The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

And now for one of those talked of book reviews.

The Last September, written by Elizabeth Bowen in 1929, is set in Ireland during the summer and early fall of 1920, in the midst of the Irish War of Independence. It concerns a family of Anglo-Irish landowners in County Cork and their house guests, busy holding tennis parties with the British officers (there to deal with the beginnings of the IRA, waging a guerrilla war in a bid for freedom from British rule), trying to brush off the growing brutalities as mere idle gossip and no reason to stop having tea. This portrayal of a small and sterile upper class society in denial amidst great change was fascinating to me.

The Anglo-Irish characters act very British, they have been educated in Britain, it’s just that their large estates happen to be in Ireland, not Surrey. They see themselves as different from the British (indeed Bowen, an Anglo-Irish herself, makes fun of several British officer’s wives’ lower class manners), but also apart from the local Irish cottagers and Catholics. They attempt to be friendly with both sides, patronisingly so towards the poorer Irish; the girls all dance with the British soldiers and worry over being seen as too Irish (and old fashioned) or maybe not Irish (and charming) enough and wonder what being Irish means at all, especially in the eyes of the English.  They made me think of the cozy Edwardian family homes in To the Lighthouse and A Room with a View, with rooks cawing and gossipy gardens, only there’s a local war going on in the background they’re trying to ignore.

I’ve read a few Irish plays in university, Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Sygne and The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey (about the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin), as well as most of A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (again about the Easter Rising and an Irish boy in the WW1 British army who’s brought back to fight against his own countrymen in Dublin), but somehow this novel brought me a greater understanding of the British/Irish/Anglo-Irish conflict. I love British literature, I love its calming feel of quiet sloping green lawns and the quietly complex dramas in large country houses (see: Gosford Park), it’s my old fashioned refuge from over-plasticized consumerism, but this book reminds me that before there was ever an American Empire, there was a British one.

{I’ve noticed whenever I read a classic or historical novel, I’m always trying to decode the time period, how background events and beliefs shaped the writing of the book. I love stories, the fiction of imagination, but am endlessly fascinated by the true facts out of history, those stories that are often even bigger and more dramatic than fiction. I suppose I would read more history if only it wasn’t written so dryly! Perhaps historical fiction offers me a way to work out human nature (the art in the novel analyzing character, the history offering plot) at a safer distance.}

This is also a coming of age (with love mixed in) story, about the generation gap between those born in the 19th century and those in the 20th co-mingling with the Irish tensions:

A sense of exposure… made Laurence look up at the mountain over the roof of the house. In some gaze — of a man’s up there hiding, watching among the clefts and ridges — they seemed held… with orderly, knitted shadows, the well-groomed grass and the beds in their formal pattern.

Driving home… Lady Naylor told them of a discovery she had made. Mrs. Carey, also, did not understand modern young people. They seemed, Mrs. Carey had said, to have no idealism, no sense of adventure, they thought so much of their own comfort… since the War they had never ceased mouching. She herself had had a deep sense of poetry; she remembered going to sleep with Shelley under her pillow.

… Laurence said nothing, but thought: he must write that novel… He would vindicate modern young people for his aunt and her generation. Only he did not know if he should write about cocktail parties or whimsical undergraduates.

Elizabeth Bowen is definitely in my camp of favourite authors, after I read The Death of the Heart a few years ago, I had to order almost all of the rest of her novels because they’re hard to find in bookstores or libraries, and have had the chunk of them sitting on my shelf, all matching covers and mostly unread for some time, but after quickly finishing this one off, I will be coming back for more! To me, she’s sort of a Jane Austen-Henry James-Virginia Woolf combo of an author, closely analyzing the individual in the midst of larger groupings and developments. Some of my friends have complained she’s too detailed, after I’ve gotten them to try The Death of the Heart (generally considered her best and still my favourite out of the two), but it’s just the sort of character observation I enjoy and I think she certainly ought to be more widely known as an early 20th century female Irish author.

5 thoughts on “The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Nymeth says:

    “Perhaps historical fiction offers me a way to work out human nature (the art in the novel analyzing character, the history offering plot) at a safer distance.”

    I feel the same way about historical fiction. I read those same plays at university and would love a book that helped me understand the time period even better – especially one as great as this one sounds. And plus Bowen has been on my list of authors to try for ages.

    • afewofmyfavouritebooks says:

      Elizabeth Bowen is one of those authors I want to promote to everyone, so I hope you like her. The British-Irish conflict in this book is certainly more subtle than The Plough & the Stars, but I think that through showing it in daily life rather than war it becomes more clear. The main character writes to a school friend of hers in Britain throughout the story and then at one point it says, but she couldn’t invite her friend to visit her in Ireland because that would be too dangerous. It’s this strange little society I hadn’t considered before.

      And it’s published in 1929 (and set around 1920) so it doesn’t quite fit in your 1930s challenge, but almost! Several of her novels were written in the ’30s, To the North, The Death of the Heart and The House in Paris. The last one has part of it set in Ireland, despite the Paris title (part is set there too), but I haven’t read all of it yet to know what it’s about!

  2. Nico says:

    Wonderful! I’m so glad to find some people who appreciate EB on here. My favorites are The Last September, The House in Paris and Eva Trout even though most do not regard them as her best.

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