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The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen: Troubles in Ireland

Peaceful scene in Irish countryside disturbed by the events in The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

The Last September captures one of those periods in history when there is a significant change in the wind, yet the people directly impacted don’t quite believe it’s going to happen to them.

We’re in 1920s southern Ireland in Danielstown, one of those large country houses that have been occupied for centuries by an Anglo-Irish family. Outside the estate boundaries, trouble is brewing as the movement for Irish independence gathers pace. In response, British army soldiers patrol the countryside, seeking out IRA sympathisers and engaging in a guerrilla war of ambushes, skirmishes and arson.

But inside the garden walls, life goes on as it has always done, with tennis parties on the lawn, strawberries and raspberries for afternoon tea, house guests and flirtations with young officers.

Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra, owners of Danielstown, are of course aware of what’s happening. How could they not be when there are rumours that guns are buried in their grounds, and patrols and roadblocks to negotiate on their trips to the nearby town? Yet they pretend not to notice, as if ignoring the issue for as long as possible, will mean it will go away. They, and their friends, are so firmly rooted in an Ireland ruled over by the English, that a nationalist future is unimaginable.

Their nineten-year-old niece Lois Farquar, who lives with them, is also aware of the tensions and increasing violence but her concern is more about her own future than that of the country. Having recently left school, she is waiting for her real life to start though doesn’t really know what form that will take. She becomes engaged to a British army officer, Gerald Lesworth, an arrangement we sense is less about love than a way of escaping the boredom of life at Danielstown.

Inevitably events outside the house creep closer to the bubble environment of Danielstown, reaching a climax that has irrevocable consequences for the Naylors and changes the direction of Lois’ life.

I wanted to enjoy The Last September more than I did.

There is an admirable subtlety to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing, most evident when she shows crucial shifts of feeling between people who otherwise seem engaged in idle conversation. Often times this has a delightful comic effect, particularly when Bowen is depicting the snobbish attitudes prevalent among Lady Naylor and her circle who are so firmly rooted in an Ireland of the past.

Lois’ suitor is welcomed at the house because he is a useful tennis partner. As an army officer intimately aware of the state of The Troubles he is also a valuable source of gossip. But Lady Naylor considers completely unsuitable as a prospective marriage partner for Lois – damned because he comes from England, and horror of horrors, from Surrey.

Practically nobody who lives in Surrey never seems to have been heard of, and if one does hear of them they have never heard of anybody else who lives in Surrey. Really, altogether, I think all English people very difficult to trace. They are so pleasant and civil, but I do often wonder if they are not a little shallow.

But I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters or to care very much about what happens to them. Lois is one of the more interesting individuals, a girl who feels trapped and unable to find her way through the world:

She was lonely, and saw there was no future. She shut her eyes and tried – as sometimes when she was seasick, locked in misery between Holyhead and Kingstown – to be enclosed in nonentity, in some ideal no-place perfect and clear as a bubble.

Ultimately however her level of self consciousness and repeated questioning about whether Gerald loves her and she loves him became so irritating, I lost interest in her predicament.

As a novel showing the Anglo-Irish way of life at a particular period of history, we do get a very clear sense in The Last September that what we’re seeing are the fading embers of that life. The novel indeed ends with an event that acts as a vivid metaphor for the death of houses like Danielstown and their occupants.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen: End Notes

Elizabeth Bowen was born in 1899, the only child of an Irish lawyer and landowner. She travelled a great deal, dividing most of her time between London and Bowen’s Court, the family house in County Cork which she inherited and upon which he based Danielstown, the house in The Last September. Her first book, a collection of short stories, Encounters, was published in 1923. Her first novel, The Hotel followed in 1927. Her 1948 novel The Heat of the Day  is considered one of the finest depictions of the atmosphere in London during the bombing raids of World War II.

She was awarded the CBE in 1948 and made a Companion of Literature by The Royal Society of Literature in 1965. She died in 1973 as a result of lung cancer.

The Last September was her second novel, published in 1929. It was adapted for the screen in 1999.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month 2021 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com but didn’t manage to write up my review in time. I’m also counting this book as book number 4 towards my #TBR21, an attempt to read 21 books from my stack of unread books, by the end of this year.

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