published 1930 set in 1905
It was Sebastian’s suggestion that they should go up on to the roof.
What book would you say that was from? Brideshead Revisited, right, where Chas and Seb go up on the roof to have a picnic and commit some of the seven deadly sins? * No, it’s from this one. Sebastian has just come down from the roof, and that is why he is late for lunch.
The Edwardians (see earlier entries here and here) was a big bestseller in its day, it was Downton Abbey in book form, showing how the nobs live from the inside, with suitable stuff about the servants too, and some solemn symbolism like the estate carpenter’s son wanting to go and become a garage mechanic rather than follow his father into his trade. Sackville-West had lived that life, and Chevron in the book is apparently very recognizably her childhood home of Knole. There are some interesting historical details: no telegrams on a Sunday, and there is a child wearing ‘gloves that had thumbs but only a bag for the fingers.’ No word for mittens then?
The two lordly children Sebastian and Viola – teenagers to begin with, they age by five years during the book – have the names of the twins in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, though these are not twins, and Viola takes a minor role. (A year later Vita’s lover Violet Trefusis wrote a book called Echo, on the blog here, about a twin brother and sister, also young and landed, and the two books have, yes, echoes, though they are very different from each other.)
As a book this really isn’t much cop – weirdly structured, strangely plotted, characters appearing and disappearing unsatisfactorily. Never a sense of ‘show not tell’. Sebastian is inexplicable, his character and actions make no sense and have no consistency. Viola makes less sense and scarcely appears. It would surely not have been published - by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, what’s more, for which it was a financial lifeline - if it had been written by anyone else. (Virginia and Vita were lovers, and Vita was the inspiration for Orlando.) But people were fascinated by the details of upperclass life, and Vita knew her stuff. So like posh girls from then till now, she got a free ride and a job she didn’t deserve.
* [In Brideshead, Sebastian Flyte, avoiding his family, says ‘“We shall have to hide”… so we lay on the roof under the balustrade.’]
The picture is by Alice Pike Barney, is in the Smithsonian, and comes from The Athenaeum website.