During the interwar period, Sackville-West was best known as a prolific and celebrated author in her own right. By 1930, when her best-selling novel The Edwardians appeared, Sackville-West had already published more than a dozen other novels, works of poetry, and non-fiction volumes.[1]

The Edwardians was originally published by the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The book was a huge commercial success: by July 1930, within two months of its publication, Hogarth Press was already advertising that it had sold 20,000 copies. That the book clearly appealed to a working-class audience is evidenced by the popularity of the cheap sixpenny edition, of which 64,000 copies had sold by 1936.[2]

Advert for The Edwardians, Sheffield Independent, 14 July 1930, p. 3

Sackville-West herself was anything but working class. She grew up at Knole, a medieval palace remodelled into the Sackville family seat in the early 17th century (it is currently managed by the National Trust). Vita had many happy memories of her childhood at Knole, and in The Edwardians she created its fictional equivalent in the Chevron estate, seat of the Duke of Chevron. Chevron is the enduring foundation and backdrop throughout the book’s descriptions of upper-class parties and affairs.

The Edwardians’ main character is Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron. At the opening of the book, in 1905, Sebastian is nineteen. He loves Chevron and being the head of the estate, but is vaguely dissatisfied with the social life of upper-class Edwardian England. Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, is part of the ‘smart set’: ‘They were all people whose names were familiar to every reader of the society titbits in the papers.’[3] Unlike the matriarchs of the Victorian period, Lucy’s friends think of themselves as less worried about decorum and ‘doing the right thing.’ One of the key themes of The Edwardians is how both the upper and the middle classes still put convention and appearance over personal freedom, despite their insistence that they have done away with Victorian primness.

Sebastian has three key relationships in The Edwardians, which are announced by its chapter headings. In 1905, he meets Anquetil, an explorer who is an outsider to Chevron’s smart set. Anquetil invites Sebastian to come away with him for a few years to see something of real life. Sebastian declines, as he has just fallen in love with Lady Roehampton, a 40-something married woman who is a friend of his mother and one of society’s great beauties. Lucy wholeheartedly approves of this affair, seeing it as a healthy rite of passage for a young man to be introduced to sex.

What is not intended, however, is that Lady Roehampton falls in love with Sebastian. When, after a year and a half, her husband finds out about the affair, he states she must move to the country with him and never see Sebastian again. This creates the first big crisis in the book: Sebastian tells Lady Roehampton that she should get a divorce and come away with him: Lady Roehampton, despite her belief that she is much more modern than her Victorian forebears, shrinks from the idea of divorce and dumps Sebastian instead.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Sebastian then pursues a middle-class married woman, Teresa. She is dazzled by the riches and ceremony of Chevron, but when Sebastian makes a pass at her at Christmas she is horrified that he would think she would cheat on her husband. Sebastian is now disillusioned with both the ‘smart set’ and the middle-classes. After a brief affair with a bohemian artist, he resigns himself to marrying a plain but proper daughter of a respectable family. Just before he decides to formalise his engagement, Anquetil shows up again. This time, Sebastian gratefully accepts the offer of escape from his cushioned life.

The Edwardians offers a detailed and, one senses, authentic view of upper-class society in the Edwardian period. Readers are entertained with descriptions of sumptuous parties and Downton Abbey-esque descriptions of the servants’ hall. At the same time, Sackville-West is critical of this lifestyle. For example, she repeatedly stresses that Lucy’s friends, despite their power and influence, are not particularly intelligent. When Teresa is invited to Chevron for Christmas and sits with the other ladies after dinner, ‘she was forced to admit that they did not seem to be saying anything worth saying.’[4] Sackville-West also pokes fun at the group’s own special lingo, ‘deevy’ for ‘divine’ and ‘adding an Italian termination to English words’: ‘lovel-are’ for ‘lovely’ and ‘dinn-are’ for ‘dinner’.[5]

Sackville-West’s critique also touches on more substantial matters: when Sebastian decides to give all his staff a raise of five shillings a week after New Year’s, it leads to critical self-reflection on his own part. He notes that the increase would cost him ‘thirteen hundred pounds a year; very little more than his mother would spend on a single ball; a negligible sum in his yearly budget. He felt ashamed.’[6] When at dinner, Lucy tells the other guests of the raise, Sebastian is harshly criticised by the other lords, who say that he has ‘spoiled the market’ for other landowners and that his staff will only ‘expect more’: ‘They all looked at Sebastian as though he had committed a crime.’[7]

Contemporary reviews of The Edwardians mostly did not note the social commentary of the book. Although the Aberdeen Press and Journal review noted that ‘The Mayfair, Belgravia, and country house lot are shown to us as publicly engaged in whitewashing their own and their neighbour’s private lives’[8], other reviews consistently described the book as primarily ‘entertaining.’[9] Several reviews note that whilst the Victorian period had been extensively revisited by historians and novelists, the Edwardian period had received less attention due to it being overshadowed by the war.[10]

The immediate cultural impact of The Edwardians can be seen in a throwaway comment in the Daily Mirror. In a brief article about Ascot fashion, the journalist writes:

On the cover of Miss Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” there is pictured a group of presumably select persons of that period. The “happy few” look now like a number of charwomen out for a beanfeast. And the question is: Will the belle assemblée at Ascot to-day look like that – a ragbag assortment – in fifty years’ time to those who examine our back numbers? Very likely. But was does it matter? They look nice now.[11]

Already, mere weeks after its publication, The Edwardians was referenced as a text with whom all Daily Mirror readers were expected to be familiar. Whether they enjoyed it for its lavish descriptions of upper-class life, or for its social critique, it is undeniable that the book resonated with many interwar readers.


[1] Kate Williams, ‘Introduction’, in Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xv

[2] Ibid., p. x

[3] Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. 27

[4] Ibid., p. 193

[5] Ibid., p. 194

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] Ibid., p. 205

[8] ‘Book of the Week: A Novel of Edwardian Society’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 June 1930, p. 6

[9] ‘Real Life Raffles’, Daily Mirror, 23 June 1930, p. 20; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[10] ‘Books of the Day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 June 1930, p. 8; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[11] ‘Ascot Fashions’, Daily Mirror, 18 June 1930, p. 9