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3.8 out of 5 stars
The Last September (Vintage Classics)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2013
NOTE: the following comments are mainly thematic, and I have tried to avoid "spoiler" plot details.

In Elizabeth Bowen's accomplished second novel, "The Last September," published in 1929, the story is set about a decade earlier, at the time of the Anglo-Irish War. The protagonist and main center of consciousness is Lois Farquhar, about 18 years old, an orphan, and living with her uncle and aunt, Sir Richard Naylor and his wife Lady Myra, in Danielstown, a "big house" in the south of Ireland. An English regiment is quartered nearby to keep the rebels under control, and Sir Richard and Lady Myra seem oblivious to the seriousness of the political realities of their times. Lois is presented as being at that stage of life where she seeks to make her own way in the world, though she is not yet capable of articulating her desire for freedom in anything like direct terms. Thus we see her disenchanted vision of the older generation represented by her uncle and aunt, rather than any clear articulation of her own hopes for the future. She knows what she wants to get away FROM, but as yet is only inchoately grasping what she might herself become. These inchoate graspings focus on visitors to Danielstown, the Montmorencys, (old friends of Richard and Myra), Marda Norton (a frequent guest, apparently an independent woman, but in fact dependent on people like the Naylors to put her up for weeks at a time), and Gerald Lesworth, a young English officer who is smitten by Lois. Bowen captures brilliantly the uneasy consciousness of Lois as it circles around these characters in whom she sees possibilities of her own freedom and whom she, to some extent, idealizes. . The immaturity of that consciousness -- based partly on age and partly on inexperience -- is rendered in prose that at times seems Jamesian in its delicacy and complexity. That delicacy, when Lois contemplates her uncle and aunt, dissolves in to something more like social satire and comedy of manners, as the narrator's point of view almost imperceptibly infects Lois's articulation. Suffice it to say that all of the idealized figures, in different ways, fail her, but in so doing point to the possibility of an independent maturity rather than an imitated one.

Lois isn't politically articulate, so Bowen's ability to suggest a parallel between Lois's desire for independence and that of the Irish rebels (none of whom is a significant character in the novel) is something of a triumph of suggestion and implication. The scene in the Danielstown woods, where Lois, in hiding, watches a rebel go about his business, is marvelously economical. Then there's the great scene in the Mill, where what isn't narrated is brilliantly as effective as what is. And there is the constant registration of Lois's disenchantment with her relatives, which she doesn't cast in political terms (her equally disenchanted cousin Laurence does that job), but which the reader can see in ways beyond Lois's ability. There is also a conversation between Laurence and Gerald at a tennis party that, again, economically, nails down all the issues and lays bare all the failures of understanding that make English policy in Ireland tragic.

These comments don't do justice to the specific quality of the writing, to the psychological acuity with which all characters are rendered, and the many other telling plot details and minor characters. I think this is a wonderful novel. Take your time with it and enjoy it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2014
I initially bought this book as part of my English Literature Coursework, I generally would not read this type of style normally but I have to say this has turned out to be one of my favourite books! I live in Ireland so it was very interesting to read a story based on the history of the country I grew up in and the story is very captivating. I discovered after reading the book that there was a film based on it but honestly, the film does the book no justice. What seems to me as important parts, have been left out of it completely and the acting does not do justice to the emotions portrayed in the book itself. I found this book so interesting, I actually got my highest mark and top of the class from the coursework completed in regards to it.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Danielstown, the Irish estate belonging to Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, is the closed environment which allows Elizabeth Bowen to explore the Anglo-Irish lifestyle, values, and allegiances in 1921, a time when The Troubles are about to sweep the country and change it forever. The Naylors' niece Lois is nineteen, a bored young woman without goals, impatient to get on with the job of finding a husband so that she can fulfill her apparent destiny. Her cousin Laurence, an Oxford student who would rather be in Italy or France, also has little to do, a condition he shares with a married couple, Francie and Hugo Montmorency, who visit friends like the Naylors regularly, having no home of their own.
A British army unit is garrisoned nearby to protect their loyal subjects-and, not incidentally, provide a ready source of young men for garden parties and tennis matches. With an acute eye for detail, ironic detachment, and a sometimes caustic wit, Bowen reconstructs the lives of these aristocrats. One comments that it would be "the greatest pity if we were to become a republic and all these lovely troops taken away." Laurence remarks cynically that he would like to be present when "this house burns and we should all be so careful not to notice." When an informer tells the family that guns have been buried on their property, they are blasé about it-they don't want to tell the soldiers because it might result in the trampling of some new trees.
Throughout the novel, Bowen's prose remains formal and detached. When Lois and a young soldier begin to think they are in love, there are no passionate scenes-both are a product of their time and upbringing, and kisses are reserved for the engagement. When nearby estates are attacked, the Naylors simply change their schedules and limit their travel. Bowen's book has the ring of truth--she herself was part of the Ango-Irish tradition in County Cork, and she wrote the book in 1929, when the revolution was still fresh. Though she puts an iconoclastic spin on attitudes and values, she offers no apologies, preferring to present the facts, create the scenes, and allow the reader to judge for himself/herself whether Ireland was better off before or after The Troubles. Mary Whipple
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Set in Ireland in 1929, this lyrical and nostalgic novel expresses the point of view of some of the Anglo-Irish who lived in their long-established big houses in the countryside of Ireland while the `Troubles' were in full spate. The novel mainly concerns Lois, living with her Uncle and Aunt, Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor, because of the death of her mother and father during the Great War. For Lois, and a nephew of Lady Naylor's, Lawrence, life is one long round of visitors, tennis parties, dances in the nearby town and in general a leisured existence doing a little sketching on the side. Lois has a friendship with Livvy, from a neighbouring household and it is known that Gerald Letchworth, a young English subaltern from the nearby barracks appears to be preparing to pay court to her. Then the beautiful and languorous Marda, a distant relation, pays a visit and changes the composition of the household as another visitor, Gerald, there with his wife Francie who is older than him, begins to exhibit signs of infatuation.

