27 September 2021

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Reading a novel by Elizabeth Bowen is to steep in the most magnificent pages of prose.  And then there is the period of recovery once you've turned the last page because you're bereft at there being no more.  But let's cast aside the drama for now....

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.

Yes, dear reader, The Last September is very much a country house novel.  Set in 1920, Hugo and Francie Montmorency have arrived at Danielstown in County Cork, the manor house belonging to Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, with windows across the front resembling eyes to see all.  It has been twelve years since the Montmorencys visited last so there is much catching up to do.  Their cases are brought into the house amidst a flurry of questions about friends and relations in common.  Hoping to avoid the visitors, Lois travels through the back halls which smelt of scrubbed wood, limewash, and the ducks already roasting for the Montmorencys' dinner.  

Sir Richard's niece has been in his care since her mother's tragic death at a young age.  Mysteriously, the only clue we're given as to what happened is a brief line....without giving anyone notice of her intention, Laura had died.  In her late teens, Lois has the attention of several young men but enjoys the company of only one.  Gerald Lesworth is a member of the British Army and therefore on the other side of The Troubles in Ireland.  The Anglo-Irish will tolerate these young men and their wives at parties or games of tennis, but marriage is out of the question.  Secret engagements among those too young to press forward with their intentions do have their place in being a distraction or thrill.  

Also staying at Danielstown is Lady Naylor's nephew Laurence.  Between terms at Oxford he seems to stealthily meander from his room to the library, succinctly commenting when absolutely necessary.  Oblivious to his privilege, Laurence grizzles with frustration regarding his lack of available funds while other young men are battling unrest. 

"I have no money; where do you expect me to get any money from?  I was to have gone to Spain this month with a man and last year I should have gone to Italy with another man, but what do yo expect me to go on?  I have to eat somewhere, don't I, and here it is simply a matter of family feeling."

But, the primary focus of The Last September is from Lois's perspective.  Aware of guns outside the front gate and reminders not to stray off the main road, she is troubled that men are dying while she cuts material for dresses.  She is also confused by her feelings for Gerald and whether or not she is in love with him.  Bowen skillfully pulls back the curtain on this era of stoic behaviour in the drawing room to reveal her characters' fragility once closeted in their room.

Also a study in contrast, while the family eat raspberries and cream on the lawn during tennis games, tanks and uniforms surveil the countryside.

  "Autumn," pronounced Sir Richard.  "There should be less of this ambushing and skirmishing and heyfidaddling now that the days are drawing in."

Toward the end of the story, Lady Naylor and Mrs Trent comment that the house looks its best in the autumn.  But this is the last autumn for many of the grand Anglo-Irish households in Ireland.   

Elizabeth Bowen reduces me to a heap time and time again.   

Portrait of the Hon. Lois Sturt (later Viscountess Tredegar) by Ambrose McEvoy
1920

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