Words of Modernity: Fiction of the Edwardian Age

By Rachel Sexton

While all the various types of art—music, painting, literature—reflect the culture which created them, the novel is the medium that, by virtue of its form, has the most depth to be a substantive representation. Authors using a contemporaneous setting can show successive generations of readers the inner life of the society around them. This is fascinating in a historical context. One of my favorite periods of history is the Edwardian Era. Having expressed my admiration for Edith Wharton already, I also find an engaging discussion in the novels The Golden Bowl, Howard’s End, and Victory, which reveal that time to be complex and more modern than you might expect.

What we call the Edwardian Age roughly corresponds to the reign of Edward VII of England following the death of Queen Victoria. This covers the years 1901 to 1910 but can also include the First World War. Though it takes its name from a British monarch (the last to do so, in fact), this period in history provides interest no matter what country is under discussion. Writers Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Joseph Conrad take full advantage of the rich possibilities their surroundings offered them.

In 1904, Henry James released The Golden Bowl. It centers on Maggie Verver, an American heiress in London, and her father Adam. Maggie marries Prince Amerigo, an Italian nobleman without the money to back up his title, but she doesn’t know his past mistress is her childhood best friend Charlotte. Worried that her father needs companionship, Maggie convinces him to propose to Charlotte, who accepts. Of course, Amerigo and Charlotte have an affair. However, Maggie is no pushover and uses emotional machinations to get her father to take Charlotte back to America and keep her husband to herself. The focus on these characters is quite concentrated and contained, which makes for a fascinating psychological journey for the reader.

E.M. Forster published Howard’s End in 1910. It is the story of the interactions between the Schlagel and Wilcox families, especially the romantic lives of the Schlagel sisters, Margaret and Helen, and the true inheritance of the deceased Wilcox matriarch’s beloved house, Howard’s End. Though a subplot involving adultery and a memorable death might make this novel sound sensationalist, it is actually a superb detailing of how people can change each other for the better. The attitude here towards certain ideas is very forward-thinking.

The novel Victory by Joseph Conrad came out in 1915. The lead character is Axel Heyst, a rootless recluse who finds himself in southeast Asia where he encounters Lena, a member of an all-female orchestra who needs protection from villainous Schomberg and his dangerous henchmen. Romance fits this tale right next to the others I’ve discussed, but there is more of a tragic and action-adventure element. The moral ambiguity Conrad highlights feels like an unexpected revelation about the time he was writing in.

Stimulating interior lives of memorable characters await the reader in The Golden Bowl, Howard’s End, and Victory. The layered and, most of all, modern quality of these narratives may surprise audiences, but shows the strength of the Edwardian Age in fiction. Film versions of each of these novels exist (and a recent miniseries of Howard’s End), and each has an excellent cast to enjoy, so by all means, watch them, but also experience the undiluted power of the Edwardian years on the page.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.

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