There is a large cast of characters, all deftly and skilfully portrayed and the background of the Troubles is a rumble of discomfort beneath the clink of drinks before dinner. Of particular interest is the Anglo-Irish attitude to the English occupation. They welcome officers to their parties, but are neutral when it comes to the activities of local Irish families, to whom they have been used to offering patronage and from whom their large cast of servants is obtained. They prefer not to notice, if they can contrive it, that they are straddling the conflict between English and Irish politics.

Though the personalities and the various love affairs and attractions sometimes pall - there is only so much polite wooing and arcane conversation one can bear - the background of the Troubles provides the catalyst for several incidents and for the downbeat ending.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 16 May 2000
Elizabeth Bowen's novel, The Last September, is a wonderful evocation of a vanished world that today seems as remote as that of pre-Revolutionary Russia. A sense of doom pervades the book - her characters know that they are doomed because they belong to a ruling class that is being abandoned by the government in London and will not be accepted by the Irish catholics around them. In the middle of a nasty and bitter war between the British army and the IRA, and with the ever-present threat of ethnic cleansing by the IRA hanging over them, their reaction (and an all too human one) is to pretend that nothing is happening. They pretend to the British they are British, they pretend to the Irish they are Irish, they pretend to themselves that if they keep the old rituals going then things will carry on much the same. It is a masterful portrait of a society undergoing a nervous breakdown and retiring into itself and refusing to accept reality. But the best reason to read this book is the use of language - Elizabeth Bowen writes so beautifully that it becomes addictive. The way she looks at the world is unique and deserves to be more widely recognised. After reading The Last September I read Bowen's Court, and there is no doubt that The Last September is strongly autobigraphical.
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on 30 May 2013
Although Protestants still form a small but significant clan in the south of Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy has all but disappeared. And reading this book doesn't make you regret their demise. This is interesting because Miss Bowen was herself a member of the Ascendancy. Yet she writes, very well, in a detached way and that's one of the plus points of the book. She portrays a rather pretentious, self-centred group of people who think of themselves as Irish, yet send their children to school in England and subscribe to Anglicanism. Their national identity is to put it mildly blurred. The book also has a degree of social comedy, and somehow it made me think of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. And since it's ninety years since the Ascendancy ended in Ireland, it's worth reading this book from a historical perspective, too.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Great art is both challenging and accessible. Elizabeth Bowen's highly wrought Modernist writing style resulted in me having to frequently re-read passages and ponder their meaning. It's not a style I enjoy. I like clarity and prefer to be led by the hand.

It's a shame because she manages to evoke a clear sense of Ireland during this key period of turmoil (the troubles in 1920), and specifically how the Anglo-Irish aristocracy appear to have refused to accept that anything was wrong. This means the book takes place against a backdrop of unease and tension which Elizabeth Bowen subtly signals through symbolism and language.

After finishing the book I did some research to try and better understand the book's themes and meanings. There is a wealth of information that is not obvious to the casual reader. For example, the use of ellipsis; how, as in Greek tragedy, the action takes place offstage; and the use of pauses, unfinished sentences and awkward silence. The book's themes include feminism, sterility, colonialism, identity and so on - some of these were obvious to me, but a lot were only clear once I'd read some more informed analysis.

