3rd May 2011
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Vita-Sackville West’s The Edwardians was among the books that Virago plied us with when we visited their offices earlier this year. Despite it being her most infamous novel, I’d never even heard of it, although of course I knew about Vita after Virginia Woolf wrote “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature” to her following their affair.
Although later in life, Vita hated it The Edwardians to even be mentioned to her, its controversial commentary and critique of the Edwardian aristocracy made it an instant bestseller, with over 20,000 copies being snapped in the first three months.
A month after its publication by Hogarth Press, it was already so popular that Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to her nephew, “Vita’s book is such a bestseller that Leonard and I are hauling in money like pilchards from a net.”
Centring around Chevron, a grand country estate based on Knole House, Vita’s childhood home that had already been fictionalised by Virginia Woolf when it featured in Orlando, The Edwardians is the story of the societal roles and rituals that characterised the Edwardian upper classes.
As Victoria Glendenning writes in her introduction:
“It may have been Orlando that gave [Vita] the idea of exploiting the lavish, feudal, traditional world of her Edwardian childhood at Knole, and her ambivalence about the social and moral values it represented, in a very different novel of her own.”
Set during a transitional time for Britain’s feudal system, the superficiality of their never-ending circus of social obligations is a cause of unvoiced concern and uncertainty for the family at Chevron.
The Duchess, Lucy, is irritable and insecure, while her son Sebastian is seduced by adulterous older women inbetween constantly questioning his familial duties and future. His younger sister, Viola, is quiet but independent with a defiant disregard for social convention.
Although at times the characters err towards caricature, The Edwardians is a complex but intoxicating cocktail of tensions and anxieties, wryly-observed and eloquently written. Published by Virago Modern Classics, you can buy it in paperback for £6.44.
Recommended for: Would-be debutantes and aristocrats dying to see how the decadents lived in days gone by.
Other recommended reading: For more insight into the author, and to find out how much of The Edwardians was autobiographical, try Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning, the biographer and critic who wrote the introduction to The Edwardians.