As everyone is aware, I am very very susceptible to temptation, especially of the bookish variety! I read a good review, and then I want to read that book as soon as possible. Fortunately for me, in all my bookish adventures, I have had excellent guides and I have in last 5 years (i.e. number of years I have had the blog) read many books which I would have never touched with a 6 ft barge, had it not been for these guides turned friends! Jane is one of those guides and with her I discovered some brilliant authors including Margaret Kennedy and Margery Sharp. It was therefore only natural that after reading her excellent review on The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West, I would begin to wonder in earnest about reading this novel, which had been in lying in my TBR forever! This also happened to be one of my Grandmother’s favorite go-to books and she always said, that I would enjoy it once I get started. However, work these days is a serious impediment to my reading life and it was not until this weekend, I was actually able to make any headway into this work!
The novel opens at Chevron, the seat of Duke of Chevron, 19 year old Sebastian and there is a house party, his mother, the Duchess is hosting. It is 1905 and the Duchess, Lucy and her set, considered “fast” by many of the older members of the English society, are infact the cream who interact socially with the King and help him stave off boredom. They are fun loving, gossipy bunch, who are part of the illusive circle by virtue of their birth or their riches, leading a frivolous, hedonistic life with no depth and little understanding of greater matters of mankind! Sebastian is torn between the worlds that he seems to exist in – on one side, as the Squire Sebastian, he loves Chevron and all its dependent details and taking care of his tenants and the land and its associated work, that makes him truly and genuinely happy. However he is in constant conflict with the “social” Sebastian; he does not like interacting with “Society” though he goes along for the appearance of it. He feels the duplicity and lack of honesty in those relations and thinks himself confined by them. His sister Viola is 16, intelligent and sensitive, sees through all the hypocrasy of the society and scorns the inheritance of “Lady Viola”. It is at this house party, they meet, Anquetil, an explorer who is the current hero on England, which is the reason why he is invited to the party. Born to poor parents, who made his life through his intelligence and education, he finds the “society” at once amusing and pitiable and despite his rough manners, he is humane enough to understand how things stand in places like this. It is Anquetil who open Sebastian and Viola to another world and shows them how different life can be if they chose to make it, but it is the beginning of coming of age for both Sebastian and Viola as they discover what really means to live!
Now that I have read the book, I keep wondering, why did I not read this sooner! I absolutely loved it! The narrative is an easy and flowing prose, and plot, despite some jumps in the time, moves along well and keeps the reader engaged. I did feel the last chapter was a bit hurried, lying Ms. Sackville West had a lot to say and not enough pages or time to say it, but it does not impact the narrative and takes nothing away from the plot. However it is the characters that the author has sketched that brings this novel to life! In the character of Sebastian and Viola we see the first generations of 20th century who are realizing that the days of feudal landholding and Squiredom are over and life and people ought to be treated with equality. Both brother and sister come to their realization in their own unique way and though I cannot say I really warmed upto Sebastian’s methods, and therefore could not like him completely, it did bring an interesting perspective of the many means of reaching self realization. The supporting cast from Therese to the Dowger Duchess to Lady Roehampton provide a very interesting insight into the variety of belief and mores that existed in Edwardian England and how despite social and economic divides, the belief that appearances need to be kept up triumphed above all. I really wanted to read more about Viola, in whom the author had created a wonderful, likable rebel and Anquetil, the true man of the world, instead of brief tantalizing appereance through the life of the narrative!
To end, it is a great read and while it is perhaps not one of the “classics”, it is nevertheless an wonderful sojourn into a world long gone by and a complete entertainment!