The Last September

The Last September

by Elizabeth Bowen

The Last September depicts the tensions between love and the longing for freedom, between tradition and the terrifying prospect of independence, both political and spiritual.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 3.44
  • Pages: 303
  • Publish Date: March 14th 2000 by Anchor
  • Isbn10: 0385720149
  • Isbn13: 9780385720144

What People Think about "The Last September"

"Their life, through which they went forward uncertainly, without the compulsion of tragedy, was a net of small complications." Isn't that the perfect definition of ordinary life, lived by ordinary people who have no potential for heroism or martyrdom, but who consider their small complications important enough to care about them and to take necessary action to secure their status quo or to change it, according to need? The tragedy of The Last September lies in the fact that the reader knows the characters live at a time and place, the Troubles in Ireland, where ordinary life is a luxury most people can't afford.

So it was that when I recently read The Awkward Age by Henry James, I paid particular attention to a blue-covered novel that had one of the characters' names inscribed in it. A novel gets passed from one character to another in The Last September too, and though there's no name inscribed on it - as was the case with the blue-covered book in 'The Awkward Age' - there is a discussion about such an inscription, which has to be an interesting coincidence. If I reached up to the book shelf the other day, where Elizabeth Bowen is perched between William Trevor and Molly Keane, it was because a character trapped on the threshold of adulthood in 'The Awkward Age' had reminded me of a similar character in Bowen's novel. I had only intended to remind myself of the character's name (Lois Farquar, as it turns out), but I ended up rereading the novel all the way through. As greetings are exchanged with the long-awaited visitors, Bowen turns her camera on Lois, standing apart from the rest of the characters: In those days, girls wore crisp white skirts and transparent blouses clotted with white flowers; ribbons, threaded through with a view to appearance, appeared over their shoulders. You'll have to read the book yourself to see how artfully Elizabeth Bowen fills in the story she has sketched in that powerful opening. As was the case with the blue-covered novel in the Henry James book I mentioned earlier, the book in this story was relevant to the theme of the innocence of girls of an awkward age. Though he isn't present in many scenes in the book, and the point of view mostly belongs to Lois or to certain other characters, Bowen still gives Laurence some great lines, including this little speech which nicely wraps up the themes of this review: Last term I dropped a cigarette case into the Cher, from the bridge at Parson's Pleasure. The book Laurence didn't give Lois had another significance which I couldn't have guessed until I started reading it.

This novel was first published in 1929, one of the classics of literature of the time, and my first experience with Elizabeth Bowens writing. It is Ireland, between the wars; a time when England had sent out the Black and Tans with the expressed purpose of keeping law and order in a country experiencing many internal battles. Sometimes, two people would hold an entire conversation where each is expressing responses to their individual thoughts rather than to the words of other person.

Have you ever seen them say NOW A MINOR MOTION PICTURE? But that was minor the main thing was the STYLE of Elizabeth Bowen. Second a description of the heroine: When she turned away, the light from behind ran a finger round the curve of her jaw. I didnt like any of this the highlighted phrases seem especially ridiculous and I couldnt face wading through a thousand more examples.

It's often in the descriptive lyrical passages that Bowen announces her genius, when she dramatizes the outside world as a register of her characters' inner lives. It's often where all the defensive sophistications of Bowen's characters are exposed as little more than fancy dress. At the final count, Elizabeth Bowen can write better than 99% of living novelists, which is always a reason for reading even her minor early works. The film changes all this; it also changes the central character Lois from a sophisticated, knotted and cerebral young woman into a flighty flirtatious cliché in a white dress dancing among trees.

