Wouldn’t it be great to have a chance to wear the beautiful clothes and hats of the Edwardian era? To be courted by a handsome man in a sack coat driving an open topped Roll’s Royce? If you’ve seen Downton Abbey you know what I’m talking about. The first season in particular had the most mouth-watering fashions, and I read that a lot of the clothes were vintage. In truth, the glitz and glamour of the Gilded Age was achievable only to the top echelon of society. The rest of the world had to live an entirely different way.
This week, in honor of Halloween, we’re discussing the most frightening aspect of our chosen time period. My debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, is set in the aforementioned Edwardian era, which was a very small era compared to the Victorian era, which spanned Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. Her son, Edward, was the monarch for a short time, from 1901 to 1910, and this is technically the Edwardian era. The years running up to the Great War in 1914 and beyond to 1919 are often lumped in with the Edwardian era, also called the Gilded Age.
Although socially the Edwardian era was much further forward than the Victorian era, it still was no bed of roses for many, in particular the working class, the poor, and women.
For a modern girl like me, the most frightening thing about this era is the lack of freedom. Independence was a man’s privilege. Women were looked at as “half-angle, half-idiot” as politician Keir Hardy put it. Because females weren’t able to look after themselves, they were expected to marry, and woe betide you if you weren’t able to find a man by your mid-20s. Being left on the shelf was a fate worse than death; society had a horror of spinsters, and there was no place for them. Unmarried women were on the lowest rung of the household, and you stayed at home for the rest of your days or moved in with your sister or brother—an odious prospect if you didn’t get along with your siblings or their spouses. So either way, you were not mistress of your house, and you had to defer to the man of the house at every turn. You had to ask permission to do anything. In essence, you were at the mercy of the family that housed you, and you had to be very careful never to create scandal or bring disrepute onto the family.
All women were educated very little. Upper class women, in addition to elocution, comportment, and needlework, learned geography, a language, and a little arithmetic. This “higher” education made her a charming conversationalist to her husband, and nothing more. Poorer children would only go to elementary school and learn to read, cook, and clean, and maybe some sums and history.
Your life as an unmarried working-class woman would mean either finding work in a factory or going into service. If you were a servant and chanced to meet someone during this time (no “followers” was the rule) you’d leave service and become a wife and mother.
Middle-class women faired better. You could be a secretary, governess, clerk or bookkeeper. You’d be able to earn money for yourself until you were married and then you’d quit your job to have a family. Because middle-class women enjoyed more freedom, they largely fueled the women’s rights movement.
Here are some frightening statistics of the Gilded Age, courtesy of www.pbs.org/manorhouse/1905: In 1901, 85 percent of women over 45 were either married or widowed; in 1911, almost half of all illegitimate children were born to women in service; “unemployable” women would often end up at the workhouse, or as prostitutes.
For all women it was frowned upon and seen as unfeminine to have opinions or to be political, to have desires or ideas of your own. Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything.
I don’t know about you, but as a thoroughly modern Millie, the Edwardian era sounds pretty frightening. But you know, I’ve got to admit, something inside me still longs to wear those clothes.
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, the story of an Edwardian teen who pursues her love of art and a handsome police constable during the women’s rights movement (Viking, winter 2014). She lived in the UK for six years, after meeting her own British police constable and marrying him. She did extensive research on the British suffragettes with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace. Today, she is a full-time freelance writer in the magazine industry in the US and UK, and she has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001). She is a dressage rider and trainer, and she lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana, just outside of Chicago with her husband, Mark, two horses, four dairy goats, five cats, two dogs, and 60 laying hens. You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller