The Most Frightening Aspect of the Edwardian Era

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

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About Sharon Biggs Waller

I'm the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking, Penguin Jan 2014) and THE ORIGINAL HORSE BIBLE (i5 Publishing). Visit me at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.

9 thoughts on “The Most Frightening Aspect of the Edwardian Era

  1. Melissa says:

    Very interesting! And I am now going to use the phrase “woe betide you” on a daily basis.

  2. I find it so interesting how the rights and education available to women (and the respect accorded to their intelligence) ebbs and flows throughout history. What is it that’s happening in a society that allows men to embrace women’s intelligence and creativity, and what occurs to make them fear and oppress it? In the case of Edwardian England, could it be a backlash against having been ruled by a queen for so long, a collective crackdown to put women “back in their proper place?” (And yes, I’d love to look like Lady Mary in those gorgeous dresses, but my curvy hips are much more suited to an earlier time! 🙂 )

  3. Interestingly, a lot of women were against women’s rights. There were female anti-suffrage leagues, believe it or not. And Queen Victoria was dead set against women’s rights. In 1870 she urged people to “join in checking this mad, wicked folly of women’s rights with all its attendant horrors, on which my poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feelings and propriety.” It’s where I found my book title! But it’s mind boggling how a woman in such power would want to check women’s rights. Says a lot about the mind set back then. When I was researching this I read that many women thought nothing would change so why try? Others were happy with their situation and didn’t want to rock the boat. Many men feared women would take over and force their morals on society. In the US that meant prohibition!

  4. Wow! But then, I could understand their fear if they thought women’s agenda was all about “moral” issues like prohibition. Way to shoot yourselves in the foot, ladies!

  5. Tina C. says:

    There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on in this period in terms of women’s involvement in politics and (admittedly pseudo)science. Eugenics, for example,continues to be popular. The effect on women was that it allowed men to classify women (and in particular women who displayed “amoral” behavior–which could be anything contrary to patriarchal beliefs) as imbeciles. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote PROLIFICALLY not only on women’s right to self-autonomy, but also against eugenics. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) is a young woman during this time as well, so the mores of the Edwardian Era are really busy forming her political and social opinions. Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition has a really excellent segment on the connection between women’s sufferage and the early women’s teetotaler movements in Victorian Era as well as their lingering (but dying) involvement in the Edwardian Era. It’s worth checking out if you have the time.

  6. Sky Whisper says:

    Hi, I think this is really interesting, but it tells me nothing about what they wore. Do you know what they wore? I’m doing a history project on the Edwardians and I need to know what they wore. Thanks 🙂

  7. copperplate says:

    The traces we have today of the Edwardian era mostly consist of media, advertising, and because the vast majority of people living in that era are now deceased, hearsay. If we were to look at the media of today’s world, we would still see a vapid, uneducated, silenced woman at the service of men (Victoria’s Secret models or Miley Cyrus, anyone?); however that cultural ideal is not what most real women living in society chase after. Would it not make sense to infer that the majority of Edwardian women did not live up to their society’s ideal either? 100 years from now, historians will look back on Lady Gaga performances in awe of how horribly repressed women of the 2010s were.

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