I have wanted to read Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady for many years now, after seeing some effusive reviews before I had even entered the world of blogging about literature. I had found it difficult to find an affordable copy which was in good condition, but luckily I thought to search for it on my local library’s catalogue, and found a lovely facsimile reproduction housed in the county store.
Holden was born in Kings Norton in Worcestershire in 1871, and grew up in a small Warwickshire village with her family. Here, she wrote and illustrated ‘Nature Notes for 1906’; however, the book was not published under its current title, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, until 1977. Holden tragically drowned in the Thames in 1920, whilst collecting buds from chestnut trees at Kew.
In this beautiful book, Holden ‘recorded in words and paintings the flora and fauna of the British countryside through the changing seasons of the year’. She wrote everything by hand, and this has touchingly been reproduced, along with several original spelling errors. Alongside darling watercolours of the nature which she observed in her local area, Holden recorded fragments of her favourite poems by the likes of Burns, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Barrett Browning, and personal observations. Included in this volume are recollections from extended family holidays in Scotland and Devon.
As one would expect from a diary, The Country Diary… has been split into separate months. Each begins with a memorandum-style page or two, which collect together facts about the month, and titbits which Holden felt were relevant, such as rhymes and old wives’ tales. In January, for instance, she records that the month was ‘named from the Roman god Janus, who is represented with his faces looking in opposite directions – as retrospective to the past, and prospective to the coming year.’ She has also noted special dates and bank holidays throughout, some of which she calls ‘Feast Days etc’. Some of the entries for separate days contain weather conditions, or things of note which she saw on that given day.
The detail here is absolutely charming. On January 23rd, she records: ‘Went for a country walk. Every thing on every tree and bush was outlined in silver tracery against the sky; some of the dead grasses and seed-vessels growing by the road-side were specially beautiful; every detail of them sparkling with frost crystals in the sunshine.’ Her entry three days later begins: ‘The last few weeks, our own and our neighbours’ gardens have been haunted by a very curious Robin.’ On June 7th, she observes: ‘There is a fine show of wild roses… In many places the hedges are festooned with wreathes of Black Bryony and Honeysuckle. The pale pink Blackberry blossom and the large, white masses of Elder blossom are everywhere conspicuous. Climbing up the banks to meet them are tall purple fox-gloves and nodding heads of grasses heavy with pollen, mingled with Purple and Yellow Hatches and Clover blossom.’
Holden was an incredibly talented woman, particularly with regard to her artwork. On every single page, it is clear that she gave such consideration to everything she put down on paper. Every double page spread in The Country Diary… contains at least one gorgeous watercolour. Holden’s drawings of flowers and foliage are perfectly precise, as are her depictions of different bird species, and their eggs. I also really admired that she gave the Latinate names for everything included.
One sad thing to note here is that Holden’s book was written over a century ago. I noticed that some of the species which she talks about as being common – birds, butterflies, and flowers – are things which I have never seen anywhere in Britain.
The Country Diary… is a wonderful almanac, which I thoroughly appreciated. It is wonderful both to read from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of. It is an incredibly lovely homage to the natural world, and keen naturalists will surely find of interest how much has changed in the intervening eleven decades. I very much look forward to revisiting it in future, and hopefully getting my hands on a copy which I can add to my collection, and treasure.