The Edwardian by J. B. Priestley (Heinemann 80s.)
NEITHER a golden age—
nor a mere prolongation of the Victorian era. Such is the Priestley verdict on the reign of King Edward VII. Backed up by a strangely effective combination of text and illustration, the former masterly, the latter museumlike, these findings of a literary "prophet" were published this week.
I say "strangely effective" because the evocation is one of immense but apparently effortless power. The secret, if there is one. is that an already legendary author has stuck as usual to pure craftsmenship, here used to penetrate the morning mists of his own boyhood memories with the searchlight of a lifetime's literary vigour and virtuosity. combined with Titanic learning and observation.
He wisely starts with a sketch of the youthful "Bertie," the future King Edward, pointing out the importance of his fondness for his slightly older sister Vicky (mother of the future Kaiser of the "Kaiser's War") in building up Edward's ultimate aversion to Germany. All this is true, but "Bertie" was even fonder of his slightly younger but less well known sister Alice — the only member of the family with any influence over him when he
was in one of his tantrums. To her must go much of the credit for the softer sides of Edward's tempestuous character, for lack. as pointed out, of true parental understanding.
The historical sketch, climaxed by the South African War, is a setting. as of solid platinum, for the elaborate jewelled panoply that follows. Though aristocrats and royalty—as well as in an intriguingly special way, the Tramp who was peculiar to his age are allowed to shine (or at least to be seen behind the dazzle), it is the middle classes who mostly dominate the display.
To the man moreover who
could score such dramatic success with Dangerous Corner in the thirties, the potentialities of free choice, chance and opportunity (and their interlocking consequences) make an irresistible appeal. To Priestley. the Edwardian age was a truly "open" one in these respects, and, as such. one may add, an interval set apart from the nineteenth century: where initiative was often strangled at birth, and the post-1914 world where it frequently died prematurely of some economic illness.
One figure, that of the rather sad, and underrated Prime Minister, Henry Campbell Bannerman, remains as shadowy as ever. But perhaps that is to he his permanent fate.