by Quentin Bell
Columbia University Press, 234 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Lutyens and the Edwardians: An English Architect and his Clients
by Jane Brown
Viking, 276 pp., $34.95
Edwardians: London Life and Letters, 1900-1914
by John Paterson
Ivan R. Dee, 352 pp., $27.50
On or About December 1910: Early Bloomsbury and its Intimate World
by Peter Stansky
Harvard University Press, 296 pp., $27.95
Why do we have an inextinguishable desire to designate certain periods as an age or an epoch or an era? Is it a plot to impose order on that swirling movement of events and tendencies in history which would otherwise be unintelligible? Or is it a device to make our own times significant in contrast to what has gone before? Why do we talk so often of a golden age? When Ovid did so he was only giving authority to centuries-old mythology. Talleyrand declared that only those who had lived in the years before 1789 could know the true pleasure of life: and those in France who lived into this century referred to the first years of the twentieth century as la belle époque. Recently Eric Hobsbawm has discovered a new golden age of capitalism in the West between the years 1945 and 1973, when there was a period of extraordinary economic growth and when men and women came to believe that they could end the scourge of unemployment.
Many today see the beginning of the First World War as the definitive end of the long nineteenth century. When Edward Grey said on August 3, 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” he seemed to speak for his generation. But not for Henry James. To him and for many of his contemporaries the death of Queen Victoria that so nearly coincided with the end of the nineteenth century was the event that separated the Victorian Age from its bustling, vulgar, violent successor, the Edwardian. “The wild waters are upon us now,” he said when Edward succeeded to the throne in 1901. “It’s a new era—and we don’t know what it is.”
The ruling class was divided by animosities that had not been seen since the first Reform Bill. One half was barely on speaking terms with the other half, under a prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who would be howled down in the House of Commons. Writers like H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence no longer kept their affairs hidden as Dickens had hidden his. Above all, women challenged male superiority either as suffragettes, or as social reformers like Beatrice Webb, or by advocating birth control. Bernard Shaw sowed confusion by mocking every institution that the Victorians venerated and saying the real joke was that he was in earnest.
Others thought the change came not with the accession but with the death of Edward VII in 1910. “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” So Virginia Woolf thought and Peter Stansky has written a book to confirm it. But then Vanessa Bell thought that a new era had dawned two years earlier when Lytton Strachey, observing a stain on her skirt, murmured, “Semen?” For that was the evening when “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down…. Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips.” Or perhaps it was …