By Vita Sackville-West
“Oh that bloody book! I blush to think you read it,” wrote Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, whose press, Hogarth, had published The Edwardians to surprising success. Comparing your work to Woolf’s is an ideal way to torture yourself. In Vita’s case, double the anguish, because they were lovers and Vita admired Woolf.
Of course, Vita faulted herself too much. In its own right, The Edwardians is quite good. It highlights many of her writing skills, skills that many contemporary authors could learn from. The weaknesses come in the form of a couple of didactic passages, what some may consider excessive exposition, and a predictable and less an organic ending.
However, these criticisms pale when measured against the many strengths and rewards of the novel. These include an insider’s observation of high society at the beginning of the 20th century, the sexual mores of the British aristocratic class, the societal shift in the run up to World War I, and, for those fascinated by VSW (as we are), additional insights into her thinking and view of life.
The story is straightforward. Young aristocratic Sebastian is coming of age and is tormented. He feels trapped in the predictable life he sees laid out for him, lord of the manor and all the obligations and constrictions his duke title entails. He is a tightly wound ball of anger and rebellion, though his expressions of rebellion remain confined within his well-off world. He revolts by having liaisons with various women, the two most important of whom are Lady Roehampton, Sylvia, best and girlhood friend of his mother (who quietly is “… quite content that Sebastian should become tanned in the ray’s of Sylvia’s Indian summer”), and, reaching downward, the middle-class wife of a doctor, Teresa. Sybil devastates him by breaking off the affair at the insistence of her husband, for the sake of propriety. Teresa rejects him when he offends her middle-class values of faithfulness and loyalty, which befuddle and antagonize him. Finally, he seems resigned to spending his life fulfilling the role he was born to. Until, that is, he again meets Anquetil, after participating in the coronation of George V, the ceremony rendered in vivid and enlightening detail by Vita.
Anquetil and Sebastian become acquainted early in the novel. Anquetil functions as a critical observer of upper class society, which he disparages with wit and wonder, and as a catalyst to Sebastian’s rebellious spirit, as well as that of Viola, Sebastian’s sister. It is in this early chapter where Vita dons her lecture robes, as Anquetil launches into a long, though intriguing, disquisition on the choice before Sebastian. Everybody, not the least Sebastian and Viola, esteem the rough and ready explorer Anquetil, who is something on the order of a Shackleton. Vita, who possesses considerable powers of description, paints him as having “A startling face; pocked, moreover, by little blue freckles, where a charge of gunpower had exploded, as though an amateur tattooist had gone mad …” His association with Anquetil further riles Sebastian. As for meek and mild Viola, by the conclusion of the novel she reveals herself, to Sebastian’s astonishment, as the true rebel.
Strict distinctions divided the upper and lower classes in Victorian and Edwardian England. In the sex department, the upper class believed in exhibiting decorous behavior as an example to the lowers who otherwise might cavort in the manner of rutting animals. As for their own sexual conduct, as The Edwardians illustrates, especially Sebastian’s mother planning weekend accommodations for guests at the great country house Chevron and dinner seating arrangements, the uppers regularly switched and shared partners, and (a variation on noblesse oblige, perhaps?) extended an appendage down into the lower ranks. (For a peek at the rich pornographic sub rosa activity of the periods, see, for example, the underground Victorian publication, The Pearl.) When found out by a spouse, usually through an indiscretion that created a buzz too loud to ignore, accommodation usually proved the accepted strategy. Thus, Lady Roehampton gives up Sebastian and at the insistence of her husband George leaves with him for a station in the colonies.
Teresa, the morally cinctured doctor’s wife, assiduously adheres to the strict code espoused and flaunted by the upper class. Believing he has wooed her and that she has happily succumbed, her rejection of his sexual advances, made at a Chevron weekend with her husband downstairs playing bridge with the biddies, stuns him.
Vita, you may know, rebelled against most every stricture of accepted sexual and spousal behavior. She conducted numerous lesbian and straight affairs, the most famous and most scandalous with Violet Trefusis. She abhorred being addressed as Mrs. Harold Nicolson and she would burn anyone who attempted calling her such to the ground with a look. A bit of knowledge about Vita will increase your delight in reading most of the social passages in The Edwardians.
In the short introduction, Juliet Nicolson, Vita’s granddaughter, focuses on the novel as one of societal change. And, indeed, you’ll see this theme thread throughout the novel. The privileged, for the most part, ignored it. The class most dependent upon them lamented it. But some, especially those like Viola, embraced it enthusiastically.
While on the subject of social and societal upheaval and Vita and Harold’s unusual life style (delineated artfully in the superb Portrait of a Marriage), Vita’s main character names are very telling. Sebastian and Viola, as you probably know, are the brother and sister in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the comedy, Viola assumes the role of lost Sebastian, dressing like him. And it is Viola in the novel … well, we can’t disclose everything, now can we? Vita herself often during her affair with Violet dressed as a man, a soldier in fact, and sometimes a wounded one at that. In The Edwardians, you will find how the brother and sister deal with rebellious spirits and change fascinating. w/c