Ultimately I found this a frustrating book. The plot meandered, the style was frequently difficult to fathom, and I was bored as often as I was enthralled. Perhaps this is a more realistic and accurate way to portray history? In any event I was relieved to finish the book and doubt I will read any more of her work.
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on 10 November 2013
Our reading grouip quite liked this book. It gave insight into the situation in Ireland in that period.and especially of the life of a young woman.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 16 May 2000
Elizabeth Bowen's novel, The Last September, is a wonderful evocation of a vanished world that today seems as remote as that of pre-Revolutionary Russia. A sense of doom pervades the book - her characters know that they are doomed because they belong to a ruling class that is being abandoned by the government in London and will not be accepted by the Irish catholics around them. In the middle of a nasty and bitter war between the British army and the IRA, and with the ever-present threat of ethnic cleansing by the IRA hanging over them, their reaction (and an all too human one) is to pretend that nothing is happening. They pretend to the British they are British, they pretend to the Irish they are Irish, they pretend to themselves that if they keep the old rituals going then things will carry on much the same. It is a masterful portrait of a society undergoing a nervous breakdown and retiring into itself and refusing to accept reality. But the best reason to read this book is the use of language - Elizabeth Bowen writes so beautifully that it becomes addictive. The way she looks at the world is unique and deserves to be more widely recognised. After reading The Last September I read Bowen's Court, and there is no doubt that The Last September is strongly autobigraphical.
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
willstew@bishopstoke.swinternet.co.uk
THE LAST SEPTEMBER Elizabeth Bowen
I read this book because it came free with a magazine; I'd never read Elizabeth Bowen, and it was coming out as a film. Bowen's characters are preoccupied, obsessed with the trivia of Irish society in the 1920 - tennis clubs, dances, house visiting, parties and afternoon tea. She portrays and empty-headed, pathetic group of people for who the reality of the political upheaval has little consequence. The portrayal of social history is beautiful, yet even in that it is a narrow slice, leaving me feeling that nobody existed outside of the narrow, self-contained set. They were totally absorbed in one another to the total exclusion of anyone else. Nobody else seemed to exist apart from these upper echelons of society and various army officers. Nothing much happens in the book, and when it does, like the uncovering of an IRA gunman hiding in a mill, it is detached, and second-hand. When a shot is fired, it is dismissed as being unimportant. The girls in the story are simpering, and, like the woken, empty-headed, while the men, equally lacking in passion, are week-kneed and wishy-washy. They seem quite unable to say what they want to say, and when they say something, immediately retract it in a welter of uncertainty and confusion. Lois, the principal character, wants to love and be loved, but even that lacks passion. She loves Gerald, a impecunious army officer; Lady Naylor, Lois's aunt, puts a stop to the romance. This does not result in floods of tears, in fact, Lois's reaction is like all their reactions, restrained, almost apathetic. When Gerald is killed by the IRA, again the lack of passion is disturbing. It is as if the world must carry on as before. Grief would be too upsetting; the status quo would be shattered and it could never again be restored. It is as if they believe that they can push back the tide by being 'normal.' Normal, everything must be normal. I was well into the book when I experienced a severe jolt. The narrative, the inconsequentiality, the trivia, the self-talk, had taken me back to a previous century; more in keeping with Jane Austen, than the 1920s. I had been lulled into a time warp, as if this bit if Irish society hadn't moved in time. This illusion was created, in part, by Bowen's delightful descriptions of time and place. In some places as much as half a page is devoted to describing nothing more significant than what the girls are wearing. These long descriptions give a certain timelessness to the narrative. It was the mention of jazz that jolted me back into reality time. But that created a conflict for me - reconcile the 19th century atmosphere with the ever-present threat of IRA violence. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to find a terrorist gun pointing at me. Yet in that conflict, Bowen seems to exemplify the struggle of the characters. If you closes your eyes you cannot see that fat that stares at you from behind the dark woods. So why struggle? They did not even acknowledge that there was a struggle. To have done so, to try to make sense of the situation, would have meant doing something to resolve it, and resolution was impossible. The final resolution - destruction and terror - brings the book to a close, but even that lacks drama, as, in spit of it all, they, not the terrorists, have finally triumphed. Their spirit is has not been subdued. I had many intellectual difficulties with this book and not till I read the last word did I see how cleverly the author had woven me into her web. That I could read 206 pages of inaction and trivia, while all the time looking over my shoulder for the IRA guns, says something for Bowen's skill. I cannot imagine how the film producers will bring this 1920s story, lacking as it does any action, there is not even a decent love scene, into the 21st century, unless they take severe liberties with the script. That will be interesting to see. If you are looking for an extraordinary well-written book, with wonderful descriptive passages, and some real wit, I can recommend The Last September. If, however, you are looking for quick action, excitement, sex, gratuitous violence, and high drama, this book is not for you.
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