Reviewed by Simon
While Vita Sackville-West is today best remembered as having (probably) been the lover of Virginia Woolf, and as the mind behind the garden at Sissinghurst, she was also a novelist of repute during her life. Indeed, The Edwardians – now republished alongside All Passion Spent by Vintage, both with Gosia Herba’s striking cover designs – was such a phenomenal seller that it helped keep Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, Hogarth Press, afloat. Has this 1930 novel stood the test of time? Short answer: absolutely. It is somehow both riotous and thoughtful, borrowing from the modernists without losing its popular touch.
The Edwardians focuses on Sebastian, a duke and heir to Chevron, a thinly-veiled version of Knole, where he lives with his sister Viola (Twelfth Night fans, raise a glass), parents, and dozens of servants. Knole is the palatial estate that Sackville-West grew up in but, as a female, could not inherit – a theme that recurs in her fiction. In The Edwardians, she is able to lavish all the love she felt for Knole into Sebastian’s love for Chevron – while also recognising that the times were changing, and that his passionate belonging to Chevron could be a ball and chain. This speech to Sebastian comes fairly early in the novel, from man-of-the-moment Anquetil, an explorer whose presence was necessary for any fashionable party.
Would you like to know what a man like me thinks of a place like Chevron? It fascinates, horrifies, and shocks me. Remember, I come from a cottage myself, and have been accustomed to see families living overcrowded and poor, for so long as I can remember. But it is not the contrast which shocks me. It is not the fact that you employ fifty servants and can choose your room amongst three or four hundred rooms, when parents and children elsewhere are sleeping together in a bed. No. It is the effect on you yourself. You are not allowed to be a free agent. Your life has been ordained for you from the beginning. I will give you the benefit of the doubt. I will agree that probably you will do your duty according to your lights, you will befriend your tenants, rule justly over your servants, take the chair at meetings, earn the respect of your equals – all this when once you have ceased to be a wild young man – but you will be dead, you will be a stuffed image.
One of the strengths of Sackville-West’s writing is that it is not clear what the author believes; we see, instead, what each character believes at any point. Perhaps this evinces her divided mind, but it is refreshingly different from didactic novels. If we got only Anquetil’s speech above, the novel would be tiresomely overt in its message. Instead, we hear all sides defended. Sebastian and Viola argue heatedly with each other over the role of dukes and servants in the future – whether it is the best or worst way to order society – while we also see Sebastian’s romantic dalliances as both freeing and immoral, from different perspectives.
Ah, yes, those dalliances. He begins with an affair with Lady Roehampton, a much older woman. The high-minded society he and his family move in are aware of affairs left, right, and centre, and mind little about them: ‘Appearances must be respected, though morals might be neglected’. There is an amusing section where Sebastian’s mother worries about where different people will sleep in the house, making sure those who are having affairs are not too far from each other, nor too insultingly close. The affair between Sebastian and Lady Roehampton has broader consequences than either of them expect.
Later in the novel – perhaps too late, as the emphasis on her makes the structure of The Edwardians feel a little bottom-heavy – Teresa appears. She is a doctor’s wife and a snob. Almost everybody in this novel is a snob, but the word is only used of those aspiring to rise socially, rather than those who look down on the middle-classes. Sebastian invites Teresa and her husband into his world, and expects more from her in exchange… Teresa’s perspective on Chevron offers another vantage, and one which Sackville-West presents very well, without being condescending in the narrative.
One of the reasons that The Edwardians hasn’t ‘dated’ (whatever that means) is that it was set in the past when Sackville-West wrote it. The Edwardian period was two decades over when she put pen to paper, and a World War had changed everything forever. This is everywhere hinted at as we see the people live their lives insouciantly, unaware (of course) of what was round the corner, even as elements of the old system clearly begin to change. It is simultaneously a portrait of bygone mores, and vitally alive.
Sackville-West is (and was) often thought of as a middlebrow writer, and this novel was undeniably a crowd-pleaser – yet I think her writing is always good, and often very good. As an example to conclude with, I enjoyed this description of Lady Roehampton visiting her very proper sisters-in-law:
Yes, certainly the room was overcrowded. There were too many chairs, too many hassocks, too many small tables, too much pampas grass in crane-necked vases, too many blinds and curtains looped and festooned about the windows. The whole effect was fusty, musty, and dusty. It needed destruction, it needed air. The very satin was fastened to the chairs with aggressive buttons. Everything had something else superimposed upon it; the overmantel bore its load of ornaments on each bracket, the mantel-shelf itself was decked with a strip of damask heavily fringed, the piano was covered over by a square of Damascus velvet, on which more photographs and more ornaments were insecurely balanced.
It’s time that Sackville-West stopped being thought of as simply a footnote to Virginia Woolf, and respected as a novelist in her own right. This reprint is a step in that direction.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and once turned up to Knole just after it closed.
Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London, 2016). 978-1784870546, 272pp., paperback.
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