The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

The Last September cover

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen was first published in 1929 and it was just her second book and I think it shows, although having said that I must admit that her first book The Hotel seemed far better to me. Her books are very hit and miss, I wasn’t at all keen on The Little Girls, but I did enjoy In the Heat of the Day.

Anyway The Last September was fairly recently made into a film and my copy of the book is the tie in. The film starred Keeley Hawes, Jane Birkin, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Lambert Wilson.

The setting is Ireland in 1920 at the beginning of ‘The Troubles’. The problem is that it takes great skill not to make reading a book tedious – if you’re writing about really rather boring parties. Danielstown is the local ‘big house’ which is owned by an Anglo Irish family. They’re very gregarious and as the area is full of very young English officers the house has been thrown open to them for tennis parties and dances. There are a lot of upper class single women around, presumably because so many men were killed in World War 1 and there are some pairings off despite parents saying that such pairings can’t happen because the officers are just out of school and have no money or prospects, or come from Surrey which is just the absolute end to the snobbish Anglo Irish.

But the young subalterns are there to do a job, and they have to go out looking for IRA men and searching for guns and it ends in disaster for some of the young people.

There’s an introduction by Victoria Glendinning who says that this is her favourite Bowen book but I felt that it was in dire need of a good editor, just too much meandering chat and thought, but obviously that appeals to other readers. I wasn’t keen on her writing style. I have to say that I went right off Bowen after reading The Love-charm of Bombs in which it’s described how she regularly took herself off to neutral Ireland during World War 2 when she had had enough of the bombing and lack of food in London.

Elizabeth Bowen was herself Anglo Irish – they were Protestants who were transplanted to Catholic Ireland from England for political reasons generations before, and the tragedy for them was that they weren’t truly accepted by either community, but that’s something that they never seemed to realise. Some of the locals would have been employed by those in the ‘big house’ as servants who I’m fairly sure would have despised them as being English and upper class and so they always lived in fear of being attacked and their houses being burnt down by the ‘real Irish’. That didn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from actually having an affair with an IRA man – delusional I’d say, or she just liked living dangerously. I remember in the 1970s there were some terrible incidents with Anglo Irish people being murdered in their own homes, but presumably if they left their ‘big houses’ then they would never be able to afford the same standard of living in England.

5 thoughts on “The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Fascinating post, Katrina. I’ve never read any of her books and I would like to give her a try. Taking your points into account, I still wonder if I might like this one as I’m quite fond meandering books and big house parties. I also have a fondness for books with September in the title!

    • Sandra,
      Others seem to have enjoyed this book far more than I did, you should definitely give it a go. How strange about ‘September’ I can only think of the Rosamund Pilcher one but no doubt there are quite a few books with September in the title. I’ll now be looking out for them!

  2. Katrina,
    I’m very interested that you liked In the Heat of the Day, and would love to search for your review of it. I’d love to search for mine, too, if I ended up saying anything about it. I imagine I may not have because I disliked it so. It really set me off Bowen, though I’ve liked some of her short stories.
    And I’ve always said that there is no use in admitting that one dislikes a book unless one explains exactly why not, and at the moment I can’t, although I do recall that the characters bothered me a great deal, which undoubtedly shows my problems, not the book’s.
    My 3-great grandmother’s name was Jane Bowen from Rathdrum, Wicklow County, Ireland. She was Protestant and from a propertied family, and Anglo-Irish. She is said to have run away with William Fagan, the family’s (Catholic) groomsman to the U.S. They settled in central Massachusetts.
    I do know for sure that they were immigrants from Rathdrum, but for many years I pooh-poohed the story of it, maybe because it seemed too romanticized, but it seems from my research that there is more truth to it than I once thought. Oh, well.

    • Hi Judith,
      It’s very difficult to enjoy reading a book if it has lots of characters in it that you don’t enjoy spending time with.
      I think that these family stories that are passed down through the generations often turn out to be true although like you in the past I’ve taken things with a big pinch of salt. Some of our ancestors probably led more exciting lives than we have – and good for them!

      I had a wee keek at the Rathdrum baptisms record – there are quite a few Bowens on it.

      • How interesting!
        I do know that William Fagan, the supposedly Catholic one, was born 27 Dec 1795, so Jane’s baptism likely post-dates this listing. However, her parents might be listed, or older siblings. I will keep it. Thank you for keeking!

        I have so much more to do with all our family’s genealogy.
        Because this couple has been traced back to Rathdrum, I’ve shifted attention to other Irish ancestors, for whom all we know is that they were born “in Ireland” and they came “from Ireland.” They are the really tricky ones. But I have not given up.

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