The Edwardian Literary Afternoon: Part One

Article excerpt

THE fret and fume of High Victorian creativity subsided, the Widow of Windsor having shuffled tardily off to, as she devoutly believed, a long-postponed reunion with Albert the Good, the Boers taught a lesson the realm consigned into the wandering hands of Edward the Guttural, all lapsed into a sort of post-meridian somnolence, the decade's halcyon still before the transformational storm which would effectively vanquish for ever the old ordained order.

The reflections in the literary looking-glass held up to mirror life were, in this golden Edwardian afternoon, subdued. The violent morning hues of the days of the great Victorian Olympic thunder and thunderers drained away. Time had slain the giants. Where Wilde had stood, icon of a lost decade, now rose Wells, New Age symbol. Albeit clever, imaginative, notably fertile, this squeaky-voiced, scurrying little ladies' man, the prophet of the shape of things to come, fell short, in every sense, of his predecessor's measure.

A thin slice of time sandwiched roughly between the Victorians and the Georgians, corresponding, those first ten years of the twentieth century, in near-neat chronology with the 1901-1910 regnancy of Edward VII, it was the freest of times, it was the most stifling of times. On the one hand, the artistic shackles of Victorianism had been struck; on the other, the rule of purse and pride of pedigree remained unchallengedly supreme, the opulence and the elegance lingering on to be wiped out by the khaki and blood of the Great War.

Wells, it was, give him his due, who wrote that 'Queen Victoria sat on England like a great paper-weight and after her death things blew all over the place. Indeed they did. And there came, like the dry susurrus of wind before thunder peals and lightning, a great rustle of excitement, the pages of minds turning in welcome to the novel sense of freedom and the exhilarating lack of defined direction.

Labels and labelling were ever the trickiest and most futile of preoccupations. This recent millennium hesitated in identifying the precise times of the sounding of the knell of the old guard and the clarion call to the new.

The calendar is of sparse help.

Some, patriotic heads reverently bowed, elected for the death of the old Queen, on January 10th, 1901, as both curtain-fall and rise. Others, calculating less regally, looked back to 1900, when dinosaurian death came to Ruskin and Wilde. And, in swift succession, extinction was to enfold others from that lost world; Ernest Dowson, who, also in 1900, fell to the 'white plague', Lionel Johnson, who, dying a whisky death in 1902, fell from a Fleet Street bar stool, and John Davidson, the 'Thirty Bob a Week' Scot and Fleet Street Eclogue-ist, who just managed to hang on until 1909, when he committed carcinophobic felo-de-se.

To that self-professed Edwardian, Edgar Jepson, the ending of the Victorian Age came in 1898 'when the Poets and Artists and Wits of the Nineties ceased to gather after the theatre at the Crown in the Charing Cross Road', and transferred the locus of their ambrosial nights' entertainment to Henekey's, that ligneous retreat, all oak and alcoves, polished wood butts of sherry and high-shining hogsheads of port and madeira, on High Holborn.

Yeats, defining in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1936, stated, with typical Irish exaggeration, that, in 1900, 'everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic Church; or,' he covered himself with practised Erse cunning, 'if they did I have forgotten.'

Perhaps it is because the parameters display such disconcertingly wide variance that the designation 'Edwardian', as applied to the literature of the first ten years of the twentieth century, has signally lacked the authority accorded to the recognition of such similar periodic nomenclatures as 'Romantic' and 'Augustan'. …