The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
I committed a bibliophilic sin, ladies and gentlemen—I watched the movie before I read the book. To be fair, I had no idea the book existed when I watched the film last summer, which was on a list of recommended films for my Ireland trip. (I’m getting dangerously close to the two weeks and a half of posts I need to schedule while I’m away. Challenge accepted.) I really need to research these things a little more thoroughly. But in any case, I watched Deborah Warner’s amazing film before the Elizabeth Bowen novel it was based upon, which colored my reading. Hence the reason it’s a bibliophilic sin, I suppose. (The review of the film will be going up sometime in March. I apparently now only watch movies based on books…)
The Last September is set during the Irish War of Independence. Despite the turmoil around them, the Anglo-Irish aristocratic Naylors remain calm, polite, and playful. Their niece, Lois, spends her time flirting with Gerald Lesworth, a British soldier stationed in the area, their nephew Laurence languishes, and their various assorted house guests—including their homeless nephew, his frumpy wife, and the vivacious Marda Norton—are happy to oblige them. But despite their best efforts, they can’t keep ignoring the fact that their world is crumbling down around them.
The Last September is a quiet, internal novel. While events do happen, it’s the impact in the minds of the characters that matters most. My roommate, who is taking the class and going on the trip alongside me, noted that it feels like the characters are talking at each other, rather than meaningfully interacting. And that’s very important. The world the Naylors inhabit is stagnant. In order to “live on the dash” in the term Anglo-Irish, as Bowen herself put it, they’re almost backed into a corner, unable to fully support the British whose aristocracy they’ve co-opted or the Irish that they identify with more. Sir Richard and Lady Naylor are elderly; Lois and Laurence are too young to be proper adults. The Montmorencys are caught in a strange, almost familial marriage, and Marda is finally settling down to an equally dispassionate marriage. Horror goes on around them even as they have tea parties, dance, and otherwise fritter away the time. Lois and Laurence are the most disturbed by this; the former has a short, moving speech where she despairs of being incapable to feel anything for the revolution happening around her. Their conversations are a continuation of the internal monologues that make up the bulk of the novel.
My professor has described Bowen to me as the Irish Virginia Woolf; their writing styles are certainly similar, although I think I ultimately prefer Bowen’s. There’s something marvelously clear about her writing, even as the language evokes a crumbling world where personal connection is difficult and, in some cases, impossible. She manages the stagnation of this world well, as well as Lois’ spots of alternate hope and despair. There’s even humor here, dark though it is—“Her eyes went dark with vivid and deep disappointment at the thought of anybody doing anything without her. She missed everything, no one would ever care, she would never marry” (163). It’s not engrossing, but it is engaging, especially when you know the historical context. That historical context rears its head at the very end of the novel, albeit just as distantly as anything else.
The novel is separated into three parts—“The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency”, “The Visit of Miss Norton”, and “The Departure of Gerald”. The Montmorencys and Miss Norton are both Anglo-Irish; Gerald is English, and his departure is quite dramatic. As I said, events do happen in The Last September in the present timeline, but they’re small events with enormous impact on the inner lives of the denizens. But Bowen keeps the pace up; it doesn’t drag, although neither does it gallop. It’s slow, measured, like the time the Naylors try to fill. As we get to meet these people through their own internal monologues, they’re fully rendered human beings. It’s a remarkably deep and thoughtful piece of work, and I look forward to picking through it in class and in my papers.
Bottom line: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September is a thoughtful, internal, and deep novel about Anglo-Irish identity during the Irish War of Independence. Worth a read, even if it’s just for her language.
I bought this used book from Amazon.
- Bowen, Elizabeth. The Last September. 1929. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.