The Edwardians was written by Vita Sackville West as a sort of joke, one she kept Virginia Woolf updated on through her letters whilst writing it. Published by the Hogarth Press in 1930 it was an instant success, although was not taken very seriously by its author – and in later years she apparently disliked hearing it praised. In her superb introduction to this edition, Victoria Glendinning explains why the publication of Woolf’s Orlando – which had flattered and excited Vita – was the inspiration for The Edwardians in which Vita exploits “the lavish, feudal, traditional world of her Edwardian childhood at Knole”.
For me reading The Edwardians was doubly interesting having only read Orlando a couple of weeks ago. Chevron – the large, country estate in The Edwardians – is very much Knole, and there is a great feeling of autobiographical reminiscences in the novel. So many small incidents which can only have come from life – horse drawn buses, house parties, seating plans and house guest names in small slits on the outside of bedroom doors – meticulously, and knowingly organised, and the Christmas tree ceremony, the handing out of gifts to tenants children. This novel is clearly a critique of this feudal, aristocratic society into which Vita was born; there is also an acknowledgement that their charmed existence is slowly coming to an end. This is a world of privilege and duty and old world feudalism, but it is also a world of selfish hypocrisy, snobbery and class divisions.
As The Edwardians opens in 1905 Sebastian is the nineteen year old heir to the Chevron estate, following the death of his father, he is already Duke, and until he is twenty-one his widowed mother, Lucy, the Duchess carefully controls the world of Chevron and its entertainments. As the Duchess prepares for another large, weekend house party, she glances over the table seating plan, making what adjustments she feels necessary. Bedrooms are allocated with a tactfully unspoken acknowledgement of who is sleeping with whom. These aristocratic people keep one another’s secrets beautifully, allowing no breath of scandal to seep outside their closed world. Sebastian loves Chevron, yet there is much of the glittering society of which he is part that he despises. Sebastian’s sister Viola is just sixteen and already scornful of their inheritance.
At the house party is Leonard Anquetil – an explorer – whose recent celebrity like status has opened this closed society to him. One night – up on the roof of Chevron, Anquetil talks frankly to Sebastian about the traditions and inequalities of his class – and urges him to accompany him on his next adventure.
“There is another danger which you can scarcely hope to escape. It is the weight of the past. Not only will you esteem material objects because they are old — I am not superficial enough to reproach you for so harmless a weakness — but, more banefully, you will venerate ideas and institutions because they have remained for a long time in force; for so long a time as to appear to you absolute and unalterable. That is real atrophy of the soul. You inherit your code ready-made. That waxwork figure labelled Gentleman will be forever mopping and mowing at you… You will never wonder why you pursue a certain course of behaviour; you will pursue it because it is the thing to do. And the past is to blame for all this; inheritance, tradition, upbringing; your nurse, your father, your tutor, your public school, Chevron, your ancestors, all the gamut. Even should you try to break loose it will be in vain… though you may wobble in your orbit, you can never escape from it.”
Sebastian is tempted, he feels Anquetil understands him, but he also feels he can’t abandon Chevron and its traditions. Another of the party is the society beauty Lady Sylvia Roehampton – a friend of Sebastian’s mother, she casts her roving eye over the handsome young duke and sets about beginning a heady affair with him, while the whole of society whispers about them, her poor husband remains clueless. When Lady Roehampton’s husband is later made aware of their relationship he issues an ultimatum, which ultimately separates the lovers and leaves Sebastian bitter and hurt.
After his relationship with Sylvia ends, Sebastian throws himself into a cynical and soulless existence. Seeking entertainments Sebastian becomes something of a notorious young man about town. His mother wants him to marry appropriately and settle down to life at Chevron. He meets a young doctor and his wife Teresa, Teresa Spedding a silly middle-class young woman, is very impressed with his aristocratic background – Sebastian thinks he can capitalise on her fascination with aristocratic society and persuade her into an affair. However – the moralities of the middle classes – are not those of the aristocracy it would seem.
“He had tried the most fashionable society, and he had tried the middle-class, and in both his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy.”
The novel ends with the coronation of George V – and the end of the Edwardian era, and also sees the return of Leonard Anquetil between expeditions. It is Anquetil who is destined to open up to both Sebastian and his modern thinking younger sister the possibilities of another world.
This novel is hugely readable and paints a fantastic portrait of a kind of lifestyle long gone now. It’s hard not to see VSW and her family in these characters, but even for those who know nothing about VSW, her family and her lovers, this is still a very good read indeed.