by Vita Sackville-West
Publication Date: January 1, 1930
Genre: classic, fiction
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2
At nineteen, Sebastian is a duke and heir to a vast country estate. A deep sense of tradition binds him to his inheritance, though he loathes the social circus he is a part of. Deception, infidelity and greed hide beneath the glittering surface of good manners. Among the guests at a lavish party are two people who will change Sebastian's life: Lady Roehampton, who will initiate him in the art of love; and Leonard Anquetil, a polar explorer who will lead Sebastian and his free-spirited sister Viola to question their destiny.
A portrait of fashionable society at the height of the era, THE EDWARDIANS revealed all that was glamorous about the period - and all that was to lead to its downfall. First published in 1930, it was Vita Sackville-West's most successful book.
One of my Goodreads Groups selected Vita Sackville-West as an author-in-residence for January through March, so I selected The Edwardians as my first book by/about her. It was published in 1930, but it was set 25 years earlier, beginning in 1905.
The main focus of the book, Sebastian, is the heir to a dukedom and to Chevron, one of those massive English country houses that so define the era in which the book takes place. He is 19 at the commencement of the book, which means that he was born in 1886, while Queen Victoria was firmly ensconced upon the English throne. Vita Sackville-West was born in 1882, so she was a mere 4 years older than her protagonist. The book is set during the very brief reign of Edward VII, who was king between 1901, when his mother died, and 1910, when he died at age 68.
Vita herself grew up at Knoles, a massive country estate which she could not inherit because she was a woman. This was, per wikipedia, rather a source of bitterness for her.
In any case, Knole is now owned and maintained by the National Trust. P.G. Wodehouse apparently referred to it as a “calendar house” because it has a sufficient number of rooms to use a different one every day for a year.
So, that’s the backdrop of The Edwardians. Reading this book is like dropping into that world, as explained by someone who is intimately familiar with it. It’s both really interesting and somewhat appalling. The women, especially, were mere frivolous appendages, with little more to do than get dressed, a process which is described in detail in reference to Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, who is a notorious beauty.
Sebastian is a more layered and interesting character than I would have expected, given the entitlement to which he was bred. His sister, Viola, was even more intriguing, and I really wish that Sackville-West had given us a bit of her interior (and exterior) life. I assume that she didn’t give Viola her own book, but I wish she had.
I liked this book a lot, especially as an piece of enthnography. I find the English upper class to be fascinating, especially during the time period of around 1890 and 1950, and this book definitely scratched that itch.
I still have All Passion Spent and a sort of a family biography to read, and I enjoyed this one enough that I’m excited at the prospect.