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Book Report: Literary tribute to this couple is overdue

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 England’s Edwardian Era is a fascinating one, indeed. It succeed the staid Victorian era and with the death of Victoria around the turn of the century, her aged son Edward VII ascended the throne and a whole new way of life for the English opened up.

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Well, not for everybody, but for the upper class, who began to enjoy the wonders of electricity, motor cars and a less morally strict ethos.

It’s also known as the age of modernism, when writers like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell held sway.

Of course nothing is ever perfect, and even the leaders of the movement had nasty things to say about their circles and the circles inhabited by their sometime compadres.

Contemporary Gertrude Stein said that the Bloomsbury Circle (The Woolfs, et al.) was like “The Young Men’s Christian Association, with Christ left out, of course.”

Poet Edith Sitwell added that the society of Bloomsbury was “the home of an echoing silence. Some the more silent intellectuals, crouching under the umbrella like deceptive weight of their foreheads, lived their toadstool lives sheltered by these. The appearance of others raised the conjecture that they were trying to be fetuses.”

Economist John Maynard Keynes, a Bloomsburyian himself, wrote later that ‘We were in the strict sense of the stern immoralists....we recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction to conform or obey.”

I dug those gems out of a new book, “Sidney and Violet,” by Stephen Klaidman (Nan Talese/Doubleday, $27.95).

This couple is largely forgotten these days but hung around with the best of them and wrote books much admired in their day.

Sidney Schiff, scion of a wealthy Jewish family in London, straddled the Victorian Age, and the Edwardian and Klaidman does a fine job of depicting the amateur writer’s and professional gentleman’s ambivalence in a book that’s chock full of interesting commentary on trends of the period.

Sidney might be called a talented amateur, so gentlemanly that he wrote under the pseudonym “Stephen Hudson.”

His wife Violet, also from a rich Jewish family, was a talented musician and hostess.  What’s so amazing about this couple is how they survived with the modernists, who were notoriously anti-Semitic and as Keynes pointed out “immoralists.”

Nevertheless, when Violet died in 1962, years after Sidney’s passing no less a personage than T.S. Eliot appended a letter to her New York Times obituary:

“I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of art and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due.”

That took a half century to happen, but I’m certain Eliot would be pleased with Klaidman’s effort.

***

In “Believe,” a novel for adolescents by Sarah Aronson (Lab, $17.95), 16-year old Janine has a problem.

Ten years earlier she made news as the “soul” survivor of Palestinian bomb plot in Israel that killed her parents and a passel of people. Janine was dug out of the rubble by Dave Armstrong, who will appear later in the story.

Now she lives with her aunt in the U.S. and is hounded by the media because she was the “soul survivor.”

Her hands are badly burned, and people come to believe those hands have magical curative power. Her savior is now an evangelist and he, like other groups before her, seeks to put her on a pedestal for fundraising purposes.

Janine wants none of it. How she copes makes this a very special novel for young people, as it depicts the power of the media to make news whether it’s news or not.

As I read this fine book, it brought to mind film classics like “The Miracle of the Bells,” in which the media creates a celebrity out of a coal miner’s daughter or “Broadcast,” in which an anchor man sickens of his job and decides not to take it.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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Pat Hunter
(715) 425-1561
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