Mary Kelly’s “When Things Were ‘closing-in’ and ‘rolling-up’: The Imaginative Geography of Elizabeth Bowen’s Anglo-Irish War Novel The Last September” positions Bowen’s The Last September in conjunction with Edward Said’s work on imaginative geographies to explore Bowen’s unique record of the Anglo-Irish experience. Said’s idea of territorial identity7 uses geography to “register relationships with different kinds of places…and groups that occupy or have occupied such places, and also structure relations between groups and spaces, selves and others,…through which selves and own spaces are defined in opposition to others and other spaces” (Kelly 293). Kelly’s interpretation of The Last September’s territories is delineated into four categories: the open and empty countryside, a wide landscape of resistance, a distant yet necessary England, and a landscape of colonial decline (282). With these four territories, Kelly explores the imaginative geography of Bowen’s novel and each landscape’s effects on her characters, to understand the far from clear-cut relationships between Anglo-Irish, Irish-Catholic, and English communities.
Kelly moves beyond the binary past approaches that characterize Irish scholarship and colonialism and begins a conversation on the flexibility and wide range of Irish colonized literature. When taken further, Kelly’s initial investigation creates an opportunity to explore the previously marginalized voices in a post-independence context and can be taken forward to better understand Bowen’s affinity for spatial fluidity.
These recent investigations of Elizabeth Bowen, however thorough, do not focus on the boundaries—physical, literary, and mental—surrounding Bowen’s work, in terms of how these spaces integrate with the story itself. These territories left to be investigated are blanketed by both physical and literary geography: the physical, straightforward geography of Bowen’s text and the lineage and different genre-spaces occupied by The Last September. I suggest that both the literary and physical territories negotiated by Bowen and The Last September oscillate within the fluidity of the spaces they occupy, and offer a different reading from those previously explored in the small but mighty assortment of Bowen scholarship. Elaborated and enhanced with the help of spatial theory, readers can better understand Bowen’s need for fluidity as it relates to ellipses, physical setting, and ambiguous metaphors in The Last September. Incorporated with spatial theory, this reading highlights the importance of exclusion for Bowen, her writing, and her community.
The Last September is generously peppered with ellipses throughout character dialogue and narration alike. Much like her fellow novelists and stylistic fellows—specifically Hemingway, Joyce, and Woolf—Bowen too relies on the Iceberg theory8, the theory of omission, to allow her readers to depend on inference rather than the text itself and to gain in exchange the multiple outcomes of what was left unsaid. This omission creates a flexibility and fluidity in meaning and ambiguity that is bolstered by the pregnant pauses and things left unsaid throughout the otherwise socially proper Big House setting of The Last September particularly those which involve discussions of the Irish War of Independence and the growing tensions over territories, and the many romantic entanglements of the story. These omissions create spaces between what is and what can be, what is seen and what is imagined.
Far too numerous to cite en masse, Bowen’s ellipses are harnessed most often to buy time while characters rephrase their thoughts into more socially appropriate terms, and as means of avoiding asking an impolite or unacceptable question. The former method is most often used by Lois, the Bowen-esque young heroine. When asked a simple yes or no question, Lois frequently replies with some variation of “No, no, I mean…No” to the extent where her very opinion is subjugated, yet the reader is left wondering what her true opinion really is (Bowen 1929, 24 & 187). The ellipses, rather than clarifying, create a space for questioning and reevaluating the speaker. Further, Lois’ fluidity in thought and stream-of-consciousness style of internal narration suggests a larger fluidity in her unconscious. Lois muses in a fluid state rather than directly stating what she means, most often because, “what seem[s] most probably was that they would not listen…She light[s] her candle…up to bed” here, rather than announce her intentions, and caused a subsequent argument based on that failed communication (The Last September 43-44). This fluidity of thought positions Lois as elevated among those in the story too grounded in the mundane to recognize the spatial fluidity of the physical and mental areas they all navigate.
