The 100th Book of the Century

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

29 responses

  1. Oh, what a lovely book to finish with, Jane, and many congratulations on completing your mission! I used to see this book in every charity shop I walked into, but not so much any more – I must grab a copy at some point, because I think I would find it as charming as you did (albeit not with such a lovely provenance as yours has.)

    • Thank you for coming up with the initial idea, and demonstrating that it could be done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book in a charity shop, but luckily my mother’s copy was on display on a shelf at the bottom of our stairs,

  2. I have my grandfather’s copy of this book and went on to find “The Nature Notes of Edwardian Lady” which is her nature notes from the year before the book you have (although typeset, not handwritten), and The Edwardian Lady: The Story of Edith Holden.” The videos of “The Country Diary” are quite good too, I borrowed them from my library and might need to again soon.

  3. Well done on finishing your amazing challenge. I remember years ago – probably toward the end of the 1970′s – buying that book for my mum as a birthday present – I think my dad must have given us (my sister and I) the money and tod us what to buy as we were both still in primary school. I’m pretty sure she still has it.

  4. What a beautiful book to finish with. I’m used to seeing this in every used bookstore I visit (usually half a shelf’s worth of copies, actually) but I’ve never picked it up myself. The illustrations alone look worth perusing.

    Congratulations on completing your Century!

    • It’s definitely worth picking up a copy. Edith Holden’s prose is pedestrian, her taste in poetry is a little sentimental, but the illustrations and the other details are lovely, and the book really works as a whole.

  5. How lovely! I remember reading my neighbour’s copy of this in the 80s. And well done on completing your challenge. I might just start noting the years and vaguely looking for ones to fill the gap as I go …

  6. What a lovely way to read the book Jane! My mum had a copy when it came out and was very taken with everything that went with it (china, notepaper etc). In fact, she may still h ave the book – I shall have to check when I next visit. Congratulations on completing your challenge – brilliant!

  7. Congratulations on achieving your challenge. I remember this books coming out and buying a copy for my mother. At the time it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but reading about it here makes me hope that I kept that copy when I was sorting her books out and that i will find it somewhere on my shelves.

  8. I too bought this book for my mother when it first came out, and years later, for myself. Somewhere I also have Edith Holden’s biography – very sad, some of her later life.

    Definitely a significant book, and I was touched and pleased when my own teenage daughter recently picked up her grandmother’s copy from the books I had just brought home after we cleared out my mom’s house (the book being the one I originally bought way back in the 1970s) and spirited it away to her room, where I see it beside her bed, very obviously being read.

    The illustrations are what make it so special, of course. I would love to see the original copy. I wonder where it is now? Hopefully on display somewhere…

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