EMINENT EDWARDIANS by Piers Brendon

EMINENT EDWARDIANS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Consciously emulating Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, Brendon attempts ""the irradiation of an epoch by means of sharp biographical vignettes."" But these four lively profiles really only capture Strachey's cutting-down-to-size snideness, which--since myriad debunkers have by now left the Edwardians little in the way of mythic prestige--seems mostly gratuitous; and Brendon's efforts to draw generalizations from this odd quartet nearly always go astray. Most muddled is the portrait of suffragette queen Emmeline Pankhurst, whose primness (""a perfect Edwardian lady"") inspired a crusade that ""did not so much herald the birth of the New Woman as proclaim the vitality of the Old Lady."" To bolster this thesis, Brendon must gloss over psychology (others have seen fastidious Mrs. P. as more timelessly neurotic than typically Edwardian) and oversimplify politics (especially the role of Mr. P.'s socialism); and he ends up equating Mrs. P. with her daughters Christabel (a religious fanatic) and Sylvia (a diehard reformer following Father)--""It is the spirit of zealotry, it haunts the modern world. . . ."" The study of entertainment-news baron Lord Northcliffe is reasonable enough, moving to and fro between build-ups and demythifying: ""Northcliffe's journals did not so much direct as reflect their reader's views. . . . He was the personification and amplifier of so many typical Edwardian attitudes. . . ."" Handsome, clever, asexual P.M. Arthur Balfour receives the most monotonic treatment: ""He was the embodiment of the British ruling class' resolve to do nothing--except resist change""--and his elder-statesmanship was an orgy of ignorance and prejudice. And, finding war-hero and Boy Scout-founder Baden-Powell already thoroughly debunked, Brendon starts out on a defending note but--while absolving B-P of being a conscious reactionary missionary--winds up with an under-documented, over-reaching argument: B-P as a clinical case of arrested development reflective of the era (""not surprising that a civilization which revelled in its own retardation, should have embraced Scouting""). Throughout, Brendon favors aphorisms (even puns) over genuine insights, compressing problematic history into swift, neat paragraphs. So: a jauntily readable reworking of always-fascinating material, but fatally slippery when it comes to real reflections of a complex era.

Pub Date: April 24th, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin