One of the fascinating things about writing historical novels is researching the various rituals of romance in your chosen period. Edwardian-era England is my favorite time, namely because it was a time of great societal change. Love and courtship, however, remained steeped in tradition. How and whom you married depended hugely on one factor: class.
For those “upstairs,” marriage was more about keeping blood within the aristocracy pure; for the newly wealthy industrialist, a good match gave social climbing parvenus standing within Society.
In America, wealthy industrialists had amassed great fortunes, and with no Law of Primogeniture, fathers endowed their daughters with fortunes of their own. The gentry, finding their coffers depleted, swallowed hard and married American heiresses in order to enrich their great estates. Winston Churchill’s mother was one of these American “buccaneers.”
An upper class girl would have to wait for a formal marriage proposal until she came out (families could, however, have plans in the works before then). Until her debut, she was all but invisible. After that, she could receive proposals of marriage, but again, love wasn’t on top of the list of husbandly requirements. Once a wife had given birth to the heir and the spare for her husband, she was free to take a lover, perhaps falling in love for the first time. Although taking a lover was accepted, discretion was required. Flaunt a lover and she might find herself in divorce court and lose everything to her benighted husband, including her children.
Relationships were less stringent for the middle and working classes. Provided they chose within their own classes, a love match could happen. These girls usually met their sweethearts through friends, family, or at work. Because it took awhile for men to save up enough to be able to afford a wife and family, middle class and upper working class men tended to marry later in life. Interestingly, it was usually to a younger woman.
For those downstairs, relationships were strictly forbidden. No followers, was the rule of the day, which meant none of the servants could have a sweetheart. Downton Abbey’s love match between parlor maid Anna and valet, Mr. Bates, was a rare thing. Indeed it would have been heavily frowned upon. Should servants fall in love, they would have to leave, and most likely without a character reference (depending upon the kindness of the employer). No reference would mean they would be unable to find work elsewhere. The male servant might be able to stay on—if he forsook his sweetheart. The disgraced female servant would end up out in the cold, literally. Her only choices would be to return home or to turn to a life of a dolly mop, the name for a servant turned prostitute.
Surprisingly, for British women, lesbianism wasn’t exactly forbidden, as long as it was discreet. Vita Sackville-West had many female lovers. As a teen, Vita fell in love with Violet Trefusis, the daughter of Alice Keppel, who was King Edward VII’s mistress. (Violet’s sister was the grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, born after her mother became King Edward’s mistress—ahem.) Vita’s husband, Harold Nicholson was a secret homosexual himself. However, for British men, all homosexual acts, including a kiss, were punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, and maybe with hard labor (Labouchere’s amendment of the Criminal Law Amendment act, 1885).
For middle to upper classes, a man must make sure to never lead a single woman on if he had no plans of marriage. No flirtation or any shred of feeling can come from a gentleman. Even the most innocent of comments could be misconstrued by a young lady, so a man had to be very careful otherwise he might find himself with a wife he hadn’t planned on or, even worse, become disgraced in society. Before courtship began, a man had to be very sure he wanted to marry the girl. There was no dating for fun back in the Edwardian era. After a couple of excursions out (with a chaperone) and calling on the girl at home, the chap was free to declare his feelings to the girl, although he had probably run the idea by her father or guardian first.
Woe betide the woman left on the shelf, no matter the class. Spinsters were regarded with suspicion, and married women were higher up in the social hierarchy, no matter the class or age. A spinster had to fall on the mercy of her family, living the life of a child forever, asking her sister’s husband or her brother for permission to do anything. She had few rights and little say. No wonder the suffrage movement was built largely of spinsters. And of every class!
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A Mad, Wicked Folly, an Edwardian-era novel about a young artist finding her own way during the time of militant suffragettes (Viking/Penguin, Winter 2014). You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.