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Review: The Age of Extravagance: An Edwardian Reader

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My Interest

I’m not sure where I recently saw the cover to this, but I knew I had to have it. I found a reasonably priced old library book version and I consider the money well spent. The cover [dust jacket] is by Cecil Beaton and it is superb! It was the illustration that spoke to me–I truly did judge a book by its cover. Thankfully it lived up to the hype.

Just What is an Edwardian Reader?

“Ah, good King Edward’s golden days!”

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Image Credit: Royal Collection Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, Edward VII

This book is an anthology of writing and remembrance on Edwardian society. A compilation of extracts from novels, memoirs, essays, short stories, travel writing, poetry, and more, all of which paint with words as vivid a portrait of life during the short reign of Victoria’s son as Beaton’s magnificent cover illustration does with art.

Among the authors:

  • Cecil Beaton
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Osbert Sitwell
  • Edith Wharton
  • Harold Nicolson
  • Somerset Maugham
  • Vita Sackville-West
  • Others

The Stories

One of the most interesting was written by Daphne Fielding, formerly Marchioness of Bath, about the keeping of Longleat House–Lord Bath’s great estate. It gives amazing details about how life was lived at Longleat in the Edwardian Era. When added to Harold Nicolson’s account of the Edwardian Weekend we can see very well how the King, his aristocratic friends, the professional beauties, the wives, the mistresses, and the servants all lived during the heyday of the House Party or Shooting Party or the Thursday to Wednesday or ‘What is a Weekend?’ Lavish? Yes. Modern resort-spa comfort? No. Glutenous eating? You bet. Hard work? Hmmmm.

Hard work? I’m sure it was for all–both upstairs and downstairs (you lug a huge brass can full of hot water up six flights of stairs for a lady’s hip bath. (Unions baby, unions). Not only did the Aristocrats upstairs have to take turns for the bathroom, but they had to change clothes constantly, attend church and possibly even daily prayers, plus find their way in the dark to their night-time trysts and not embarrass themselves by allowing gas to exit their person after stuffing themselves on 12 kinds of nearly rotten game at any of the umpteen meals consumed with too much booze and topped off with pounds of cheese and sugar. Hard work, too, to be constantly in the company of the same people and not get peevish. Hard work to stand in the rain and kill things all day. Hard work to drive about with your husband’s mistress and your lover’s wife and look at dreary churches in the rain. Hard work, indeed.

We can all give thanks, like Harold Nicolson did, that

“Compared to the strenuous social discipline which these hardy people imposed upon themselves, our own laxity may seem a little decadent. Who among us to-day would really dress for church and dress for luncheon and dress for tea and dress again for dinner? Who among us would possess the endurance to relish all those meals, to relish all that tittle-tattle? Who to-day would care whether he was or was not invited to Upyatt Lacy or to West Warren? Who to-day prints or reads those lists of Saturday to Monday parties? The war has not been fought in vain. We have been released from false and exacting pretensions. We have our jumpers, our cocktails and our freedom We can smoke pipes in Bond Street, and wear grey flannel in June….

“…Let us be frank about it. The Edwardians were vulgar to a degree. They lacked style. They possessed on the hard glitter of their own electric light: a light which beat down pitilessly upon courtier, Ptarmigan, bridge scores, little enamel boxes, and plates and plates of food. They lacked simplicity, and their intricacies were expensive but futile.” (The Edwardian Weekend, p.252-253)

In short, Harold is saying, that the Edwardians did not Mari Kondo their lives and keep only what sparked joy. I love it when a man is ahead of his time, don’t you?

My Thoughts

This was an impulse buy –picked for its glorious book jacket cover. It is not to be regretted. I cannot pick only one favorite piece. From the poem and pieces quoted or discussed above to The King is Crowned to The Christening to Christmas Day to Virginia Woolf’s 1907 to The Carlton to Edith Wharton’s Expiration to what MIGHT be my favorite, Harold Nicholson’s The Edwardian Weekend, to the other “might,” The Annual Exodus, each piece delighted in so many new and glorious ways.

The Age of Extravagance: An Edwardian Reader edited by Mary Elisabeth Edes and Dudley Frasier is available used at reasonable prices.

 

4 thoughts on “Review: The Age of Extravagance: An Edwardian Reader

  1. This looks really nice and I share your opinion of the appeal of the cover. Interesting, I always thought of Cecil Beaton as a photographer, I didn’t know he drew/wrote too. Fascinating review!

    Liked by 1 person

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