Tag Archives: British culture

Review: The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Holden)

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.

The year is 1906, halfway through the reign of Edward VII. Although Edward died in 1910, the “Edwardian period” is often stretched to include the early years of the reign of George V: up to the end of summer in 1914. This makes fairly good sense, because nothing much had changed during that interval, making this personal journal an illustration of a tiny slice of life as it was at the opening of the First World War.

It’s a tiny slice because the early years of the 20th Century were really quite tempestuous: the Second Boer War got the century off on the wrong foot, followed by the Russo-Japanese War and an attempted revolution in Russia, a couple of Balkan Wars, the initiation of “gunboat diplomacy” by the Germans in North Africa, various labor agitations and other forms of social unrest, and, of course, the perennial incarnations of The Irish Question. But for people of the time who could afford to live in quiet seclusion from such events, there was not only time to smell the roses, but to draw pictures of them and the birds that fed on the rose hips.

Environmentalists may be interested in comparing author/artist Edith Holden’s inventories of wildflowers and birds (which include their common and Latin names) to the survival status of those creatures today. Students of art will learn about technique from studying her drawings and watercolor paintings.

On page 176 this drawing of a home-made bird feeder is of amazing simplicity and inventiveness, and would make a good naturalist project for a homeschool. Those who try it should be aware that some kinds of birds are not comfortable feeding close to the ground, so find out what the feeding height preferences are for the birds that frequent your area, and choose branches of a length that will permit the coconut half (or suet ball, seed ball or fruit) to be suspended at the appropriate height to encourage bird patronage.

The 4-year extension of “Edwardian” time reinforced the childhood memories of the nostalgia-mongering writers of the 1920s, who had a hard time coming to terms with the violent interruption of their Utopian hindsight by the Great War, and the consequent world-changing caused by it. Edith Holden’s diary evokes some of that longing for a more tranquil existence, even though the times were not particularly peaceful (much like the nostalgic effect of artwork by the American illustrator Norman Rockwell). Recommended.

 

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Review: Mr. Britling Sees It Through (Wells)

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Mr. Britling Sees It Through.

Those who are familiar with only the fantasy and science fiction works of H. G. Wells may be puzzled by this book. The title is a little misleading. “Sees it through” implies an enduring-to-the-end, but having been originally published in 1916, it cannot be referring to the end of the Great War. “Sees through it” might have been a plainer rendering, as the main character apparently achieves new insight into the reasons the war began. Perhaps the author was attempting a literary-poetic reversal of wording?

Although not presented as a quasi-memoir, this is a work of faintly fictionalized social commentary. “Britling,” as a name, seems to be related to such diminutives as “gosling,” and may represent a condensation of early 20th-century British attitudes in the person of the eponymous character. The bulk of Wells’s social commentary is directed against the shortsightedness of the British regarding the reason for the war, but there’s no real way to know whether or not the author’s criticism reflects the evolution of his own enlightenment. Mr. Britling’s ebullience does bear a strong resemblance to the way H. G. Wells is described by Cornelia Otis Skinner in her hilarious memoir Our Hearts were Young and Gay; indeed, she refers to “Mr. Britling” in her description of the man.

The fictionalization is uneven. Attempts are made to give the characters realistic problems, but the narrator tells about those troubles instead of showing character development happening through them, and their story arcs seem to be simply dropped into the gaps in a monologue. A deus ex machina solution provided for one minor character gives the impression that it was manufactured just to prevent the story’s descent into unmitigated gloom. The play-by-play narration of the field hockey game is written with all the immediacy of hearing a sportscaster’s voice-over, but the frequent and lengthy passages of socio-political soliloquy are carried to an extreme that becomes difficult to follow, and erodes the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

When Wells employs the literary device of quoting from letters, the text is inconsistently treated: sometimes it’s in italics, sometimes in quotation marks; and what should have been a relatively brief note succumbs to excess verbosity and becomes a social commentary treatise. The epistolary approach is supplemented once with a purported reproduction of handwriting, but it fails to enhance the reading experience.

The tale doesn’t work well as a novel, except as an example of how not to try to blend fact with fiction; but as an account of contemporaneous British thought in the midst of the Great War, it can provide some insights.

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