History: Although The Last September was first published in 1929, a preface was written for this text decades later to be included in the second American edition of this novel. Concerned that readers unfamiliar with this particular chapter of Anglo-Irish history would not fully comprehend the anxieties of these times, Bowen takes great pains to explain the particulars of both her writing process and the political reasons for the unsettled atmosphere felt throughout the text, palpable even in its most seemingly serene moments. Of all her books, Bowen notes, The Last September is “nearest to my heart, had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source. Though not poetic, it brims up with what could be the stuff of poetry, the sensations of youth. It is a work of instinct rather than knowledge—to a degree, a ‘recall’ book, but there had been no such recall before.” While Bowen’s own beloved family home, Bowen’s Court, remained untouched throughout “The Troubled Times” this preface explores the ramifications for witnesses of “Ambushes, arrests, captures and burning, reprisals and counter-reprisals” as “The British patrolled and hunted; the Irish planned, lay in wait, and struck.” “I was the child of the house from which Danielstown derives” Bowen concludes, “nevertheless, so often in my mind’s eye did I see it [Bowen’s Court] burning that the terrible last event in The Last September is more real than anything I have lived through.”
Plot: The Last September opens in “a moment of happiness, of perfection” as Sir Richard and Lady Naylor welcome their long-awaited guests, Hugo and Francie Montmorency, to their country estate, Danielstown, in Cork, Ireland. Despite—or, in some characters’ cases, in spite of—the tensions produced by what Bowen obliquely refers to as “The Troubled Times,” the Montmorencys, the Naylors, as well as the Naylors’ niece, Lois, and nephew, Laurence, attempt to live their lives in the aftermath of The Great War while coping with the occasionally conflicting dictates of their class’s expectations and personal desires. Preoccupied with the concerns of social obligations which must be met even as they are enacted against a backdrop of uncertainty and national unrest, the residents of Danielstown occupy themselves with tennis parties, visits, and dances, often including the wives and officers of the British Army who have been assigned to this region. The people of Danielstown all share a particular interest in the shifting relationship between Lois and a young British officer, Gerald Lesworth, as Lois struggles to determine precisely who she is and what it is she wants out of life.
Lois’s confusion regarding her future and the state of the bond she shares with Gerald is temporarily sidelined by the arrival of yet another visitor to Danielstown, a Miss Marda Norton whose connection to the Naylor family remains strong even in the face of perpetual inconvenience and Lady Naylor’s long-standing polite aversion to the younger woman. Marda’s presence is, however, as much of a blessing for Lois and Laurence as it is an annoyance for Lady Naylor and Hugo Montmorency—the latter having developed a one-sided fixation on the soon-to-be-married Marda.
While Lois and Marda’s friendship deepens, readers are also made aware of escalating violence as the fragile status quo established between the British Army, theBlack and Tans, and local Irish resistance is threatened by Gerald’s capture of Peter Connor, the son of an Irish family friendly with the Naylors. Unbeknownst to the residents of Danielstown (with the single exception of Hugo), Lois and Marda’s acquaintance with Ireland’s national turmoil is expanded firsthand as they are confronted by an unknown individual while on an afternoon stroll through the countryside of County Cork. Although permitted to depart with only a trifling wound to Marda’s hand and Lois’s promise that they will never speak of this encounter in the ruins of the old mill, this meeting and Marda’s subsequent return to England signal a shift as the novel’s characters’ attention return to the various topics occupying their thoughts before her arrival.
After Marda Norton’s departure, Lois’s attention is once again firmly fixed upon both Gerald and the activities organized by the British officers’ wives. But despite Lois’s determination to finally come to a firm conclusion regarding her future, her relationship with Gerald is first delayed by Lady Naylor’s machinations and then left forever unresolved by Gerald’s death—which may have been at the hands of Peter Connor’s friends. Not long after Gerald’s death Laurence, Lois, and the Montmorencys leave Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, but the Naylors have little time to enjoy their solitude at Danielstown. The Naylor family estate and the other great houses are put to the torch the following February—likely by the same men who organized the attack on Gerald—their destruction reinforcing the fact the lifestyle once enjoyed by the landedAnglo-Irish gentry has been brought to an end.
Review: "The Last September" is set on the plantation of Anglo-Irish gentry against the background of the "The Troubles" in Ireland in 1929. In the midst of the hostilities of war, Lois Farquar, an 18-year-old orphan, and her family and friends go about their leisured lives. The real world around them enters their lives in the form of British troops they befriend, and the Irish people who live on their lands. They fill their leisure time with tennis, parties, and falling in love. Love is not a simple, sentimental affair for a Bowen character. Bowen knows that love is as complex as nature and human motives.
The story traces Lois's growing awareness of herself as an adult, and her efforts to find out what she wants to do with her life. As is almost always the case in an Elizabeth Bowen novel, what happens is not as important as what the author observes about what happens and who it's happening to. Bowen is a master of language and of characterization. In this beautifully written novel she creates a gallery of finely articulated, minutely observed and exquisitely individual characters, who seem as real as the people you know in your own life.
"The Last September" is one of Bowen's most cohesive novels. The reality of the Troubles provides the solid ground that supports the very personal events in the lives of the characters.
Opening Line: “About six o’clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps.”
Closing Line: “Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for in the light from the sky they saw too distinctly.”
Quotes: “I am painter Who cannot paint;
In my life, a devil rather than saint;
In my brain, as poor a creature too:
No end to all that I cannot do!
But do on thing at least I can-
Love a man or hate a man,