♔First published in 1977, The Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady quickly became an International best-seller- by 2000 it had sold more than six million copies.
Edith Holden was made famous by the posthumous publication, of her ‘Nature Notes for 1906 under the title The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ in 1977. The original purpose of the book was as nature-observation notes for her art students at Solihull School for Girls, where she taught once a week from 1906-09. At this time she was living in Gowan Bank, Kineton Green Road, in the West Midlands.
Edith lived most of her life around Warwickshire and wrote about and illustrated the changes in nature through the seasons, often describing her trips to Elmdon Park, one of her favourite haunts. She completed her Nature Notes in 1906 when she 35 years old.
As an artist and botanist, Edith made many notes and sketches on her walks and cycling trips around Olton and the Warwickshire fields, she filled the pages of her books with nature, fauna, bird life, butterflies and seasonal flowerings, all arranged by the calendar year. She demonstrated a vast knowledge and understanding of the local ecology.
There were four girls and two boys in the Holden family, three of which became painters and successful illustrators. Edith and her two younger sisters Violet, and Evelyn earned scholarships for the Birmingham School of Art and became illustrators.
Deciding to focus on animal painting, Edith spent her twentieth year studying with painter Joseph Adam at the Craigmill Art School near Stirling, in Scotland. Adam owned a farm, and there his students studied and painted animals.
In 1911 she married sculptor Ernest Smith and they moved to Chelsea in London an area long known as an ‘artists quarter’, where the couple mixed with some of the leading artists of the day. Ernest became principal assistant to Countess Feodora Gleichen, – an accomplished British sculptor of figures and portrait busts, she worked from her studio within St Jame’s Palace, her father was half nephew to Queen Victoria.
Edith continued her work as an illustrator and had her painting Young Bears Playing exhibited at the Royal Society of Arts in 1917.
On Monday morning March 16, 1920, Edith said to Ernest that she would probably go down to the river later to see the University crews practicing at Kew. The main subject at breakfast had been the impending visit of some friends for Easter, to which Edith was looking forward.
Ernest left for the studio at St. James’s Palace. When Ernest returned home that evening his wife was out, but the table had been laid for the evening meal, Ernest assumed that she was with friends. It was not until the next morning that he learned the truth. Her body was found at six o’clock on the Tuesday morning.
The inquest established that she had tried to reach a branch of chestnut buds. The bough was out of reach and with the aid of her umbrella Edith had tried to break it off, fallen forward into the river and drowned. She was 49 years old.
Edith and Ernest had no children, so the book passed through the family of Edith’s husband Ernest, until it was finally inherited by Edith’s great-niece Rowena Stott.
Rowena- also an artist and designer, remembers with fondness as a child looking at all the beautiful and delicate watercolours of flowers and nature in her great-aunt’s book, and when older, discussing with her mother on how she thought the paintings would make wonderful patterns for fabric.
While studying for her degree at Exeter Art College in 1976, Rowena met the wife of publisher Richard Webb, of Webb & Bower publishers, at a party and mentioned to her that she has a book they might be interested in looking at. Rowena decided to show the diary to Richard Webb, he at once recognised its potential and paid her £100 not to show it to anyone else. Rowena recalls:
The day he gave me the £100 was ‘probably the best day of my student life. I remember waking up in the morning and thinking this was fantastic. I could pay off my overdraft and I bought a pair of shoes.
The Book was published as a facsimile edition the following year in conjunction with the London-based publisher Michael Joseph and renamed ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady‘. The book was a huge success, selling five million copies in thirteen languages.
The diary entered the Sunday Times publishing best sellers list where is stayed for a record-breaking 63 weeks earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In 1987, Webb and Bower publishers were contacted by Susan and Nancy White who owned a similar diary for 1905 which they believed was also by Edith Holden. Following expert examination it was verified as being a genuine diary by Edith, and it appears to be a precursor to her later diary for 1906. Apparently, the White family had bought the book with some china at a local jumble sale, its earlier origins and how it came to be at a jumble sale are not known.
The rights for this further diary were acquired by Webb and Bower and in 1988 it was published by them as a companion book under the title ‘Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady’. The book features a selection of Edith Holden’s watercolours of birds, flowers and landscapes, together with journal extracts, anecdotes and poems.
Would Edith have been pleased that her diary’s a success?
I think she would have been rather bemused at the impact of something that had been written for children on how to illustrate and write about nature, had become a bestseller, says Rowena.
Thanks to Edith, her collection of beautiful seasonal observations of nature, enhanced with her writings and poetry, capture a simpler life of times past – the nostalgic charm of a vanished world of not so long ago…