The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen


Word PressVery little happens in this book until the last few pages, but that’s the point of it.  As the Troubles rage across Ireland in 1920, life for 18-year-old Lois, a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family living in a large house in County Cork, and her relatives and friends carries on as normal.  For them, that means dances, tennis parties, gossiping about possible romances, and an awful lot of apparently doing not much at all.  The main impact of the political situation on their lives is that it ensures the presence of a plentiful supply of British officers to provide different partners for the girls at the aforementioned dances and parties.  Naturally, it’s only the officers with whom they mix, never the rank-and-file British soldiers.  Incidentally, the word “English” is used in pretty much every single instance in which the word “British” would have been more appropriate.  A lot of American authors do that, and that’s annoying enough, but it’s even more annoying from an Irish author, whom you’d think would have known better.

Anyway!   It ought to be incredibly annoying and frustrating that the characters do their best to act as if the Troubles aren’t happening, but it isn’t, probably because the book’s written in such a wonderfully ironic way.  Shades of Jane Austen, shades of Oscar Wilde, and shades of the Dowager Countess of Grantham!  (Apparently there was a film adaptation of it in 1999, and Maggie Smith was in it, but I don’t remember ever having come across it.)  There are some absolutely glorious lines in it!  As for Lois, she doesn’t see much beyond herself and how things and people relate to her.  She over-dramatises things, either in her own head or in letters to friends, to make them seem meaningful and exciting.  I do that, but, whilst it’s rather pathetic in someone of my advanced years (my life is far more sad and boring than hers, it should be pointed out, though), it’s quite understandable in her.   Then things nearly become very real indeed, when she nearly, sort of, becomes engaged to one of the officers … but she doesn’t really want to marry him, she just feels as if she ought to want to marry him, because it’s something to do, something you do.

Then, at the end, real life and the Troubles come crashing into the lives of everyone involved … but Lois goes off to an art school in France.  We aren’t told what happens to her, but it seems unlikely that she’ll ever return to County Cork.   The world of The Last September, a very insular world, has gone.

An interesting book, especially as much of it seems to have been semi-autobiographical.

4 thoughts on “The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Chris Deeley

    Definitely semi-autobiographical, reflecting the author’s life at her family’s ancestral home; Bowen’s Court (since demolished).


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