The Last September (Vintage Classics) Paperback – 14 May 1998
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"A combination of social comedy and private tragedy...brilliant description of Anglo-Irish life at the troublesome time of 1920" (Times Literary Supplement)
"She is a major writer; her name should appear on any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers on this side of the Atlantic this century. She is what happened after Bloomsbury...the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark" (Victoria Glendinning)
"A strongly autobiographical portrait of a lost class marking out its final moments - every garden party, every house guest and every flirtation is touched by a sense of impending extinction" (Guardian)
"Posterity will one day return to Miss Bowen's novels as a repository of clues to the inner life of our times" (Sunday Telegraph)
"When I read [The Last September] I was knocked out by the sheer magnificence of her writing, the cinematic possibilities, and her obsession with the minutiae and the detail of life... I was totally gripped by the story" (Deborah Warner Glasgow Herald)
Genteel life at 'the 'Big House' continues while the Irish War of Independence rages beyond the gates, but for how long?See all Product description
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This is mostly an upper-class Big House comedy-of-manners, skilfully-written albeit pretty slow-moving. But it’s given added depth by its setting, with the grand family resolutely ignoring the insurgency all around them (nowadays, I suppose, they’d have massive security systems and guards). Their snootiness about local grievances is part of the comedy, but it’d’ve also been nice to have had at least one character, at some point, let us know what the fighting was about and why it had arisen? And it rather flunks its climax I felt, fitting what ought to have been the main event onto a summary final page? We never even learn, about these characters who we’ve got to know so well, whether they live or die? Apart from that, I enjoyed the Anglo-Irish misunderstandings, ‘sophisticated’ Marda, ‘intellectual’ Laurence, marriage-obsessed Livvy, and the fine descriptions of the countryside near Cork where it all takes place.
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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