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The Edwardians

Edwardian England 1901-1914

edited with a Preface by Simon Nowell-Smith
Oxford, 620 pp., $15.00

Even those disinclined to read the text might find this sumptuous volume—a companion to such earlier Oxford titles as Shakespeare’s England and Early Victorian England—a potent instrument for the production of nostalgia. The photographs alone would guarantee that; published separately, with jazzier captions, they would be a certainty for the gift-book market. Perhaps the most beautiful is the view of Portland Place taken in 1906 by the admirable Alvin Langdon Coburn, which is reproduced on the book’s jacket: a silhouetted hansom cab is moving wearily away from the camera, the long street in front of it hazy with a touch of fog, the ground miry and uneven; the cabbie is a bulky figure wearing a bowlerhat and, just visibly, a beard: there is something about him that faintly recalls the weighty, genial figure of King Edward. Most of the other illustrations fail to achieve this poetic suggestiveness, but they have a substantial if mostly extra-aesthetic interest: in a cluttered drawing room a housemaid proudly demonstrates a primitive vacuum cleaner, of alarming complication of design; suffragettes march in academic robes; Girl Guides stand saluting in a long line, barely suppressing their giggles; Max Reinhardt presents Oedipus Rex at Covent Garden with a huge gesturing chorus. As well as photographs, the visual art of the period is fairly well represented, as, for instance, with the precious but genuine charm of an Arthur Rackham illustration to Peter Pan, or the specimen of art nouveau bookbinding that exhibits, In a somewhat concentrated form, a vogue that has lately become fashionable again.

The nostalgia that the Edwardian age evokes is of a special kind; the period is still well within living memory and yet is clearly part of history; it has passed out of the ambience of the merely old-fashioned and out-of-date. And for English readers it has a particularly powerful appeal in that it represents the near-fabulous further shore of the cataclysmic great divide of modern British history—the First World War. Inevitably it has become mythologized, represented for the modern consciousness in a number of images: the opulence of a My Fair Lady decor, the rakishness of the King, the boisterousness of the music-halls, and, in intellectual matters, by what Mr. Anthony Quinton, writing in this volume, calls, “that hearty self-confidence which saw nothing as impossible to man and envisaged history as an evolutionary advance into an unprecedentedly better state of affairs.” The various contributors to Mr. Nowell-Smith’s book elaborate certain of these myths, and dissipate others. The last of the essays, Edmund Blunden’s autobiographical “Country Childhood” is a distillation of pure nostalgia akin to that of some of the illustrations: Blunden spent an idyllically happy childhood in a lush corner of Kent, and he recaptures its quality in a distinguished piece of writing that just stops short of being overblown. But Blunden’s essay should be read in conjunction with Marghanita Laski’s masterly discussion of “Domestic Life,” which makes a thorough examination of the Edwardians at home, in all levels of society, from the sometimes grotesque over-indulgence—notably in eating—of the upper class to the abysmal squalor and privation of life in urban or rural slums. Miss Laski’s carefully documented picture of the way in which millions of the poor lived makes painful reading, and reminds one that, however glittering its nostalgic appeal may be, the Edwardian age in England was built on too much injustice for its departure to be deeply regretted.

Miss Laski’s essay is central for more than one reason. Apart from its documentary value, it serves as a necessary corrective to the tendency of some of the other contributors to overidealize the age; Miss Laski knows a great deal about how the Edwardians lived, but—possibly because of her knowledge—she betrays no hint of wishing she were one of them. At the same time, she shows rather more of a grasp of the period as a whole, as against the general tendency of the book to present a detailed but fragmented account of it. Possibly such fragmentation was unavoidable in a work that aims to cover so many aspects of a period: individual essays deal with politics, the economy, science, the armed forces, sport, and the arts; and the editor, in his brief preface, backs out of trying to give a unified impression of the period. Perhaps he was wise not to try, for the talents of a G. M. Young, who was able to give a memorable picture of early Victorian England as an entity, are not widely distributed. Mr. Nowell Smith was right to see the Edwardian era as extending until 1914, even though such historical neatness does blur certain important distinctions; when George V came to the throne in 1910 many young people were glad to see the end of Edwardian grossness, which had become as unwelcome to them as Victorian stuffiness, and felt that the new king’s reign would bring a breath of clean air into drawing rooms heavy with the brandy and cigar fumes of the previous reign. This mood is evident from such works as Christopher Hassall’s recent life of Rupert Brooke, and was given fullest expression in the Georgian movement in poetry, with its cheerful aspirations towards cricket and the simple, open-air life. The mood didn’t survive 1914, but it was genuine whilst it lasted, and the contributors to Mr. Nowell-Smith’s collection tend to ignore its distinctiveness. The particular quality of the years 1910-1914 is much more clearly brought out in George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, now nearly thirty years old.

