Numerous socio-political changes during the early Twentieth Century highlighted nationalism as a key issue during the period. This essay examines the topic within Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Bowen’s The Last September.

The Scottish Literary Renaissance generated a mainstream desire to avoid the “kailyard fiction” of the late nineteenth century, wherein ‘Scottish speech and custom were seen as quaint, old fashioned.’[1] Dialect accordingly became a nationalistic mechanism. In Sunset Song, by asking, ‘what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter,’[2] Rob exposes how adopting a conquering country’s language proves detrimental towards the native tongue in terms of expression. However, despite Mistress Gordon’s attempts to learn English, a subsequent response, ‘Not very meikle the day,’ (Gibbon, p. 20) shows the surfacing of Scottish identity through colloquialisms, rebelling against the ‘marginalisation of identity born of [the] colonising, metropolitan tendencies of modern culture.’[3] Yet for this “minority” culture to fully exert authority, others become threats. Chris acknowledges how ‘everybody knew that the English were awful mean and couldn’t speak right and were cowards,’ (Gibbon, p. 33) conveying an objective, didactic antagonism towards external nationalities. This resentment is realised when the villagers use violence against the Tory candidate who threatens Chae because ‘they weren’t to see him mishandled by an English tink,’ (Gibbon, p. 97). Here, politics become further nationalised: the Tory symbolises of English oppression, whilst the native Glaswegian Liberal candidate, who says ‘to Hell with the House of Lords’ (Gibbon, p. 96) embodies the ‘principle supporter of Home Rule in Scotland’[4] before 1914.[5] This antagonism is further displayed within the community itself. Upon remembering Ewan’s death in the War, Chris considers Kirsty and Mistress Munro, ‘those bitches [who] sat and spoke of their King and country,’ (Gibbon, p. 236) and discards the figureheads of Empire in favour of her personalised world, which is figured as Scottish, never Celtic. At John’s funeral, Chris can only regard Ellison as ‘kind and solemn and Irish,’ (Gibbon, p. 117) conveying that emotional connections become unsalvageable within nationalised prejudices. For here, Scottish culture seeks to emphasise its individual, independent identity.

Meanwhile, in The Last September, Bowen utilises the tradition of “the ‘Big House’ novel,” whose inhabitants ‘are constantly isolated from the wider society around them by the great walls encircling their demesnes.’[6] In the changing political environment of 1920,[7] the novel’s setting, this institution (commonly identified with Anglo-Irish settlers) creates an unsettling debate on national loyalty. Where they regard the ruralised Connor family as ‘darling people,’[8] Laura is regarded as ‘too Irish’ for Ireland, (Bowen, p. 19) thus highlighting a communally-internalised, idealised perception of “Irishness.” And where Myra regards the British as ‘people with so little brain,’ she previously acknowledges that the Army are ‘doing their best,’ (Bowen, p. 27/26) suggesting acceptance of their occupation. Indeed, the Anglo-Irish are on the borderline of two nations: ‘sympathising with the native Irish but unable to commit to the IRA, disliking and resenting the English paternalism, but desiring a British lover.’[9] They consequently attempt self-defence through isolation; when confronted with gossip concerning Irish affairs, Myra asserts that ‘we never listen,’ (Bowen, p. 26) refusing interaction with her political surroundings. Even Lois and Marda’s encounter with the rebel, which ‘represents a powerful initiation of both women into the life of their own country,’[10] is an apparent failure. Lois immediately thinks ‘I must marry Gerald, (Bowen, p. 125) and consequently wishes to replicate her Anglo-Irish peers’ system of marriage in order to fully integrate into their sheltered lifestyle – just as Marda subsequently focuses on marrying Lawe. Danielstown, the ‘magnet to their dependence,’ (Bowen, p. 67) highlights Anglo-Irish weakness concerning the search for identity within  the nation; accordingly, ‘the Anglo-Irish failure to choose between England and Ireland assures the victimization of both sides.’[11] Thus, whilst Danielstown’s destruction was as if ‘the country itself was burning,’ (Bowen, p. 206) it actually represents the death of one half of national identity; for the political environment ensures that the Anglo-Irish cannot enjoy duality forever.

