You begin your novel The Edwardians (1930) with a very curious note: “No character in this book is wholly fictitious.” It gives us a hint to what the book will taste like: melancholic and ambiguous, both an imaginative expansion upon the life you knew well and a deep immersion on its contradictions.
The book centers around Sebastian, the nineteen-year-old duke of Chevron. When the story opens, in 1905, he is studying at Oxford. Heir to a large country estate, he spends his weekends at his widowed mother’s lavish house parties in Chevron. Set during the Edwardian era, the book ends with the coronation of George V, on June 22, 1911, after the death of Edward VII.
Chevron is based on Knole, your own family home, the place where you spent your Edwardian childhood, the place you loved. Sebastian’s love for Chevron is a fictionalized version of your love for Knole; yours is also Sebastian’s ambiguity about the societal roles and privileges he is trapped in. Your novel is a detailed portrait of the British aristocracy in the early 20th century. You don’t shy away from describing the waste and lavishness of the upper classes, as well as the army of servants necessary to maintain such an extravagant way of life.
As his mother’s party guests indulge in gossip, fancy food, convenience marriages and secret extramarital affairs, Sebastian finds himself torn between the allure of their glamorous lives and his revulsion against their shallowness and lack of values; between his love for Chevron and the unfairness of his unquestioned right to wealth and privilege. Moreover, he is torn between the need to conform to the traditions and social conventions of his class and his impulse to break free from the path mapped out for him from his birth. Two characters embody these extremes: Sylvia Roehampton, his mother’s married friend, who decides to shape her passions according to the expectations of her class; and Viola, Sebastian’s sister, who decides to emancipate herself from the conventions of her gender and class.
On the other hand, we have also two characters who do not belong to any of those extremes, and who thus move freely between them: Teresa, a middle-class doctor’s wife; and Leonard Antequil, a man of “low birth”, who managed to overcome poverty and to become well-known due to his adventurous life and successful expeditions. Both characters act as catalysts for change, albeit in different directions. Offering a middle-class perspective on Chevron and its mores, Teresa’s petty moralism (and her bovarism) pulls Sebastian back to his class, and to the freedom provided by its moral detachment (“Appearances must be respected, though morals might be neglected”). Antequil, on the other hand, exerts the opposite force over Sebastian, urging him to rebel and break free from his class: as a self-made man of proletarian origin, a man whose success is not a product of his birth but of his efforts, Antequil represents the value of personal merit, and the independence from convention it entails. Furthermore, Antequil doesn’t shy away from lifting up the surface of good manners over Sebastian’s life, and showing the hypocrisy hidden underneath.
Written in 1930, your novel is dripping with the melancholy of a way of life that was about to change forever. From the beginning, we are assailed by the feeling that the place Sebastian loved so much will not be sustainable for much longer; the life he dithers to depart from will come to an end soon; this way of life may depart him before he has a chance to make a decision for himself. Decline, menace and change are hinted throughout the novel: the son of Chevron’s head-carpenter is the first to break with tradition, and instead of following his family and continue to work at the estate, he moves to the city and starts working in the new motor industry; shortly, World War I will swipe Europe, men like Sebastian will die in battle or return shell-shocked, and many estates will fall apart. As Antequil says, “the house is dying from the top”; there is no use in trying to hold onto a way of life doomed to disappear completely.
So you presents us with many perspectives about the life you knew as a child: a world both fascinating and shocking; imprisoning as well as a liberating; both romantic and immoral. You blur the lines between those perspectives, and you never point clearly to right nor wrong. We are never sure of what you believe: love for Chevron and contempt for what it represents are intertwined, and you are not so much interested in undoing this knot as you are in unravelling its fascinating and appalling complexity.
“Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid – too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which are sometimes artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens the world must be served first.” – Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians
“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.” – Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians
“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.” – Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1987, 349 p. Goodreads
- Vintage Classics, 2016, 288 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1930
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was read for the project Virago Author of the Month (LibraryThing Virago Group) in January