In point of fact, not all of Mr. NowellSmith’s writers seem to have been properly briefed about the extent of the period they were supposed to discuss. Thus in the essay on Art, Mr. John Russell restricts himself to discussing only the years of Edward’s reign, a limitation which he visibly chafes under even though he scrupulously observes it; he regrets, on the second page of his essay, that he will be unable to discuss the really interesting artistic phenomena of the years 1912-1914; since these included such things as the formation of the Camden Town Group and the London Group, Roger Fry’s venture with the Omega Workshops, Wyndham Lewis’s Blast and the impact of Vorticism, and the brief emergence of Henri Gaudier Brzeska as a sculptor of genius before his death in 1915, the truncation is as grotesque as it is unnecessary. And the fault, presumably, is the editor’s rather than Mr. Russell’s.

But at least “Art” gets discussed, even if inadequately. So does “Music,” and “Architecture,” in an essay by John Betjeman which gives a distinct impression, even for that connoisseur of buildings that no one else would look twice at, of scraping the bottom of the barrel. There is also a packed, overlong account of “Theatre,” full of genial orotund reminsicence about Edwardian playgoing but short on critical discrimination. The somewhat daunting portmanteau topic of “Thought” is also dealt with, in this case brilliantly, in a fine essay by Mr. Anthony Quinton, which discusses with great lucidity and economy the principal movements in philosophy, theology, and political thought of the years 1910 to 1914.

Against these contributions, uneven as they are, the book’s major omission is all the more glaring, for it contains no discussion at all of Edwardian literature. There is, admittedly, an essay by Mr. Derek Hudson oddly (though symptomatically) entitled “Reading,” which is, not to mince words, a monstrosity. Mr. Hudson, one hastens to add, deserves such reprobation not because of what he has put in—which is all quite interesting and useful—but because of what he has chosen, or been told, to leave out. Mr. Hudson restricts himself to a discussion of Edwardian reading habits and publishing practices, rather in the manner of Mrs. Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public; he does it quite well, and also gives an amiable account of the Edwardian press. But he makes not the slightest endeavor to write as a critic or a literary historian; he mentions Galsworthy’s Man of Property and Forster’s Howard’s End only in semibibliographical lists, and Wells’s TonoBungay not at all. And yet these three novels, even though they all fall somewhere short of literary greatness, convey between them, in imaginative form, far more of the truth about Edwardian England than do many of the duller contributions to Mr. Nowell-Smith’s book. There is no word about the Georgian poets (though the writer of the chapter on Music gives them a passing mention), whose cultural significance, as I have suggested, was greater than their literary merits; nor does Mr. Hudson refer to the Imagists and Ezra Pound, who was a vocal propagandist in London for the Modern Movement from 1908 onwards. About some of the authors he does acknowledge he shows himself bafflingly imperceptive; he mentions Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and refers approvingly to its “charm.” Granted that it is an admirable and charming children’s book; it is also a great deal more (as has been demonstrated by a number of recent critics, notably Noel Annan), for it is a central document both in Kipling’s work and in Edwardian literature. Kipling uses these stories to express his concern with the impending crisis in Britain’s imperial mission, a concern shared by many of his contemporaries.

Doubtless I am unfair to berate Mr. Hudson for not doing what he was not asked to do. In which case, the blame must again fall on the editor and publishers: if no one in Britain was capable of writing a brief history of Edwardian literature—which, as it happens, needs doing badly—they could have done a lot worse than reprint Richard Ellmann’s excellent, authoritative essay, “The Two Faces of Edward,” that appeared some years ago in a volume of English Institute Essays. This is the second time recently that the Oxford University Press has failed to give a proper treatment to the literature of the opening years of this century, for the opportunity was also missed in the bizarre final volume of The Oxford History of English Literature. Doubtless they have their reasons; and a work like Edwardian England 1901-1914 contains enough excellent material to transcend, in some measure, its lacunae. But it isn’t easy to acquit its distinguished publisher of a certain high-minded irresponsibility.

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