In discovering how Chris’s “two sides” shape her early thoughts, the mind becomes further entrenched with nationalism. Where one side praises ‘the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies’ associated with maternity and life, the “English” side ‘hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk,’ (Gibbon, p. 32) representing an elitist education. Yet these personality traits are subject to her current emotions; likewise, society is equally selective towards national history. John fears the Standing Stones because ‘the folk that raised them were burning in hell, skin-clad savages,’ (Gibbon, p. 41) representing primitive paganism, instead of adhering to Chae’s vision of ‘old Scotland [and] the days of old John Knox,’ (Gibbon, p. 97). Here, sections of history are denied in favour of personalised fantasies of the national past. Yet the text seemingly accepts that ‘civilisation itself [caused] our discontents and miseries, that until man the nomadic hunter settled down to tilling the soil and agricultural life, he lived a Golden Age.’[12] For Chris believes that Christianity was adopted by Scotland to ‘collect and argue, [and] criticise God,’ (Gibbon, p. 217) suggesting that social institutions are utilised to fulfil an immediate need; society likewise recycles irrelevant aspects of national history for present demands. The Standing Stones are reconstructed as a war memorial and moved to Blawearie ‘real heathen-like,’ (Gibbon, p. 253) and in doing so, the Scots simultaneously enact their cultural pasts and move on from it; for ‘[t]he path to the future lay elsewhere.’[13] As Chris’s “Scottish side” tells her, ‘Scotland lived […] the land would outlast them all, their wars,’ (Gibbon, p. 217). Here, the land remains an immortal tool with which Man redefines his own necessary version of nationality.

Bowen likewise examines the nation’s effect upon the individual. Lois is denied freedom to travel abroad ‘because of the War,’ whilst English coverage of the War of Independence ensures that her friends are ‘never allowed to come over,’ (Bowen, p. 99/56). Her social development is physically inhibited by national grievances. Furthermore, Lois ‘could not conceive of her country emotionally,’ (Bowen, p. 34) and thus struggles to create personal responses towards a nation that demands patriotism. Marda becomes her ‘alter ego: ten years on from Lois,’[14] who establishes a future outside of Ireland with Lawe (despite the domestic subjugation this presents). In her emulation, Lois attempts escape through Gerald, another Englishman. However, his own early desires to ‘stamp her uncertain mouth with his own certainty,’ (Bowen, p. 85) suggest further oppression; accordingly, Lois’ struggle to maintain independence ensures that the romance remains ‘dreamy but asexual; she cannot quite bring herself to inhabit it.’[15] Her true identity remains obscured by national disputes, although others exploit these conflicts to find theirs. The ‘very Irish’ Mrs. Fogarty ‘did not know how she would have lived at all without the military at Clonmore,’ (Bowen, p. 72) potentially using the British in order to affirm her identity. And where personal desires are jeopardised, the nation is held into account. After Gerald’s death, one of the English remarks ‘I can’t understand the King, I can’t understand the Government,’ (Bowen, p. 200) potentially suggesting disgust in realising that political schemes can only be actualised through the suffering of ordinary people.[16] Indeed, ‘we can interpret Bowen’s work as an effort to redefine the relations between the personal and the political, between the private and the social.’[17] When Mr. Montmorency says ‘[w]hat’s the matter with this country is the matter with the lot of us individually,’ (Bowen, p. 82) he suggests that nationality becomes inescapably individualised; for it is used both to assert one’s own identity and purposes and to selfishly oppress those belonging to others.

When Chris receives Gibbons’ book on The Humours of Scottish Life, she cannot bring herself to read it; in this respect, national pride also becomes capable of derision. Ewan’s anger is ‘Highland and foreign,’ whilst Gordon asserts that ‘[i]f folk are to get on in the world nowadays […] they must use the English,’ (Gibbon, p. 172/156), suggesting alienation from the native culture. Indeed, ‘modern Scotland was a crossroads between the New World’s melting pot cities and the decay of the old world’s traditional rural communities,’[18] where Kinraddie dwells in socio-economic stagnation and must adapt to Anglicised globalisation to survive. Whilst the Great War apparently destroys ‘the Last of the Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk,’ (Gibbon, p. 256) this cultural demise has already taken place. The villagers express dissatisfaction that Colquohoun’s sermon had ‘hardly a thing to say of the King or the Royal Family,’ (Gibbon, p. 54) conveying the notion that colonialism has conquered the desire for independent political figureheads. Indeed, Chae informs Chris that ‘Britain was to war with Germany,’ (Gibbon, p. 186) and thus, the Scottish ‘model of a homogenous nation shaped within a homogenous cultural […] tradition [becomes] more and more irrelevant.’[19] Where Flowers of the Forest initially bears historically Scottish connotations of ‘the lads that came back never again to their lasses among the stooks,’[20] (Gibbon, p. 33) its presence at Ewan’s funeral service signifies an amalgamation of Anglo-Scottish politics. However, Gibbon’s belief in cultural diffusionism[21] and its ideal that ‘no particular culture can rightly claim cultural superiority over others’[22] asserted Scottish literature’s equal value with its European counterparts. Indeed, the War leads Rob to believe ‘that one was bad as the other, Scotch or German,’ (Gibbon, p. 245) implying that whilst both cultures are fallible, both have an equal right to coexistence; just as individuals have the right to exchange respectfully between them.

