Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

Love and death in old Ireland

Will the film of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September revive interest in the Irish writer’s work? Her biographer Hermione Lee thinks so
THE LAST SEPTEMBER, Keeley Hawes, 1999, (c)Trimark Pictures

THE LAST SEPTEMBER, Keeley Hawes, 1999, (c)Trimark Pictures

Here’s some good news. One of the last century’s greatest woman writers is finally getting her due, one of our best woman theatre directors has made her first feature film, an Irish novelist of brilliant originality has written a fascinating screenplay, and a difficult and often overlooked corner of history is being re-illumined.

All this comes together in a remarkable new film, The Last September, based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. The film is directed by Deborah Warner, the screenplay is by John Banville, the cinematographer is Slawomir Idziak (of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue), one of the executive producers is Neil Jordan, and the cast includes Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Jane Birkin and Keeley Hawes.

Bowen (probably best known for The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day, her haunting novels of bad faith and betrayal of the 30s and 40s) published The Last September in 1929. Her Anglo-Irish childhood was divided between Dublin, England and her family home, Bowen’s Court, in the corner of north-east County Cork, where The Last September is set.

She had been a restless teenager in the years of the Great War, the Troubles (the war of independence between the British soldiers, the notorious “Black and Tans” and the Irish revolutionaries) and the subsequent Irish civil war. By the time houses near Bowen’s Court were being burned down in 1921, she was a 22-year-old starting a literary career in London, and her relationship to Ireland, where she kept her family house until it was sold (and then demolished) in 1959, was always part-time.

The Last September, her second and favourite novel, looked back with a mixture of nostalgia and irony on the peculiar tribe she grew up in. The Anglo-Irish landowners, or “Protestant Ascendancy” hanging on to a past of colonial supremacy in violently changing times, found themselves, in the period of the Troubles, ineffectually caught between their inherited loyalty to the British and (as Bowen puts it) their own “temperamental Irishness”.

They had to watch their own or their neighbours’ houses burned as symbols of oppression, and to see the tenants and locals they had known all their lives at war with English soldiers who were their tennis partners. Loss of power, and loss of what Bowen calls the idea of “civilisation” which lay behind the establishment of their great demesnes in the 18th century, had gone along with increasing isolation in, and rejection by, the country they thought of as theirs.

Like Chekhov’s plays about the dying years of Russian feudalism, The Last September captures the silliness, the snobbery, the perfect manners, the determination not to show their feelings, the denial, and the ending of the way of life of Bowen’s circle. “Will there ever be anything we can all do except not notice?” one of them asks. Having prided themselves on continuity, rootedness, and a life symbolically centred on the Big House, they have come to feel like unreal transients.

The heroine of this novel is the 19-year-old orphaned Lois Farquar, living with her uncle and his wife, the Naylors, in Danielstown in County Cork. Visitors arrive, tennis is played, there are tea-parties, dances and love affairs. A glamorous Anglo-Irish visitor from London, Marda Norton, breaks hearts and creates disorder, before leaving to marry a rich Englishman. Lois, self-conscious and restless and dying for some action, gets half-heartedly engaged to Gerald, a decent British soldier.

The scheming Lady Naylor tries to put a stop to the romance. (“He seems to have no relations. One cannot trace him. His mother, he says, lives in Surrey, and, of course, you do know, don’t you, what Surrey is?”) Outside this mannered, slow-paced, habitual life, the Troubles are closing in. On the edge of the demesne, there is gun-smuggling, barracks are burned, troops are fired on, a local is arrested. At the end, Gerald is killed, Lois goes away, and Danielstown (a central character in the book) is burned down.

Fiona Shaw, who grew up in Cork, and plays Marda, recognised this “tribe” at once when she read The Last September. Shaw thinks Bowen gets exactly the feeling of that Irish life and landscape: the “Russian malaise,” the meals, the long tea-parties, the dark green colours, the trees closing in, above all the damp. “I know those long, damp summers, neither sunny enough to be exotic nor damp enough to be wintry.” She also knows plenty of families whose house is the main character in their lives. “One woman I know goes to Cork shopping, but she has to be back after four hours – she misses the house.”

Shaw recognises Bowen’s ambivalence, too. She has many Irish friends who, like her, live in England but never feel quite at home, are torn and divided and constantly going back. She can just imagine what Marda’s life in England would be, trading on her past by saying “Of course, I’m Irish” and arranging the flowers more eccentrically than anyone else, giving long teas and longing for people to drop in. She recognises the strange mix in Marda’s personality, “somebody who wills herself to be as shallow as a jelly at a tea-party and yet cannot help noticing things.”

