I always wanted to finish with my 20th Century reading project with a significant book, and I found it at the beginning of the year. It’s a book that was written in 1906, but wasn’t published until 1977, when it became a publishing phenomenon. There was the book, there was – and I believe there still is – merchandise. And at the centre of it all was a book that is simple, timeless, and lovely.
That book is ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden. And, because it is a diary, I’ve been dipping into it every month, over the course of this year that is nearly past.
The copy I’m reading was a gift from my father to my mother, not long after the book was published.
Edith Holden was an artist, an illustrator and a teacher of art. My grandfather – my mother’s father – was all of those things too, and that was another good reason for making this book a part of my century.
In 1906 Edith compiled nature notes over the course of a year; seasonal observations of the natural world; drawings of plants, animals, birds, insects; and poetry that she loved, that echoed what she saw and what she drew.
The book is utterly beautiful. Its pages are facsimiles of Edith’s original, and it holds so much and is so lovely that it would be easy to spend so many hours in its company. But I read one month every month, following Edith’s year is real time, wishing that I could have walked alongside her, or maybe that I could have been one of her students.
In January I saw a lovely, simple and natural, painting of a daisy, and beside it I read a description by Robert Burns: “Wee, modest, crimson tippet flower.”
March brought, “Glorious sunshine. First warm day of spring. All sky larks up and singing in the blue.”
Each month had a beautiful title page, and it’s hard to pick a favourite, but if I was pressed I would pick April. because I’ve always loved primroses.
In May I was smitten with an extended quotation from Tennyson’s ‘The may Queen’, copied out in such neat handwriting.
“The honeysuckle round the porch has wov’n its wavy bowers,
And by the meadow-trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo-flowers;
And the wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray,
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.”
(You can read all of the verses here.)
July’s journal had so many images of wild flowers; all were lovely but I think that the loveliest was the foxglove and the trailing rose.
Edith travelled to Scotland in September: “Rowed to the top of Loch Vennachar abd pic-niced on the shore. The Brake Fern on the hills is beginning to turn bronze and yellow. Great quantities of it have been cut and left to dry on the hillside, making great patches of red and brown …..”
October gave me more wonderful poetry, from ‘The Vagabond by Robert Louis Stevenson:
“Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger;
White as meal the frosty field —
Warm the fireside haven —
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!”
(The other verses are here.)
Bramble leaves, quite perfectly drawn, caught my eye in December.
The origin of the name of the month, and feast days, were always noted, and the book ended with a list of birds spotted and plants observed – in English and in Latin.
Edith must have taken such care over this journal; it really is a thing of beauty, capturing the natural world that she so clearly loved quite beautifully.
And I suspect that I will be reading through the months of her year again over the years to come.