The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West2

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West, published in 1930, is a novel that critiques the aristocracy of the early 20th century. The work was very much a reflection of the world that Vita grew up in.

As the only child of the aristocratic Victoria and Lionel Edward Sackville-West, a Baron, she had all the duties of a male heir, yet as a female, she wasn’t able to inherit Knole, the castle in which the small family lived.

In The Edwardians, the country estate of Knole castle becomes the fictional Chevron. Within the fictional framework, Vita reproduces in exquisite detail its physical features. 

Vita possessed a dual nature where gender was concerned, so it’s not surprising that she chose a male character to represent the position she would have inherited had she been born male.

The Edwardians was first published in England by Hogarth Press, the small publishing company owned and operated by Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

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Vita Sackville-West

Learn more about Vita Sackville-West
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A brief plot summary of The Edwardians

The main character of the narrative is 19-year-old Sebastian, Duke of Chevron. Due to his youth and initial inexperience, it could be argued that this novel is in the tradition of the Bildungsroman. Sebastian is in line to inherit the country estate once he turns twenty-one, but until such time, it’s overseen by his mother, the widowed Lucy, Dowager Duchess of Chevron.

Sebastian attends Oxford University and on weekends, returns home, where his mother throws lavish parties awash in drink, food, and affairs. As the story gets underway, one of the guests Sebastian encounters is Leonard Anquetil, an adventurer.

Anquetil engages Sebastian in a conversation in which he attempts to convince the young heir of the hypocrisy and shallowness of the social goings-on at Chevron. But Sebastian is unconvinced, or rather doesn’t want to be convinced, since he has freshly embarked on an affair with a married woman, Sylvia Roehamptan, a friend of his mother’s.

When the two are found out, Lady Roehampton ends the affair, wishing to avoid scandal. Undaunted, Sebastian pursues other affairs, and this goes on until he finally capitulates to the idea of marrying a proper young lady and serving in the court of the newly coronated King George V.

Another chance encounter with Anquietil dissuades him from the momentous decision to settle down. It so happens that Anquietil has been seeing Sebastian’s liberated sister, Viola. Sebastian agrees to join the adventurer on the expedition.

It’s equally the plot, the scrutiny of aristocratic life, and the minute details of a castle estate that has made this one of Vita Sackville-West’s most enduring works.

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Knole Castle, U.K.

Knole, the model for the fictional Chevron,
is now part of the National Trust in the U.K.
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“No character in this book is wholly fictitious”

A description of this novel in Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings (edited by Mary Ann Caws, 2002), makes clear that much in the novel is based on the author’s experiences, and the people closest to her:

“A statement precedes this volume as an author’s note, the contrary of the usual disclaimer about the reality of the depictions in relation to the writer’s imagination:

‘No character in this book is wholly fictitious.’ Beginning on this self-conscious note, the novelist treats herself as a presumably non-generic ‘he.’

‘Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.’

This hugely successful novel presents a picture of some of the novelist’s own problems. Among them, the protagonist’s attachment to a great house modeled after Knole, a duchess modeled after Vita’s mother, and siblings Sebastian and Viola modeled after Vita herself.

Sebastian’s struggles with life and love, torn between adventure, sin, and conformity to his wealthy upper class expectations and traditions. Most interesting are the descriptions of the house parties and of Sylvia, one of the central female characters, the older woman with whom Sebastian has his first love affair.

On April 19, 1930, The Edwardians was presented as a play at the Richmond Theatre, to great acclaim.”

The Edwardians was well received on both sides of the Atlantic and was a book club selection in both the U.S. and Britain. Here is one such typical review:

 

A 1930 review of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

From the original review in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 21, 1930: Lament for the lost glories of a house: Historic Knole Castle is the real hero of Vita Sackville-West’s book.

Though a slender, dark, handsome youth wanders petulantly in search of truth through the glittering pages of The Edwardians, Vita Sackville-West’s novel, the real hero of the book is a house that is mysterious, friendly, comforting, ancient, and wise.

Knole Castle has been celebrated in history and poetry as well as in fiction. The home of the Sackvilles was the setting of Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s novel, which has been recognized as a composite portrait of Sackville-West and her ancestors.

A portrait of Knole in the guise of Chevron

It was the subject of Knole and the Sackvilles and now in The Edwardians it is again presented, this time as “Chevron.” Chevron is a thinly disguised yet accurate picture of Knole, with its magnificent park and its seven acres of roof, a gift that Queen Elizabeth presented to her Lord Treasurer, Thomas Sackville, from whom Vita Sackville-West descends.

Knole Castle is said to have 365 rooms, one for every day in the year, seven courts, one for each day of the week, and fifty-two staircases, one for each week.

According to Sackville-West, the main block of Knole dates from the end of the fifteenth century, although there are several earlier outbuildings. The walls are of gray stone, in many places ten and twelve feet thick and most of the rooms are rather small and low. The windows are rich with armorial glass.