She is capable of ruthlessness, too, and of being “inadvertently dangerous” to Lois, the young woman she befriends. But what Bowen has captured most brilliantly about these people, Shaw thinks, is that they are all “trying to do nothing, and things happen to them”. Meanwhile, they keep smiling, like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, buried up to her neck in sand and still saying: “It will have been another happy day!”

If the actress approached The Last September through its sense of character, the director was drawn to it for its powerful visual atmosphere. Deborah Warner had read no Bowen when Neil Jordan gave her an early draft of Banville’s screenplay. When she read the novel, it seemed to her “a book that needed to be a film”. Warner feels that if Bowen had not been a novelist, she might have been a film-maker: “I’d never read a novel that dealt so brilliantly with light.” Bowen looks “like a hawk”, everything in the novel is intensely seen, “right up close”. That’s what has inspired Warner.

The film is flooded with that intense rich colour palette, attentive pauses on small things, scenes glimpsed and spied on. Warner wanted thousands of tiny details, and colours that would look like no other film set in Ireland. It delighted her to discover that when Bowen went on Desert Island Discs, her luxury was a kaleidoscope. Warner worked for six months very closely with Banville on the script. He, too, was introduced to the novel by Jordan, and thinks it “superb”. And he has great tenderness for the Anglo-Irish, as well as seeing clearly (as did Bowen’s cousin, the writer Hubert Butler, whom Banville knew) that they were to blame, after the civil war, for shutting the gates of their demesnes instead of participating actively in the new Ireland.

Yet, he says, “you can’t help admiring them. I would love to have been Anglo-Irish. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be Elizabeth Bowen? For all her misfortunes, it was a wonderful life. When we were growing up, we used to see them at church fetes, and it was like going to Mars. They were shabby, but they had such style and character. No one can wear an old cardigan like an Anglo-Irish lady”.

Warner spent a long time on the casting, looking for exactly the right qualities for these shabby-grand Anglo-Irish characters. (“They all needed to be very big people, very tall, like Bowen.”) They rehearsed for a week, before filming started, in an old house in County Meath, and began to live together like a family. Shaw said that the interplay, in particular, between the four powerful and distinctive women actors was a great pleasure. Shaw, Warner and Banville unite in their praise of Keeley Hawes as Lois, who changes, Banville observed, from a naive girl to a tough woman in the course of the film.

But the adaptation was not without problems. Warner acknowledges that she was concerned by some decisions, though she insists that in any adaptation, too much reverence can be an obstacle. Banville’s script develops the novel in some radical ways, and for Bowen fanatics like me, this is hard to accept. At an early showing in Cork, I hear, the Irish audience staggered out, gasping “What have they done to Elizabeth Bowen!” (Generally, though, the film is much more likely to bring new readers to Bowen.)

The implicit politics of the novel are spelled out in the film in a much cruder confrontation between the English soldier and an IRA gunman – a Banville invention – whom Lois has known since childhood, and who excites her. So Lois’s sexual initiation stands in more obviously for the Anglo-Irish dilemma, caught between two allegiances. “He’s what’s out there in the landscape,” Warner explains. “You’ve got to make it more tangible if you’re making a film: you’ve got to make passion visible.” Banville was terrified that the film might have come across as a “Merchant-Ivory costume drama” with pretty girls drifting about in frocks with tennis rackets. The violence, deeply buried in the novel, had to be hardened up.

The ending is a long way from Bowen, too. Lois goes off to England with Marda (who, in the novel, disappeared halfway through) for what promises to be a lively future. Banville sees her turning into Marda: “You’ll see her in 10 years’ time sashaying through a hotel on the Riviera with a cigarette holder, a hard-eyed bitch.”

And the Naylors are left in their house, which doesn’t burn. Isn’t this less ruthless, less true to history than the novel? Both Warner and Banville thought the burning of the house would have been a cinematic cliche, like the ending of Rebecca. As it is, Warner maintains, the film leaves us with the right level of ambivalence. We feel compassion for these people and we also see their absurdity and their displacement by a more democratic future. They are victims of history, as Warner says, “there’s no revolution without casualties.” She likes the last shot of her film, which swings upwards from the dark ground up into the trees, and the feeling it gives of release into a new world.

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