As both novels show increasing violence in the nation’s name, the characters become more individualistic. Laurence views nationalism as ‘an unemotioned kindness withering to assertion selfish or racial,’ (Bowen, p. 96) highlighting that whilst crumbling social values demand one to choose which “side” they are on, this ultimately leads to the exploitation of others for personal gain. The nation seemingly demands that its characters display loyalty towards it, yet it’s past and kinsmen become fantasised versions within an individual’s mind, which excludes traits that do not correspond to that vision. Land gains borders simply through selfish, personal demands, as characters strive to find identities in a constantly shifting environment. Yet both novels teach that individuals must ultimately advance from these illusions and accept their own statuses; for ‘life has no grand meaning, no stability, no reality, but the inevitability of change.’[23] In order to truly benefit oneself, one must gain independence from the nation.


[1] Beth Dickinson, ‘Foundations of the Modern Scottish Novel,’ in The History of Scottish Literature: Volume 4: Twentieth Century, ed. Cairns Craig, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987) pp. 49-60 (p. 50).
[2] Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song, (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2006), p. 156. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.
[3] Gerard Carruthers, Scottish Literature, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2009), p. 66.
[4] Margery Palmer McCulloch, Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959: Literature, National Identity and Cultural Exchange, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2009), p. 94.
[5] Before 1914, the Liberals enjoyed tremendous political success in Scotland; however, their desire to avoid civil unrest during the Great War ensured a surge in popularity for the Labour Party. Yet some still remained unsatisfied with social progression in the country, and the Scottish National Party was subsequently established in 1928 to further national interests.
[6] Declan Kiberd, ‘Elizabeth Bowen: The Dandy in Revolt,’ in Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing,  ed. Éibhear Walshe, (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), pp. 135-149 (p. 135).
[7] After the postponing of a Parliamentary bill concerning Home Rule in Ireland due to the Great War, Irish republicans grew increasingly restless in their desire for a totally independent national government. Consequently, violent protests increased, as the Irish Republican Army began armed confrontation with British soldiers. Between 1920 and 1923, 275 ‘Big Houses’ were destroyed by nationalists, who resented the residents’ English connections.
[8] Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September, (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 64. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.
[9] Ann Owens Weekes, ‘Women Novelists, 1930s-1960s,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel, ed. John Wilson Foster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 189-204 (p. 190).
[10] Vera Kreilkamp, ‘Stages of Disloyalty in Elizabeth Bowen’s Irish Fiction,’ in The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), p. 156.
[11] Vera Kreilkamp, The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House, p. 158.
[12] Isobel Murray, ‘Novelists of the Renaissance,’ in The History of Scottish Literature: Volume 4: Twentieth Century, ed. Cairns Craig, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987), pp. 103-118 (p. 105).
[13] Douglas S. Mack, Scottish Fiction and the British Empire, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 210.
[14] Patricia Coughlan, ‘Women and Desire in Elizabeth Bowen,’ in Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing,  (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), pp. 103-134 (p. 123).
[15] Patricia Coughlan, Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing, p. 123.
[16] Following the excessive casualties suffered throughout the Great War, as well as greater awareness of mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the value of the ordinary human being became increasingly prominent, as literature began moving towards ideals such as existentialism.
[17] Aaron Kelly, Twentieth Century Irish Literature, (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) p. 124.
[18] Cairns Craig, ‘Twentieth Century Scottish Literature: An Introduction,’ in The History of Scottish Literature: Volume 4: Twentieth Century, ed. Cairns Craig, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987), pp. 1-10 (p. 7)
[19] Cairns Craig, The History of Scottish Literature: Volume 4: Twentieth Century, p. 7.
[20] The lyrics are said to commemorate the Battle of Flodden Field (1513), in which a heavy defeat was inflicted upon the Scots by Henry VIII’s English troops. Around 10,000 Scottish soldiers were said to have died, along with James IV, King of Scotland.
[21] The notion that an ancient, unified society “diffused” into different cultures from one particular site e.g. Egypt.
[22] Scott Lyall, ‘‘East is West and West is East’: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Quest for Ultimate Cosmopolitanism,’’ in Scottish Literature and Post-Colonial Literature: Comparative Texts and Critical Perspectives, ed. Michael Gardiner, Graeme McDonald, Niall O’Gallagher, (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2011) pp. 136-146 (p. 139).
[23] Isobel Murray, ‘Novelists of the Renaissance,’ in The History of Scottish Literature: Volume 4: Twentieth Century, ed. Cairns Craig, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987), pp. 103-118 (p. 109).

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