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Knole Castle illustration

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The portrait galleries at Knole

Many of the floors are made of black oak trees sawed in half. The wood walls are hung with countless pictures, the Sackville portraits of ten generations. Miss Sackville-West explains:

“Let them stand each as the prototype of his age, and at the same time as a link to carry on, not only their tradition but also their heredity, and they immediately acquire a significance, a unity.

You have first the grave Elizabethans, Thomas Sackville, with the  long, rather melancholy face, emerging from the oval frame above the black clothes and the white wand of the office; you perceive all his severe integrity; you understand the intimidation austerity of the contribution he made to English letters, undoubtedly a fine old man.

You come down to his grandson; he is the Cavalier by Vandyck hanging in the hall, hand on hip, his flame-colored doublet slashed across by the blue of the Garter; this is the man who raised a troop of horses off his own estates and vowed never to cross the threshold of his house into an England governed by the murderers of the King.

You have next the florid, magnificent Charles, the fruit of the Restoration, poet, and patron of poets — prodigal, jovial, and licentious; you have him full length by Sir Godfrey Kneller, in his Garter robes and his enormous wig, his foot and fine calf well thrust forward.

You have him less pompous and more intimate wrapped in a dressing gown of figured silk, the wig replaced by a Hogarthian turban; but it is still the same coarse face, with the heavy jowl and the twinkling eyes, the crony of Rochester and Sedley, the patron and host of Pope and Dryden, Prior and Killigrew.

You come down to the 18th century. You have Gainsborough’s canvas of the beautiful sensitive face of the fickle duke, spoilt, feared, and propitiated by the women of London and Paris, the reputed lover of Marie Antoinette.

You have his son, too fair and pretty a boy, the friend of Byron, killed in the hunting field at the age of twenty-one, the last direct male of a race too prodigal, too amorous, too weak, too indolent and too melancholy.”

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The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West on Amazon*
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The Edwardians: A portrait of a useless and aristocratic society

Like the novels of Edith Wharton, The Edwardians will appeal to many who may fail to catch its point: the intimate portrait of a useless and aristocratic society. Miss Miss Sackville-West herself, however, sees it with commendable balance. She has killed the thing she loved with neither too much ruthlessness nor too much pity; she has simply told the truth.

She deals with a period and class that possessed a certain glamour and charm, and she has let us feel them; but even more forcefully, she has let us feel the emptiness, the triviality, and the wastefulness that went with them.

The Edwardians relates the splendid dying fall of the privileged classes in England during the aimless years before the war. The old order, which persisted so long under Queen Victoria, had changed. But the new had not quite asserted itself: there was no longer a morality, but there was a great emphasis on appearances.

Questioning traditions

What went on in the neighborhood of Grosvenor Square and in the great country houses was all trivial, and much of it, in the social sense immoral, but these people, who cared about so little else, still took care that no breath of scandal should ever reach the bourgeoisie.

Women did not smoke in public or dine alone with men in restaurants, and husband who surprised their wives with lovers did not divorce them. The old dowagers still ruled society; the great bourgeoisie captains of industry still knocked at its doors in vain.

One questioned one’s traditions as never before, but one seldom broke them. It was definitely an age of transition.

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Portrait of a Marriage - Vita Sackville-West Harold Nicolson

You might also enjoy:
Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
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Introducing Sebastian, Duke of Chevron

Into this meaningless era was born Sebastian, the twelfth duke of his line. His home was Chevron, a magnificent country house with centuries of tradition behind it. Chevron, we are told, is the fictional incarnation of Knole, the home of the Sackville family and the mise-en-scene of another book, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

It was Sebastian’s fate to be pulled two ways in life: to hate the triviality of upper-class existence and yet to love Chevron with its charm and beauty and sense of being home. His mother and sister knew of no such indecision: his mother conformed and his sister rebelled.

But Sebastian, unable to make up his mind, went from love affair to love affair, from dissent to acquiescence, and finally decided to marry a very plain young woman from his own set. But he ran into Anquetil, an explorer who long ago had tried to show him how meaningless his life was, and this time, Anquietil was successful. Instead of becoming engaged, Sebastian went off to explore.

A study in manners and social history

As a picture, a study in manners, and a record of social history, The Edwardians could hardly be better. Miss Sackville-West knows her people intimately, she understands them perfectly She reproduces them as a group against a background brilliantly.

Her book is a personally conducted tour into a world from which all but a few would have been rigorously excluded. The guide has point out everything from the family portraits to the kind of china on the dinner table to the upholstery inside the family state coach to the crest on the writing paper.

She can describe the coronation of George V and reveal both its grandeur and its comedy. She can make Chevron seem the most delectable spot in the world and at the same time the most stifling. The details in The Edwardians makes an organized satiric approach unnecessary — it conveys so much that the facts speak for themselves.

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