OF COURSE THERE were Edwardian ladies who cut gritty figures in history - the Pankhursts, for instance - but as a rule, in a world where servants made the wheelers for round, they appear in retrospect trapped in an endless summer afternoon, hovering at the edge of a sunlit lawn with a tea cup or tennis racquet in hand, while a bicycle leans on the rose arbor, and easel stands on the terrace with a still life drying in the perfumed breeze. Killing time was a way of life.
Edith Holden, unmarried daughter of a British paint manufacturer, was an honorable member of the class. Her joy was to take long botanizing walks on the moors to collect impressions and specimens she could later record in watercolors. By the time she was 35 she had become a walking , or cyclying, encyclopedia of bird and plant life in the vicinity of her Warwickshire village. The "Nature Notes" she kept for the year 1906 were entirely for her own pleasure and few people can have seen the notebook until it was published last month in utterly persuasive facsimile - even to the faded ink of her uneven "printing" and the brown page edges.
Edith's diary (she didn't call it one) is no literary find like Kilvert's diary of life in his country parish during the 1870s, rediscovered a few decades ago. She was only a country lady whose evacescent subjects were sometimes too much for her patient skills, whose written record of the days shows hardly a shiver of personality ot involuntary poetry, though she copied out seasonal verses from the big poets.
The best poetry is in the common names for things collected (she properly gives the Latin too). Her note book has poignant charm, and even impersonal, faceless Edith transpires as an admirably committed amateur (though not quite faceless: the jacket photo graph of her as a girl seated among ferns in an "aesthetic" velvet dress shows a thoughtful, charming little face).
January 1906 is a mild : yellow flowers of hazel catkins are in bloom and the woodbine has green leaves. In February she finds "violet roots sending up little green trumpets of new leaves." she sees gnats dancing in the sunshine, hears thee first lark, holds a new born lamb in her arms. A toad hops into the front hall: She picnics on a fence, admiring a loud jay and budding violets; resists the temptation to drive a thrush off the nest so as to see the eggs. She cycles up and down lanes between hedges, and carries the bike where it's too steep or muddy to ride in her search for spring flowers.
On a sultry May she finds a robin's nest with five eggs among the roots of an slder tree; on another day, a dead hedgehog curled up by the road - a circumstance that would have got no comment a few years later, when motor traffic began roaring and stinking through the lanes fragrant with wild roses and honeysuckle where she pwedaled in search of cuckoo-pints an dking-cups.
In July she picnics under a hedge among pink and white clover and tall grass, with robins chaterring nearby. People give her fine or unusual specimens - a water lily, some rare dusky cranesbill; red toadstools are even sent by mail, arriving somewhat smashed, but sheill paintable. On a Scottish holiday she cycles through the rain and notes rowans, raspberries, rose hips, blackberries, and fine larches.
Back home in September the summer birds gather to depart - house martins, swifts, swallows; the tom-tits (chickadees) reappear and the robins begin to sing. A profusion of chrysanthemums, dahlias, and michaelmas daisies (asters to us) fills the cottage gardens, while walls are splashed crimson with Virginia creeper.
On a cold foggy November day she collects fungi to indentify with her new British Mushroom book. The bracken has turned pale yellow, the oak leaves bronze and brown; a thrush sings sweetly from a beech tree. By the end of the year all Britain lies under snow, and in Edith's garden blackbirds and thrushes, besides tits, robins, and sparrows, feed from a cocoanut shell suspended on a tripod.
The sketches have the charm of things lovingly an dexactly, if not always expertlyportrayed - though the more fragile the wildflower the finer her sucess. Bird were harder than flowers or insects, but a bright-eyed song thrush with her young in the nest catches perfectly the bird's nervous determination to sit tight. Edith painted over 200 flora: a fine, hairy twist of strawberry-leaved cinquefoil, a clump of sweet violets, fragile moss cups, a pale primrose with broad crumply leaves; honeysuckle and dog roses twined in a delicately lush garland; balck bryony, ragged robin, St.John's wert, and stinging nettle; a mixed spray of poppies, harebells, and may weed; fungi - soft brown, rich yellow, steely blue and white, Heliotrope and pink. And butterflies - brimstones, meadow browns, orange tips, peacocks, tortoiseshells - flutter everywhere among the blossoms. The big flowers - waterlilies, foxgloves, iris, daffodils - aren't so good, and birds, though sometimes caught in a few confident strokes, are at times corrected and labored over. Restless subjects were troublesome: Audubon thought so, and stuck to dead birds.
This ideal maiden aunt didi finally marry, at 40, but her passion for noting nature didn't desert her, even in London. She died at 49, "tragically," the informative jacket says, "by drowning in the Thames, while gathering buds from chestnuts trees." Nothing so wistfully apt can be quite tragic. Edith calls to mind another rich Victorian merchants' daughter who filled her loneliness with exquisite watercolors of country flora and fauna; she was Beatrix Potter, whose imagination more than observe.