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living memory and yet is clearly part of history; it has passed out of the ambience of the merely old-fashioned and out-of-date.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 …

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