Sunday, 10 November 2013

Penguin no. 16: The Edwardians
by V. Sackville-West

"Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid - too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which are sometimes artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens the world must be served first."

Sebastian likes to escape weekend house parties by hiding away upon the roof of Chevron for as long as good manners permit. It is a hiding place which guarantees him solitude, for Chevron is huge and its roofs extend over acres. And it all belongs to him: at 19, Sebastian is Duke of Chevron and squire of the estate, although it is not his friends who descend upon the home each weekend, but those of his mother. She longs for company, while Sebastian is conflicted - partly repelled by the vacuity of his mother's friends, partly attracted by the glamour of their lives. He waits impatiently for Monday morning and the carriages which will ferry the weekend visitors away and leave him and his immediate family in contented isolation on the estate.

His mother need never concern herself with the logistics of this frequent and extravagant entertaining. The family possesses such wealth that cost is never a constraint, and the burden of the extra work - the rooms which must be aired, fitted and cleaned, and the food which must be prepared, all falls upon servants who must undertake their functions efficiently, without complaint and preferably out of view. That the lifestyles of the leisured elite are completely supported by the energies of others is one of the themes of this story, although it is never suggested that the work is resented, but only that it is unappreciated. The staff are proud of their association with the estate; their status within their own stratum of society is apparently a function of their employer's status within his.

Chevron is a working estate, and it functions as a world virtually unto itself. It has its own 'shops' employing carpenters, glaziers and metal-workers, and all the food is sourced from its own farms and slaughterhouse. It has operated this way for hundreds of years, almost without alteration, with sons following their fathers into the shops to learn a trade, and with positions within the house filled by the daughters and nieces of those already employed, so that the staffing arrangements can seem to operate on an hereditary basis no less inflexible than the one which entails Chevron's ownership.

Vita Sackville-West published this book in 1930, but she sets the story of Sebastian and his family in the years spanning 1905 to 1910, ending with the death of Edward VII. The early chapters, in which she describes in detail the house and estate, and its servants and inhabitants, are the story's best. She appears to be looking back upon her own childhood at Knole, and projecting her early memories onto Sebastian's home. Its size and its luxury are almost unimaginable: hundreds of rooms furnished with tapestries, heraldic windows, family portraits, and paintings by artists such as Titian and Van Dyke, with one room still furnished as it was the night Queen Elizabeth stayed. Vita Sackville-West is critical of this world, but it is clear that her criticisms are underpinned by a deep love for the estate of her childhood and the tradition and history it represented. She recognises it, nonetheless, as an anachronism which draws upon values and ways of thinking incompatible with the modern world, limiting the freedoms and opportunities of all who live that way. And despite his wealth and apparent freedom, she includes the squire as one of the imprisoned.

To describe these weekend visitors to Chevron, she introduces into their midst a critically-minded outsider. Leonard Antequil is of low birth and coarse appearance, but he has lived an adventurous life, having recently returned to England after a winter spent alone in a snow hut in the Arctic Circle, and the resulting fame has provided him an entry into the world of Chevron and the associated fashionable set. He is, in effect, an exhibit, conferring prestige on the hostess who has succeeded in displaying him. But he also provides a contrast to the other visitors: Antequil's fame is a consequence of his efforts while theirs is an accident of birth or marriage. As he looks upon them he sees a group of people entirely secure and certain of their superiority, but he also sees that it is based upon nothing of substance. As individuals they are all unremarkable - not one is especially brilliant, or witty or capable or interesting. They share little more than a desire to exclude others from their circle.

But Antequil serves another purpose in this story. As the years pass, Sebastian remembers this weekend party in particular and thinks on Antequil as the only person of substance he has ever met. Antequil senses Sebastian's dissatisfaction and when the opportunity presents he speaks to him frankly, urging him to recognise the limitations of his lifestyle and to consider rebelling. Sebastian may have wealth and leisure, but his path is a constrained one, mapped out from before his birth and predictable at every stage. There will be no real freedom, no discovery and no adventure in his life - Antequil urges him to assess what he is losing and to see that if he remains at Chevron he will never really live. The story traces the impact of Antequil's words on Sebastian and on his sister Viola.

But in reading this story, the reader knows something the characters cannot, which is that the tide has already turned against them and they are trying to hold onto a way of life which will not continue. The changes are hinted at throughout this story - in the references to the rise of Socialism, the popularity of the novels of H.G. Wells, and in the first defection at Chevron, when the head-carpenter's son chooses a job in the new motor industry rather than follow his father into Chevron's shops. In the modern world no one need hope for a benevolent squire; they will be empowered and required to take care of themselves.

Vita Sackville-West precedes her novel with an authors' note stating that 'no character in this book is wholly fictitious'. This book seems to be, at least in part, a reassessment of the world of her childhood and of her mother's generation - of the values they expressed, the way they chose to live, of what they considered important and what they disregarded. She compares them with the preceding generation and with the one which follows, and she finds them wanting. It is a story with many flaws, but I found it fascinating to read.

First published May 1930. Published in Penguin Books 1935.


  1. That scene of the coronation of the new King has stuck with me - there's that sense of stability/instability and change/no change that it captures so well. And that knowledge the reader has of a world falling apart makes the scene even more fraught for the reader.

  2. As an American, I have to say that "Duke of Chevron" would be a fine title for an heir to an oil fortune. But I suppose the company didn't exist back then.

  3. This does indeed sound fascinating, and since it was far and away her most successful book, I should give it a go before too long. Thanks for your review, Karyn!

  4. we've not been here for ages!

    forgot how great your reviews are.

    we shall return.

    btw, who-we-are-in-RL shares the same birthday (march 9th) as Vita S-W - which always felt sort of glorious and doomed at the same time.

    are you on Goodreads? we shall come and find you there too...





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