“The Last September,” based on the Elizabeth Bowen novel, is about the last days of the Anglo-Irish in County Cork, Ireland. In the “Ascendancy” of the 17th century these privileged people had been imposed on the indigenous and largely Catholic people by English force. But now in the early 1900’s the original Irish were re-awakening. They were burning the country mansions of the Anglo-Irish. The intruders had been there more than two centuries, long enough to evolve into a hybrid people who thought of themselves as “Irish,” entitled, though they were Anglo-Irish. Neither were they Ulster-Irish or Scots Irish, who maintained their membership in the independent Presbyterian church rather than the state churches of England. All these strange sub-populations came about through the tug-of-war between Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland. Some of the displacement fueled the American revolution.
The Irish potato famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds coincided with the “Prairie Clearances” of the plains Indians and the American Civil War. Europeans came to occupy Montana a little later than two hundred years ago, about the turn into the 19th century. Some of the early white businessmen in Browning were Presbyterian and organized a congregation. (It later merged with the Methodists.) When I left Browning in 1973, there were threats to burn down Bob Scriver’s museum in the same spirit as though it were an Anglo-Irish country house. It didn’t happen to Bob. In Montana many buildings burn.
Elizabeth Bowen is writing autobiography, displaced, in the novel that serves as the basis for this movie. She is the “niecey” character played by Keely Hawes who is caught between the two factions and doesn’t really have a family or a clear path to follow. On the one hand she fancies herself in love (perhaps) with a black-and-tan officer and on the other hand she has grown up with a man of the country who is now a killer revolutionary hiding in a ruined mill.
The original Anglo-Irish, appealingly unconscious, are played by Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith -- full of denial and little airs and graces no longer supported by income or automatic class respect. They seem to have no proper heirs. Their nephew, now at Oxford, sees that they are doomed and tries to tell them that. Another older woman, now looking to “settle” for a comfortable marriage, is also there to clean up the loose end of a former lover who married someone else. This woman is played by Fiona Shaw, who is from Cork and a collaborating producer with Deborah Warner.
So -- it’s all very Chekhovian, except that one doesn’t hear the ax of the developers clearing away the old cherry orchard. The jokes are bittersweet and the land is both seductive and brooding. Fiona says it’s a “bleeding watercolor,” not at all pastel and far too green to be natural. Wikipedia says: Of all her books, Bowen notes, The Last September is “nearest to my heart, [and it] had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source. Though not poetic, it brims up with what could be the stuff of poetry, the sensations of youth. It is a work of instinct rather than knowledge—to a degree, a ‘recall’ book, but there had been no such recall before.”
Neither has anyone connected these Irish troubles in a major book or movie, and yet one of the reasons Metis were treated so harshly was fear that they would throw in with the Fenians who were in Gaelic Ireland. “These were warrior bands of young men who lived apart from society and could be called upon in times of war.” Wiki again. Fenians like Crazy Dogs. AIM did connect with the memory of these bands/gangs. For a while the Irish were inclined to think that Native Americans were lost bands of Irish. The Catholics would not care to discourage such ideas, since the Fenians were Irish Catholic. But the Canadians had to fend off Fenian ideas to keep its national integrity.
Truly worthy books, I must say from under my English (!) teacher hat and from my Scots/Ulster Irish heart, are those that trace out human predicaments that are universal in ways simple enough for anyone to follow (can anyone resist Keely Hawes’ confusion and sexual ambivalence?) but that include plenty of meat for those who know their history. And then there’s the landscape, the elegant house with the long lawn for tennis or simply taking a chair out to read in peace, the household with it’s little domestic quandaries. (“Sorrel soup, she says. I ask you, my dear, where will I find sorrel?” And “Have you done the flowers yet, my dear?”) How is it that a third floor bedroom has a removable section of floor for spying on the second floor bedroom under it? The girl, hoping for consoling revelation, hears only hurt.
The Gambon character, puttering with his new generator and hanging primitive lightbulbs over the candleabra of the supper table, knows but doesn’t know -- doesn’t WANT to know. The Maggie Smith character puts in her bit of interference by informing the young officer that a) he has no money and b) the girl does NOT love him, which lashes him into a deadly frenzy. And yet he is the one killed. The girl simply flees.
This is much darker stuff than Jane Austen. The comedy is a little bitter. Much physical energy and joy is expressed by the youngsters dancing and chasing each other through the woods, and yet they break through into knowingness -- literally opening a door in a forest wall to a little clearing where the purely English wife has been reading. She tells the girl, “You must leave here. This place is dying.” And so the girl goes with the woman reconciled to a loveless marriage but free to make up her own mind. The woman who was the English wife’s husband’s lover.
Elizabeth Bowen wrote versions and versions of this pattern. She owned one of those great Anglo-Irish mansions and dreaded that it might be burned, though it never was. The end of the book describes one of those conflagrations, but it’s not in the movie, Just a lot of rather gaudy sunsets.