Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.

PS Oct. 17, 2019: Juliana at The Blank Garden blog has just posted a link to her earlier review of this novel – it’s well worth reading (I missed it first time round); she chooses some quotations that admirably illustrate the novel’s ambivalence – ‘love for Chevron and contempt for what it represents.’


14 thoughts on “Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

  1. I understand that one of the characters in “The Edwardians” is based on Alice Keppel. Does she receive fair treatment?

    • Romola Cheyne in the novel is based on Alice Edmonstone Keppel, mistress of Edward VII between 1898 and his death in 1910. Apparently she was a great beauty and very charming. The Cheyne character hardly features in the narrative. She’s there in the opening scene at the weekend house party, subject of the fluttering gossipers viewed with such disdain by Anquetil when they talk about people’s money: she ‘had made a big scoop in rubber last week – but some veiled sneers accompanied this subject, for how could Romola fail,it was asked, with such sources of information at her disposal? Dear Romola: what a clever woman. And never malicious, said someone. Then they passed on…’ As VG says in the introduction, she ‘erred with a certain magnificence’, and her royal affair is ‘archly hinted at’ with expressions like ‘it was in the highest quarters’ that she dallied. So not really “fair treatment” – just another target for the malevolent gossip of the socialites, whose envy of her success and discretion is singled out for satire, rather than Keppel’s morality. Interestingly, as you no doubt know, she was the mother of Alice Keppel Trefusis, who became one of Vita’s lovers and shared a passionate, stormy affair with her, even when both were married. It’s the Lady Roehampton character, Sebastian’s beautiful mistress, who’s given most attention. She ‘looked exactly like her own portrait by Sargent, which had been the sensation of that year’s Academy’. I wonder if Vita had in mind the notorious portrait of Madame X (Gautreau) exhibited first in Paris in 1884. For Lady R is Sebastian’s mother’s contemporary, so old enough just about to have been such a model. But of course there are countless other subjects painted by him. VG says this character is based on the famous society beauty the Countess of Westmorland. I don’t think Sargent did a portrait of her (quick search online) but he painted plenty of other duchesses and the like.

    • Most welcome, Liz. I enjoyed your posts on VSW. As you say, it’s the searing indictment of depraved ‘society’ that’s the most powerful aspect of this novel. But the deep feeling for the Chevron estate is also a factor. She’s oddly conflicted in her love of that feudal tradition and all it represented in terms of the great country house, but despised the venal characters who inhabited and visited it.

  2. An interesting review as ever, Simon. While the context is a little different here, I couldn’t help but think of Edith Wharton’s society novels as I was reading your review of this novel – particularly the hypocrisy and duplicity that exists within the upper echelons of this world.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I think you’re right about Wharton and her (mostly New York) socialites. They have the same obsessions about money and wealth, but the English version seem more duplicitous, somehow, because of their snobbish sense of privilege and superiority conveyed by family name or aristocratic titles or connections. Personal merit or integrity had nothing to do with their admiration (or feigned admiration; mostly they adored only themselves). A pretty gruesome bunch, in VSW’s portrayal – more caricatured I think than EW’s?

  3. I did multiple entries on this one too – four! But that’s because the clothes in it were so good and so important. I agree with your verdict – slips down easily, entertaining enough, but no solidity or depth is how I think of it. But absolutely chock-full of fascinating sociological details of the time.

    • Moira: she has a terrific eye for the clothes of her characters. The scene in which the Duchess’s maid dresses her for dinner is priceless, and revealing in so many ways! It’s interesting how in those days of back-fastening stays and bodices, a lady couldn’t possibly dress herself on her own.

  4. I enjoyed your review! I found the novel really enjoyable, and perhaps a little less caricatured than you did – maybe because I thought she conveyed the longing for and love of place so convincing. I think VSW has been underrated as a writer by everyone from the Woolfs onwards, and I’m pleased to see more people writing about it her now.

    • Simon: thanks for taking the trouble to add your thoughts – and maybe because I devoured this highly readable novel so quickly I gained a misleading impression about its superficiality; much of it is to do with the superficiality of the characters – always a difficult line to tread. That sense of place is particularly strong: Sebastian’s connection with Chevron is visceral and genuine – one of his most redeeming features. And yes, I think the Woolfs were a bit sniffy about her – and they didn’t object to the revenues that poured in on the sales of this best seller!

    • Thanks, Karen. It knocks spots off Downton, which I never enjoyed on TV. In this novel the snobbery is ridiculed and attacked; Downton, to my mind, revelled in it just a little too much. At least VSW had an agenda and stuck to it, commendably.

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