Waiting for War to Break Out

the book:

The Last of Summer by Kate O’Brien

Published 1943

[Angele, a 25 year old French girl, has travelled to Ireland to find her relations]

Angele opened her bag and looked at her face in her mirror. She didn’t suppose it would matter to the Kernahans if she looked shabby – anyway, if she was shabby in this old linen suit it couldn’t be helped – but she might as well look properly made up. They seemed to hate make-up in Ireland, but really she had overdone the caution with her lipstick. She unscrewed it now and reddened again her wide, red mouth. She shook her hair back from her brow. I wonder what they’ll think of me. I wonder what I’ll think of them.

[as she walks to her cousins’ house, she encounters some poor children]

The girl was big and bright-eyed. She stared at Angele with animosity.

‘What happened your lips?’ she asked suddenly, with a powerful sneer.

observations: It is 1939, and the action starts on the Octave of the Assumption – an RC religious feast – and ends on the day war breaks out, 73 years ago today, 3rd September. Angele will meet her previously unknown family, and cause some havoc in the neighbourhood, what with her red lips and all. But whatever happens, and whatever history is uncovered, the steamroller of war is headed their way.

Kate O’Brien wrote about the well-off RC middle-class in Ireland, which is unusual - we’re all used to the devout barefoot peasants, and the posh Prots in the big house, but she has that stratum in between. As the book opens, another young woman of the family is going to the service of Benediction for the Octave – on a weekday, it is Tuesday 22nd August - so that's a clue for us: she wants to become a nun, and will join the convent from another O’Brien book, Land of Spices.


Talk of such arcane church feasts brings to mind a letter Nancy Mitford wrote to a mutual friend saying (in effect) ‘Evelyn [Waugh] says he will visit me in Paris in Low Week, but I have no idea what that is and don’t want to ask him, can you clarify?’

With thanks to TKR for liturgical input.

 Links up with: Major lipstick effects with
this character. This Italian family also knows that war is coming. Yeats on Irish women and politics here. Moveable feasts come into the whole business of the Octave feast - for the Hemingway book, and a discussion of the term, see here.

The photograph is from a
collection at Southern Methodist University.