Art and literature from the Edwardian era has often been overshadowed by its fruitful cousin, the Victorian era, but pop culture moments like the success of Downton Abbey have helped to inspire curiosity about this empowering and innovative period in history. This weekend, we’re celebrating the birthday of Scottish author and Edwardian gent J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, with an Edwardian reading list. Best of all, you can read these books online right now.
Three Weeks, by Elinor Glyn
Never one to shy away from telling a saucy tale of romantic love, British novelist Elinor Glyn helped pioneer erotic fiction for women and popularized the concept of the “It Girl.” No stranger to controversy, Glyn’s 1907 novel Three Weeks was said to be inspired by her scandalous affairs with British aristocrats — one nearly 20 years her junior. The novel faced harsh criticism — banned by the Headmaster of Eton and targeted by anti-vice campaigners — but sold well.
“Gabriel-Ernest,” by Saki
From The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story on Saki’s story of wolfen adolescence:
A slyly rebellious, blackly comic story that unites the Edwardian author’s common themes of sexual ambiguity, metamorphosis, and reminiscent of an Oscar Wilde campiness, “Gabriel-Ernest,” first published in the Westminster Gazette on May 29, 1909, was one of Saki’s first published stories as a full-time writer, when he had settled in London after six years as a newspaper correspondent in Europe.
The Title Market, by Emily Post
Check out The Title Market if you’re curious what etiquette maven Emily Post’s fiction was like. She penned five novels:
The story is about an American woman who marries an Italian prince. It turns out that even though she gains a title, she does not gain the accompanying wealth one would expect. Yet, the heroine is the perfect model of a wife and a hostess. In spite of the fact that all she served at her parties were “small cakes and sandwiches,” Emily wrote, “the princess was one of those hostesses whose personality thoroughly pervades a house; a type which is becoming rare with every change in our modern civilization, and without which people might as well congregate in a hotel parlor. Each guest at Palazzo Sansevero carried away the impression that not only had he been welcome himself, but that his presence had added materially to the enjoyment of others.” That, in Emily’s view was the real mark of a hostess.
Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton
With the precision, beauty, and sharp awareness of the cracks in upper-class New York society that made her one of the great writers of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton offers a subtle critique of the nature versus nurture debate that raged in the early 1900s. Sanctuary is a spare and moving investigation of the forces that impel human beings toward sin, self-doubt, and redemption.
The Benefactress, by Elizabeth von Arnim
“Von Arnim’s complex, intelligent and witty novels were critically acclaimed and immensely popular during her lifetime, but until recently they have received little academic attention,” shares Edwardian Culture Network. The Australian-born British novelist, who was the mistress of fellow Edwardian author H.G. Wells (many of her novels drew upon her romantic relationships), wrote The Benefactress. Blogger The Captive Reader writes:
There are certainly more than enough of von Arnim’s trademark speeches about the tyranny of men and woman’s desire for and right to independence, this book actually has a male hero – not something typical in her works. . . . Axel is my favourite type of male hero – quiet, calm, responsible, stable – and my sympathies were all with him as he struggled to counsel Anna on her project, though in her enthusiasm she refuses to listen to any warnings, and then to conceal his love for her, knowing that any offer he made would be rejected.
Henry Brocken or The Return, by Walter de La Mare
These titles are Walter de la Mare’s supernatural novels, which the Poetry Foundation writes about, calling the author “one of modern literature’s chief exemplars of the romantic imagination”:
The novels of de la Mare rival his poetry in importance. His early novels, such as Henry Brocken, are works of fantasy written in a genre traditionally reserved for realistic subjects. In his tale of supernatural possession, The Return, de la Mare deals with a primarily naturalistic world while maintaining a fantastic element as the thematic core.
Explore the work of Oliver Onions (best name ever) for more Edwardian-era ghost stories.
Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm
The Guardian named Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson one of the best 100 novels of all time:
Zuleika Dobson is a brilliant Edwardian satire on Oxford life by one of English literature’s most glittering wits that now reads as something much darker and more compelling. Readers new to Max Beerbohm’s masterpiece, which is subtitled An Oxford Love Story, will find a diaphanous novel possessed of a delayed explosive charge that detonates today with surprising power.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
Kim is worth examining for its social themes and the way Kipling handles race and social division in his tale set in India while it was under British rule. Blog The Thiessen Review writes:
Trying to get your hands on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’, to wrestle the characters and the novel itself is a challenge, though not an unpleasurable one. To be taken back to a time of adventure, of swashbuckling daring, of mystical exoticism is seductive as it is thrilling. This however is coupled with a lurking presence of the military aggression of imperialism and the even darker belief in racial superiority. . . . For all its faults there is something bittersweet in ‘Kim’. Its themes of life, love, identity and spirituality are expanded on through Kim’s philosophical search for his identity, the Lama’s conflict between the physical and spiritual world and the absent presence throughout the novel of Kim’s father. What the reader finds here, despite the assumptions of an Edwardian mind, is a touching and almost childish longing for a realisation of this Indian fantasy. A magical place where the beauty of India is protected and ensured through British rule with Indian co-operation. One does wonder if this was an India he dreamed of returning to whilst boarding in England. A fantastical though blinkered vision to silence a child’s loneliness.