Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ireland: ‘The Troubles’

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen and The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

“Ils ont les chagrins qu’ont les vierges et les paresseux,” quotes Elizabeth Bowen, from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, for the epigraph of her monumental novel The Last September, in this way preparing the readers for the sorrows and heartbreak to come.  Set in Ireland, in the year 1920, the story centers upon a lonely teenaged orphan named Lois Farquhar living with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor, in their country home in County Cork.  Still reeling from the wounds and uncertainty of the Great War, from its material and spiritual depredations, the characters are faced to confront the civil unrest in Ireland itself, the Irish War of Independence or Cogadh na Saoirse (1919-1921), with its rapidly escalating violence between the British forces and the Irish rebels, the IRA, determined—to the last man and woman—to drive the English out of Ireland for good.  It is an anger and hostility directed not only at the British soldiers, the Black and Tans, as they were known, but also—indeed especially—at the wealthy Anglo-Irish gentry or ‘Protestant Ascendency’, people like the Naylors, who for centuries, and for all of their loyalty to England, have been happy to call Ireland their home. 

Such country estates or ‘Big Houses’ as owned by the Naylors and their class (which class included Bowen’s own family with their house called Bowen's Court)had flourished throughout Ireland since the mid-eighteenth century, built with the easy profits that came of cheap land and cheap labor, making them a potent symbol of English exploitation and an easy target for the rebels who burned down, blew up, or otherwise destroyed more than 275 of them  in the years between 1920-1923. 

This is the very danger that threatens the Naylors in The Last September who struggle, throughout the story, to maintain their illusion of happiness and security by throwing dinner parties, playing tennis, and generally carrying on as if their fate—the signs of which are everywhere apparent—is not yet sealed.  Only Lois, their niece, has the chance to escape this doom, if only she can get free. This simple story, in the hands of Elizabeth Bowen, achieves a moral depth and complexity, an artistic resonance, that has earned it the distinction of being one of the great novels of the twentieth century. For a High Modernist like Bowen, at least half of the tale is in its telling, in its style and language, which is sharp with angles and rich with metaphor and symbol, so that the novel is as compelling in its plot as it is poetic in its prose.

Differently if equally affecting is William’s Trevor’s short, melancholy novel The Story of Lucy Gault. Set in the same time period as The Last September—indeed under almost identical circumstances—in an Anglo-Irish manor house called Lahardane, this haunting story opens upon an evening when Captain Everard Gault, the latest in a long line of Irish-born Gaults, fires upon a trespasser whom he suspects is a Catholic rebel trying to burn down his house, triggering a chain of events that proves tragic for him, his wife, and his daughter, Lucy, as they are forced—each in his or her own way—to pay their history’s dues.  A spare, finely-felt tale, it was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “A perfect Irish ballad in prose: sad, fateful and impossible to get out of your head.”

Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) Anglo-Irish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, was born Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen in Protestant, Georgian Dublin and at the family home in County Cork, which she described in Bowen's Court (1942). Her novels are The Hotel (1927); The Last September (1929), her own favourite, set in Ireland in the Troubles; Friends and Relations (1931); To the North (1932), a story of sexual betrayal set in London; The House in Paris (1935), of a memorable day spent by two children, Henrietta and Leopold, in Mme Fisher's Gothic house, intercut with the passionate story of Leopold's parents; The Death of the Heart (1938); The Heat of the Day (1949); A World of Love (1955), a romantic Irish ghost story; The Little Girls (1964); and Eva Trout (1969). Of her many short stories, the best deal with the supernatural (‘Foothold’, ‘The Cat Jumps’), English betrayal and deracination (‘The Disinherited’, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’), Anglo-Irish relations (‘Her Table Spread’, ‘Sunday Afternoon’), children (‘The Tommy Crans’, ‘Tears, Idle Tears’), and above all the atmosphere of wartime London (‘Mysterious Kor’, ‘The Demon Lover’, ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’). Her style --mannered, elegant, and witty—was highly influenced by the  great Literary Modernists,  Proust and Woolf, as well as by the writing of Henry James. 

From her Anglo-Irish background she derives a mixture of edgy alienation and a respect for classical impersonality and good form. Her characters are reckless, romantic sensationalists—orphans, spies, criminals, adulterers—and there is violence and danger in her books.  Above all, she evokes a spiritual condition through a landscape—the ‘Bowen terrain’—whether it is the ‘Big House’ in Ireland, out-of-season resorts, London flats and houses, or claustrophobic suburban villas. (

William Trevor,  a short story writer, novelist, and playwright, was born William Trevor Cox on May 24, 1928, in Mitchelstown, County Cork.  In his career as a writer, he  has published over 40 novels, short story collections, plays, and collections of nonfiction.  He has won three Whitbread Awards, a PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1977 Trevor was awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to literature.  Trevor regularly spends half the year in Italy or Switzerland, often visiting Ireland in the other half. His home is in Devon, in South West England, on an old mill surrounded by 40 acres of land. (Book Browse)

Peter Adam Nash

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