Magazine article The Spectator

Before the Lights Went Out

Magazine article The Spectator

Before the Lights Went Out

Article excerpt

EDWARDIAN FICTION: AN OXFORD COMPANION

by Sandra Kemp, Charlotte Mitchell and David Trotter

Publisher, L30.00, pp. 402

It has always been a rich field for the reader of every kind of fiction, that strange uneasy interlude between complacency and catastrophe, between the death of the old queen and the Marne. Take one year, for instance, 1905, in which were published Where Angels Fear to Tread, Kipps, Rider Haggard's Ayesha, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Arnold Bennett's Tales of the Five Towns, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Hill and Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, all books which are remembered today. What year in the 1990s will be found to have yielded a comparable harvest? The editors of this excellent new Oxford Companion, Edwardian Fiction (OUP, L30.00), point out that this was a time of transition, which saw the last offerings of the late Victorian novelists and the first of the modernists. It was also a time of enormous variety and vigour, when the spread of education meant that popular fiction was truly popular, and the same author might turn with easy versatility from historical novel to science fiction, to romance, to detective story, to children's book, without feeling any need for apology or explanation. The editors have included only authors with work published between 1900 and 1914, but even within these narrow confines we can find such unlikely bedfellows as Meredith and P.G. Wodehouse, James Joyce and Mrs Molesworth, Saki and Ethel M. Dell.

When we think of the Edwardian age we are inclined to see it in terms of an idealised country house party; what Rupert Brooke, quoted here, described as 'eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song'. This books shows us how much more there was to understand and to depict in fiction. The period, like every other, had its escapist themes - the Ruritanian romance, the Arcadian fantasy - but it also dealt with the harsher side of life. The editors quote Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End speaking of 'odours from the abyss', and writers like Wells, Galsworthy and D.H. Lawrence wrote of the lives of the urban poor. This had, of course, been a favourite subject of the Victorians. More distinctively Edwardian is the novel of the suburbs whose social nuances are often described most vividly by minor novelists like Mrs George de Home Vaizey in More About Pixie.

The great charm of this book is in its account of these lesser figures, rather than the household names. I thought I was reasonably well read in the minor Edwardian novelists, having spent happy hours in my teens revelling in the lurid prose of Victoria Cross and Elinor Glyn in dusty volumes last borrowed from the London Library in 1920. Even so, to read this Oxford Companion is a chastening experience. There are such hordes of writers one has never even heard of, much less read. How did Herbert Flowerdew and Mrs Aylmer Gowing and Jessie Challacombe come to be missing from our shelves, and should we be trying to repair the deficiency? The compilers have obviously relished the challenge of the chase, tracking down their obscure quarry, some of whom have left only a faint and fading spoor through the literary jungle. How delightful to discover that the exotically named Mrs Mabel Chan-Toon married the King of Burma's barrister nephew who wrote the definitive textbook on pawn-broking law, or that C.B. Fry, better known for more substantial sporting achievements, produced a book on diabolo, or that Sheila Kaye-Smith wrote thirteen novels during her last two years at school. …

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