And yet, Lois is not the only character who investigates boundaries. Mrs. Frances Montmorency, far from being a polite guest, constantly inserts herself into conversations asking impertinent half-questions. She badgers Lois with, “and how long shall we expect you to keep this [suitor]…for dinner I mean” (36). Here, her fluidity of speech breaks down social and personal barriers.
The latter use of ellipses digresses from an impertinent question both to dismiss the impropriety veiled in embarrassing afterthought and yet still leaves the question hanging, waiting to be answered. In fact, this disintegration of conversation actually makes the point left unmade stronger, and more cohesive than had it been rudely completed. A question left hanging in The Last September is far more likely to be answered than an impertinent question that is vocalized, which is usually quashed by “a puzzled silence”(24). In this sense, omission serves to strengthen fluidity rather than stifle it. Yet as the week at the Big House continues, questions of propriety become less rigid, and the fluidity of the ellipses translates to the widening of conversation. By the end of Livvy’s stay, she feels obligated (if not compelled) to answer Lois’ questions about the proposal. After hearing Lois ask, “How did you…how did he?…” all questions of Livvy’s immodest and inappropriate proposal come out (106).
Bowen appropriates this ellipses as a device in which the “literal often shades into the figurative,” and harnesses ellipses as a stylistic tool to return to the Anglo-Irish history that had previously rejected her nationally and religiously (Cochoran 46). Further, her use of ellipses serves as a focused interim between events and thoughts, dwelling instead on conclusions that remain unresolved, to emphasize thematic significance and “deconstruct alternatives to its own plot” (52). As Cochoran argues, Bowen raises these questions and creates these spaces only to turn from them, in a way that makes them even more insistent and present. In other words, the ellipses works for Bowen as “the gap through which a long-Anglo-Irish history falls” and one upon which Bowen forces her reader to dwell (55). This breakdown of encoded conventions relies on ellipses, and (I argue) more importantly on the fluidity and flexibility of thought that result from the resulting pauses and unfinished sentences.
From this fluidity, characters are able to ask nonconventional questions and receive equally nonconventional answers forcing the reader to explore new correlations in terms of the unfinished and unspoken, and the several meanings that result from what goes unsaid. These ellipses and digressions breakdown the “linguistic prohibitions of decorum” cited by Brown and promote irregularity and misconduct (Brown 4).9 By placing Bowen’s fictional characters within this reformed past, Williams highlights the isolation and detachment of the characters as they vacillate between physical and mental territories, so much so that even their thoughts are transient and continuously changing. Williams’ work presents numerous opportunities for developing the relationship between history and fluidity, and Bowen’s correlations between the linguistic and the imaginative.
Bowen’s use of ellipses, when synthesized with her stylistic irregularities, can be aided by a spatially fluid understanding of the text. Specifically, Bowen’s most irregular stylistic choice, her use of metaphor, has evaded scholarly interpretation until very recently. Bowen’s incomprehensible metaphors are intentionally jarring to create a fluid definition and description, and a larger space between her comparisons that informs her discussion of subjugated physical and literary spaces.
Bowen’s notoriously complex style, particularly in The Last September, can be identified primarily in her deviations from words’ standard meanings, and sensory disorientation, in describing something through a counter-intuitive sense. There is something intangible, which “oscillates between the formed and the perceived,” yet is not manifested in the story directly (Osborn 35). As a textual example of fluidity, Bowen’s inconsistent and unsystematic representations destabilize preexisting conventions and position The Last September as a textual example of the breakdown of physical and mental landscapes.
The Last September uses these representations to “demonstrate the slippery relationship of the self with the outside world” while exacerbating its slipperiness (60). An excellent example of this tactic is in the men’s discussion of the war as something that is “closing in..[and] rolling up” ready to be “spread over the cleft of a bosom” (The Last September 28). This seemingly disconnected comparison not only suggests the fluidity of war, but the universality of its repercussions for Anglo-Irish, Irish Catholics, and English citizens alike.
