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Review: The Edwardians, by Vita Sackville-West

Pages: 349

Original date of publication: 1930

My edition: 1990 (Virago)

Why I decided to read: browsing on Ebay

How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, June 2010

I have to admit that I was nervous going into the reading of this novel. I was expecting that Vita Sackville-West’s writing style was going to be very modernist and hard to read. But I was pleasantly surprised, as I usually am when I expect to dislike something.

The Edwardians is set in 1905 and 1906 (and then in 1910), and features Sebastian, a duke and owner of an estate called Chevron. His family is of the elite, and he rubs elbows with the cream of society, among whom are Lady Roehampton, a matron with whom he has an affair, and an adventurer named Leonard Anquetil, and Sebastian’s mother Lucy and his sister Viola, who strains against the parameters that society has set for her life. Despite his wealth and the privileges that come with it, however, Sebastian feels trapped, and he finds himself faced with a heavy decision to make.

The plot isn’t very original or groundbreaking, but what it lacks is more than made up for in the characters that populate this book. Vita Sackville-West’s novel gives it’s reader a little taste of upper-class, aristocratic society in the early 20th century—and she reveals the good and the bad of this kind of world. All of her characters, even the superficial and shallow ones, are well drawn, and probably very true to life considering that Vita Sackville-West knew this world very well. Sebastian and Viola seem to experiment with everything that is deviant from the world into which they were born; but it’s all a part of the growing-up process for them.

Vita Sackville’s message about the shallowness of the trappings of the upper-class lifestyle in Edwardian England also comes across strongly; sometimes too strongly. Also, the decision that Sebastian makes at the end seems a little too rushed (I understand why he makes that decision, but it seems too impetuous). As I’ve said, though, Sackville-West’s writing moves very smoothly, and her characters are very real and believable. Sackville-West was very perceptive about the world of which she wrote, and it shows through in this novel. The link above will take you to the most recent edition of this Virago Modern Classic; but my edition is the original green cover with the John Singer Sargent painting on it, which is “Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children.”


Hannah Stoneham said…
Sounds as though she had a bit of an axe to grind but interesting and worthwhile nonetheless - thanks so much for sharing your thoughtful review. I visited sackville-West's home at Sissinghurst quite recently and really enjoyed it.

Danielle said…
I've had this book for ages and have wanted to read it since I first found a used copy, but you know how it goes--never seem to get around to it. I have this fixation with the Edwardian period, so it sounds particularly interesting to me. It seems like it would be very authentic to the period!

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