The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

Vita pic
Vita Sackville-West (1892 -1962) British poet, novelist, gardener, free spirit. “I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.”

Book’s narrators – who are they? where are they? why are they telling me this? why do they care? – always interests me. It can often be a character in the story; it can sometimes be the protagonist themselves; but it is usually some nameless god-like know-all. There are many ways to tell a story so why did the writer pick this particular way to tell it? This interest makes the first page of a novel so informative. Sackville-West makes it very clear in the opening of The Edwardians that it is no-one but her, the writer,  who is telling me this story. This is rare.  She begins:

Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.

And ends the first paragraph with:

The arbitrariness of choice has already been made sufficiently evident, and no further justification is necessary to explain why we irrupt into the life of our hero (for so, I suppose, he must be called) at the age of nineteen, and meet him upon the roof a little after midday on Sunday, July the 23rd, nineteen hundred and five.

As you can ‘hear’ by the language it is written English from another time, but not so far away. Sackville-West had The Edwardians published in 1930, less than a hundred years ago.

The story is set at Chevron, a country house of the aristocracy lorded over by the widowed Dowager Duchess of Chevron but owned by her son, Sebastian, the current Duke, but who ‘hasn’t yet attained his majority’, hence his mother’s stewardship until he comes of age. Summer weekends at Chevron are weekends as they always have been: house parties, where the landed rich, and some hangers-on who may not be wealthy but have other necessary attributes, lavishly dine, drink, play bridge, and have affairs. Sebastian, soon to be initiated into a sex life by his mother’s best friend, Lady Roehampton, and his sister Viola, overlooked but who surprises everyone, try to follow their hearts and their belief in the inevitable; but tradition is strong and exerts itself the most on dutiful sons soon to be heirs of age and pensive daughters branded for an appropriate marriage. However, an interesting ‘adventurer and sailor’, Leonard Anquetil, not of anyone’s set, but one who went to Siberia in search of mammoths and who had lived in a hut near the South Pole was deemed amusing enough to be invited to the Chevron’s house party. His intrusion ultimately leads the two children to see their own paths, and possible destinies, independent of their social standing. Just what they needed .

Dialogue has always been an efficient painter of character, and Sackville-West is a master of  it but with children and maids hovering around the Duchess as she dresses for dinner it’s a monologue that paints her character so precisely:

Now, Button, haven’t you nearly finished? Don’t drag my hair like that, woman. Give me the tail comb. Don’t you see, it wants more fullness at the side. Really, Button, I thought you were supposed to be an expert hair-dresser. You may think yourself lucky, Sebastian, that you were born a boy. This eternal hair, these eternal clothes! They wear a woman out before her time. Oh there you are  Miss Wace. This plan is all wrong. You must alter it. Do it here, as quick as you can. Sebastian will help you. And Viola. Come in, Viola; don’t look so scared, child. I can’t bear people who look scared. No, I don’t want you now, Button; you get on my nerves. I will call you when I want you. Get my dress ready. Children, help Miss Wace – yes you too Viola; it’s high time you took a little trouble to help your poor mother – and do, all three of you, try to show a little intelligence.

This book was incredibly successful in 1930 at the beginning of the depression. The reading public, when austerity was beginning to bite, craved this story of extravagance, selfishness, and a doomed social order. It is set in 1905 at the beginning of the WW1 when an earlier social order was under threat. It was Vita Sackville-West who saw in the young an understanding of the transition that both her readers and characters were going through, but the older generation could not see it; they saw nothing but what had never changed and so could not believe that it ever would. The book was so successful that she and her husband, the diarist and diplomat, Harold Nicholson, bought Sissinghurst, an estate that resembled a pile of rocks at the time, for just over twelve thousand pounds and turned it into the most famous garden estate in the land, and certainly Kent.

Sissinghurst Castle. Her later home and famous garden

Here, her description of one particular Edwardian set:

Their solidarity was terrific. They had a way of speaking of one another which reduced everybody else to a mere petitioner on the doorstep. Too well-bred to be arrogant, too uninspired to sneer, they were simply so well convinced of their unassailability that the conviction required no voicing, but betrayed itself quietly in glances, in topics, in the set of shoulders, the folding of hands, and in the serene assumption of certain standards and particular values as common to all. They moved all together, a large square block in the heart of English society, massive, majestic, and dull.

You have to re-read some of her sentences just for the joy of them; she criticises everyone but with wit, style, and a masterful use of biting words. The scenes in her story are always there for more than one reason. Like the boisterous Christmas party for the tenant’s children presided over by Sebastian, his sister Viola, and Sebastian’s guest, Teresa, Mrs Spedding, the doctor’s wife. The innocent parlour games they play with the children are full of adult manipulation and intrigue: Sebastian, against his better judgement, to ensnare, tantalise, and seduce the innocent and fragile Teresa; she in knots of fear and delight at his attention; and Viola who sees and understands everything, but cannot save her, nor stop him.

Sackville-West was a fascinating woman. A peer’s daughter married to a knight of the realm, Vita was a pillar of the Establishment but, like her husband, had affairs with her own sex; but she bore him two children, and became a best-selling author, poet and gardener. Eleven years after her death her son Nigel Nicholson had a book published about his parent’s relationship under the title of Portrait of a Marriage. In it he chronicled his mother’s tempestuous sexual relationship with the author and socialite, Violet Keppel (1894 – 1972). Vita also, famously, had an affair with Virginia Woolf who used her as inspiration for her novel Orlando,: the adventures of a man who lives for three centuries but who changes, mid-life, into a woman.

In The Edwardians, apart from the extravagant world of ‘above stairs’ – emeralds, gowns, white-tie, champagne, Canard à l’orange, port, and gossip; there is also the greyer, but equally fascinating, world of ‘below stairs’ – hatpins, aprons, bracers, beer, shepherd’s pie, sherry, and gossip. Such stories in such settings have recently become popular again: Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park, set in 1930, and the many series of ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015), set a little earlier, but both written by Julian Fellowes and both sharing cast members. If you liked Downton Abbey you’ll find The Edwardians equally as entertaining but with a sting in its tail.

And what better climactic scene to highlight all that Sebastian loathes about his prisoned live than a coronation: that of George V, in 1910. The ending comes a little quickly but it’s unexpectedness is novelistic and provides an out for poor privileged Sebastian (and for independent Viola). A great read!

Vita Sackville-West 1955 – straight from the garden

You can find the ebook of The Edwardians here.

Two short stories, A Tale of Mr Peter Brown and Chelsea Justice in the one volume, plus some poetry can be found for free here from Gutenberg Press.

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