It could have also been the story of Bright Young Things and their oblivious parents spinning slowly out of control, pushing aside chintz and gauze to look with confusion on the riots in the streets, seemingly vaguely Sad before turning back to their dinner party. But I did feel like Bowen had had a bit of an Idea about this and was so excited to tell me about it, she couldnt stop telling me, every few pages throughout most of the book. I think she is making a good point, and she does make me feel like the sun is going down and I cant look away, so ultimately, she wins. For once, the story of the young girl finding herself and falling in love IS the reason to read this, and not something to roll ones eyes at while drinking in the atmosphere. Bowens rendering of Lois in her transitional stage is gorgeous and evocative, and set apart by a special talent. There are many books that may tell you things that you remember feeling or thinking as a teenager, but how many of them make you remember what it was like to physically be inside the skin of a teenager? From the first page, this book made me twitch and twist my body in remembered sympathy with Lois. She stands out on the drive in front of her house, on display: she stood at the top of the steps looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look, like other young girls, and clasping her elbows tightly behind her back, tried hard to conceal her embarrassment. I could feel Lois fingers digging into the bones of her elbows and leaving marks because she cant think of anything else to do to contain her embarrassment at looking like other young girls but to literally hold it underneath her skin. I was closing my eyes and feeling the sun and thought how long could I actually do that, Id have to look to the dogs and then I opened them and Lois found refuge in a big, comforting dog, which meant her hands could do something else, something that looked more natural, while still allowing her to hide her embarrassment. I adore that in her faltering, halting relationship with Gerald, she progresses and does not in a way that is consistent with the awkwardness of a girl who uses her fingernails as a social escape and does not know where her life is going. He tries to start this way, offering Lois an uncomplicated, unquestioned fairy tale love- but faced with a real girl in return, he has to confront his own feelings to face her. And ultimately, Bowen creates such a painful climax as she guides Lois painfully, slowly, gorgeously through to becoming herself and finding a world in which she feels comfortable, taking a step forward to choosing a person to be and shows that world ripped away from Lois by random, awful chance. It happens to everyone when they are finally allowed to walk through the Real World, alone, in Lois case, her illusions are literally shot down in the night, and then burnt down in front of her, rather than the slow, gracious realization that most people are permitted. Bowens choice to make her story every day and ordinary and wrapped up with tea visits, carpets and hairbrushes makes this grounded enough to feel real rather than a soap opera. It almost seems she is vacillating herself, like Lois, as a writer- between excited youth and maturity.

It isn't relevant to now!) because it evokes the feelings of rainy dinner party days and first horniness. Dinner parties like people getting together and trying to decide on some vague focal point in the distance that will get them all. There should have been some wrong feeling in there that wasn't just first horniness playing dress up at ways of life, first loves and breakthroughs... Maybe you don't know those people at all. Maybe you can recall how you felt almost in love with other things. Bowen did have power over me in her mind reading capabilities.

(By the way, anybody reading this: if you know of any philosopher, social theorist, writer/critic, whoever, who has said or thought something like this, PLEASE DO recommend their work to me. Just thinking out loud here, about something which fascinates me...Please do suggest a textual relevance, of any kind, if indeed you're seeing one) I'm sorry, but reading poetry in itself, by itself, doesn't change the direction of the country you live in (would that it could!) unless of course you're maybe a president who is so moved by Whitman or Neruda that you decide to change face on corn imports, labor jurisdiction or gay rights or whatever, or if you've organzied a body of people around the works of a poet or novelist (what would the Keatsitarian or Conradista party look like?)- which, of course, isn't totally crazy a concept if you even glance at the works and lives of (say) Tolstoy, Mishima, perhaps Pound, the Italian Futurists, just for a couple examples. (Not to say $, seats in gvt, weaponry, guns, germs, steel- don't feel like being precisely that grim today) Poetry is all-powerful, but only within the contours of the world it creates. What its power (Emersonian "luster", the "shock of recognition", etc) can do is influence the way people think and live their lives, the values that they hold and the morality, the language they interpret (what is, that is not interpreted?)- their voices. Bowen's text belongs to the subgenre of work which keeps the 'Political' at bay, as perhaps an ambience or a stage-setting, or kept deliberately off stage entirely, and lets the 'Political' trickle into the seemingly placid, keeping-up-appearances, going-along-to-get-along, everyday signification politics of the wooden fishbowl drawing room of manners- These might include- Austen herself (can't wait to get a real hold on her work!), Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier , maybe Ethan Frome , Flaubert's A Sentimental Education , the brilliant film Y Tu Mama Tambien , Chekov's major plays, Henry James....that crackling tension between characters whose interactions may easily appear innocuous or pointless and are actually perhaps more compellingly seen as negotiations within the body politik- 'I can speak this way to you, touch or not touch you, ask you to do this or that', and so on and so forth. I guess this could be said for pretty much any narrative but I do think that the novel of manners genre might derive the overall power and reward and relevance out of just this kind of literary detective work.