Saturday, December 19, 2015

Edwardians Behaving Badly

I am behind in many reviews but there aren't many days left in this year! How does that happen?? So to catch up a bit and enjoy this time of year as well, I'm going to post a few reviews over the next few days of books which include Christmassy scenes. I'll start with a book, and a Christmas, from one of my favoured eras, the Edwardian. Even if this one makes me question why I like this era so much...

The EdwardiansThe Edwardians / Vita Sackville-West
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., c1930.
314 p. 

Sebastian, Duke of Chevron, is 19 when this book opens. He's the essential Edwardian; pulled between tradition and his mother's high-society friends, and a more modern, independently determined life. 

His mother Lucy, and her shallow friends (particularly Sylvia, Lady Roehampton) represent the older world, in which anything can be done as long as appearances are maintained. They are giddy and shallow and fixated on their beauty and status. Sebastian is also partly the same -- shallow and fixated on his personal beauty and privilege and desires. But he is also partly influenced by both his sister Viola, a more serious and independent minded person, and the appearance at both beginning and end of the story of the individualist explorer Leonard Anquetil. Viola and Leonard signify the sea change that society is going to undergo as the Edwardian age draws to a close. Even so, I thought that Leonard Anquetil was an odd character, not particularly realistic or even interesting; I feel like he would have been a tiring know-it-all in real life.

But the social detail was quite fabulous; the love Sebastian has for Chevron itself is probably his one uncomplicated, true feeling. Sackville-West was writing this novel in an attempt to make some money, and so the revelation of all the "insider" detail about the upper classes may have been included to titillate middle class readers, in the way that Downton Abbey does to us these days! 

However, this reaching out to the lower classes pays off in the inclusion of one of the only truly interesting characters for me. Teresa, a married woman whom Sebastian toys with, is blinded by the delights of being invited into the secret lives of the aristocracy, and doesn't see Sebastian's interest for what it first. She and her doctor husband are invited to Chevron for a Christmas house party, and her awed response is quite what most non-hob-nobbing people would feel. She's honest about her appreciation for Chevron, though her admiration of the aristocracy is tested by an afternoon with Sebastian's mother and her coterie of chattering friends. 

It's when Teresa is at Chevron that the Christmas element comes in. There is a lengthy chapter about this holiday visit, revealing the habits of the wealthy, including a gift-giving to all the children of the estate. It begins with this:

By the morning of Christmas Eve, snow had fallen. Sebastian was amused by this, when he first looked out of his bedroom window and saw the white garden. He was amused, because Teresa would now see Chevron as she had expected to see it. "Quite an old-fashioned Christmas," she would say. He was in such a good temper that he could anticipate Teresa's careful platitudes with affection. He looked out at the familiar scene. Two gardeners were already sweeping the snow from the path... 

Outside the window the snowflakes were falling silently; the great courtyard was all white, every battlement was outlined in snow, and every now and then came a soft plop, as men shovelled the snow off the roofs... 

"What do you think of this snow, Mrs. Spedding?" he had said; and going over to the window, Teresa had replied that it looked just like a Christmas card. It was precisely the response he had expected of her...

I didn't really like this book as a whole, though. Sebastian was distasteful to me, so self-absorbed, so utterly callow. He reminded me of another eldest son, whom I was also unimpressed with, Simon McGrath of The Rising Tide. They are both just so sure of themselves, so completely sure of their own importance. Sebastian is described at one point as follows:
People were not very real to him, and women least of all.

That captures the essence of this book for me; no-one is really real to each other. They are all cold and calculating and out for themselves. No empathy, no real friendship, even the love affairs seem to be emotionless things. It felt very unsettling to read more and more about this cynical society. Not a very satisfying read, really, when they are all so awful! 

I think that this is a book that would appeal to the reader who is interested in this era, or this particular group of writers which includes Sackville-West. If you're not already a lover of English novels of this type, start with something else; this is otherwise a bit of a slog, at least I found it so. 


  1. Argh, I just deleted comments by mistake!

    Suko - thanks for commenting and letting me know that your First Lines will be up soon -- mine will be going up shortly after Xmas as well. I'll be sure to visit & check yours out!

  2. I haven't read much in this era, so it's interesting to see your take on it.

    1. I usually enjoy it quite a lot - but there's something cold about this one. Try A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book for a huge saga with all the bohemian best of the Edwardian age.


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