In fact, Bowen’s irregularities in lexical, grammatical, and syntactic structures specifically work against common claims that Bowen’s work is difficult to understand and instead provide a “linguistic structure governing literal and metaphorical elements” (Kind 131). Similarly, Bowen often takes a synesthetic approach in describing all narration through images of water—door handles, hats, etc—in terms of a fluid description. Bowen writes, seemingly nonsensically, “[h]ieght had the quality of depth: as they mounted they seemed to be striking deeper into the large mild crystal of an inverted sea” (The Last September 85). These images of fluidity not only suggest a metaphoric shift in terms of character, but elucidate Bowen’s break down otherwise natural correlations.
This breakdown and move toward spatial fluidity is perhaps best encapsulated in Bowen’s usage of physical enclosures, and their relation to physical and literary geography. Bowen’s obsession with architectural and psychic enclosures is only diminished by her obsession to break them down. Bowen, as a three-fold minority, naturally focuses on the enclosures of women, of the Anglo-Irish, and of those isolated in the country, defined by the spaces they encompass. Again, Lois notes after a series of questions, “…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 as well be in some kind of cocoon” (66). This emphasis on propriety over fluidity is Lois’ struggle throughout the text, ending only when the manor’s fire eliminates her need of propriety and allows her to participate in more fluid conversations.
The Anglo-Irish family depicted in The Last September is isolated from their aspired class of English gentry, as well as their native land—by religion, nationality, income, social mobility, and physical distances to be traversed across warzones. Bowen depicts the Anglo-Irish as “their whoness created by the wenceness embedded in its form and furniture” (Ellman 42). Identity is forever linked by and confined to their surroundings. But while Ellman argues that architecture takes the place of character, “usurping personality from its protagonists,” I argue that the two–environment and character–work together to create Bowen’s unique sense of physical and territorial landscapes as they fluidly represent the physical and mental spaces taken up by these characters (2003, 66). Taken in a different, more spatially-minded direction, and by further exploring the whereness over Ellman’s whenceness (that is, the current physical location over the intrinsic nationality) we can better understand Bowen’s own ideas of the fluidity of nationality and belonging as reconciled by Lois as she watches the manor burn down.
Rather than a narrative space that is “conceived of as being relatively stable and fixed,” or merely as a novel’s setting, Bowen’s novel tasks itself with “paying greater attention to the special dimensions of [a] narrative” and the way in which text and space, fiction and location are understood as co-productive (Hones 685-686). Lois longs to escape her milieu, as a displaced houseguest. Her unsettlement functions as a basis for reality, in which “every time, before the water clouded, she was to see the crack: every time she would wonder—was Lois was” (The Last September 83). This seemingly ambiguous statement positions Lois as fighting against definition, against “[being] clapped down under an adjective” or expectations (83). While Lois is “free” at the end of the novel, she is “undoubtedly left wiser about [herself] and the ways of the world” and must recognize the necessity of social and mental fluidity to survive (13). Lois’ psychic territories that she narrates are equally as puzzling as the fluid and ever-changing physical landscapes navigated by the Anglo-Irish household’s invasion of guests ranging from English military elite in the guest bedroom to rogue Irish Catholic rebels hiding in the barn.
With this in mind, the book as a whole provides a fluid progression, in its relationships between narrative and environment, between Anglo-Irish, Irish Catholics, and British soldiers, and between author and audience.
By exploring Bowen’s conflicting linguistic choices surrounding physical, emotional, and national territories beyond conventional contexts and within spatial theory’s parameters, readers can better understand Bowen’s intentions in creating jarring and seemingly disjointed or bizarre concurrent descriptions, among her other spatial stylistic choices. In so doing, Bowen not only calls attention to the differing territories and contexts which she and her characters navigate, she places the territories in an unrecognizable and subsequently de-stigmatized context. The linguistic debate over Bowen’s incongruities now has a new lens with which to understand Bowen’s motivations as a writer and a citizen of both England and Ireland.
Bowen’s use of irregular language and physical and mental territorial explorations work to break down those encoded conventions represented in this and many of her other novels. This breakdown first harnessed in The Last September is echoed in her entire body of work, and help the reader to explore linguistic and imaginative fluidity in terms of nationalism, faith, literature and other realms of inclusion.