History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 August 2007

The Edwardian Lady

I’m taking a small break from the Regency era in my writing, and am currently in the process of ‘discovering’ the Edwardian era--a time often called the “Golden Age” or the "Golden Years" in British History. Technically, the reign of Edward VII ran from 1901 to 1910, but generally the years 1901 through 1914 (the year that England declared war on Germany) define the Edwardian period. English author John Betjeman wrote that, "The Edwardian era was the last age in which a rich man could afford to build himself a new and enormous country-house with a formal landscape garden, a lily pond, and clipped hedges." It's an age where the inequalities of rich and poor were most clearly delineated and the conventions of social class were still rigidly defined, perhaps more so than during the Regency era. The rich made grand displays of their wealth and leisure, hosting not weekend house parties at their country houses, but "Saturday to Monday" house parties.

Still, the Edwardian lady enjoyed many freedoms that were denied a Victorian lady, or a Regency miss. But first it's important to point out that, during the Edwardian age, the word 'lady' had a signficant meaning--the word wasn't used casually like we use it today. Instead it identified something more specific: not just the wife of a peer, but a woman of easy circumstances, one who would never accept paid employment, whose fathers, brothers, and husband were all landowners, possibly a member of Parliament or highly placed in the Law, Army or Church. She didn't have to have a title--many ladies were married to Misters, but they were easily identifiable and there were actually very few of them.

Many women who were not 'real ladies' actually had more money--daughters of wealthy merchants or industrialists, fashionable beauties, mistresses who set new fashions. Though they might be tolerated by the 'true ladies,' they would never gain true acceptance.

But what is intersting is that these ladies were liberated in many ways by such simple things as outdoor sports, bloomers, slang, smoking, the bicycle and the motorcar. Ladies could wear "knickerbockers" and ride a bike in the park with a gentleman with no chaperone. Once motorcars caught on, ladies would don long dustcoats or capes, protect their eyes with goggles, wear much smaller hats than the usual fashion with a veil to protect their faces, and go motoring. Many ladies owned their own cars.

Ladies also moved into more active participation in sports such as yachting, tennis and golf (along with cycling). Burberry and Harrod's supplied golf knickers, cycling knickers, cycling skirts, golf collars and cuffs. While these all seem awfully uncomfortable to the modern woman, they were considerably easier to wear than the ordinary fashionable dress of the day.

Cosmetics also came into fashion for the Edwardian lady. Before 1909, when Gordon Selfridge opened his new store in Oxford Street, most cosmetics were 'hidden away' in stores and ladies' salons, where women came in the back doors, heavily veiled, to inspect and purchase the wares. But at Selfridge's, face powders, lip salves, rouge, and eyebrow pencils were placed on open display, and customers were encouraged to browse and experiment. It wasn't long before other stores were following suit, and soon the purchase of cosmetics became routine and no longer hidden.

In these small ways, women were becoming more 'modern' even during a time where a woman still didn't necessarily marry for love but for connections, where it was near impossible to move from the ranks of the working class to that of lady or gentleman of leisure, where rules of courtship still remained. It's an age of elegance and repression for women, while also a time of great liberation.

And, of course, it's a very romanticized age. Anyone have a particular favorite movie or book set during the Edwardian era?

My own particular favorite is the movie SOMEWHERE IN TIME, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve--one of the most romantic movies ever (even if a bit cheesy--that's part of its charm!).


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Kristina. I really love a Room with a View. And I love that time period, just before the first WWI. It was the last romantic time before the loss of innocence during the war, when an entire generation of British men were lost. Thanks to Edward VII, society was a bit more fluid than it had been. George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I could go on. Sigh!

11:50 AM  
Blogger NinaP said...

Hi Kristina! It's Nina from the Regency Weekend. Great post.

I absolutely love SOMEWHERE IN TIME. My dh discovered the movie and rented it for my 35th birthday. I've watched it many times since. You're right, it's a little cheesy. But oh so romantic.

Are you planning an Edwardian romance, perhaps?

1:32 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Hi, Elizabeth and Nina! You hit the nail on the head, Elizabeth--there's something about that time before the Great War--before all those British men were lost--that's very romantic.

And yep, I've got an Edwardian romance in the works! Definitely inspired by Somewhere in Time, even with a 'grand hotel' setting, but in England rather than America.

And ooooh, A Room with a View! I'd forgotten about that one!

1:51 PM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

I've been writing in this period for the past three years and yes it is GREAT!

9:10 PM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

Oh, and Edith Wharton and Henry James are my influences. The House of Mirth and The Golden Bowl are the best.

9:11 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

E.M. Forster is one of my favorite authors--Room With A View and Howard's End are superb (and both made great movies). My own blog is titled "Only Connect" which is a quote from Howard's End.

Is Mary Poppins Edwardian? I'm sure Anne of Green Gables is. . .

10:50 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Edith Wharton and Henry James are perfect reading if you're interested in the Edwardian era. Wings of the Dove was one of my favorite movies. I so didn't hate Helena Bonham Carter in that movie. Also Howard's End, another E.M. Forster, The Good Soldier is another wonderful book. What I love about the Edwardian era is that it's incredibly modern and yet there are still the 19th century trappings, so while you have motor cars, Freud, and suffragettes, you also have lovely country house weekend parties, and the London season.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

I LOVE Howard's End! What a beautiful movie!

11:20 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

As anyone been to Warwick Castle? They have a Royal Weekend House Party exhibit that depicts a weekend in 1898 when Daisy, Countess of Warwick hosted the future Edward VII, who was one of her lovers.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

Wow Elizabeth, that weekend sounds great! Have you ever been to Sandringham?

I have so many places I want to see in England marked in all the books I've ever read on the period it isn't even funny. I'd probably never even get a chance to see them all in a month's time.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Kristina, I loved A Room With a View, and Somewhere in Time...

The era fascinates me. Hope to read more romance written in this period (hint) ;-)

7:31 PM  
Anonymous belinda kroll said...


I loved this post! I have plans in the works to do an Edwardian sequel to the Victorian novel I'm writing, and it's so great that others have an interest in the era as well!

7:32 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What fun, Kristina! I adore SOMEWHERE IN TIME, because Chris Reeve was a personal friend, though because it's set in America, I guess I don't think of it as Edwardian. I do adore the Edwardian era. Fabulous clothes, the dawn of English suffragism ... some of my favorite Edwardian stories are PETER PAN and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. As for movies set during the Edwardian era, not much can beat the adaptation of A ROOM WITH A VIEW.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The Great Race, which is a silly movie with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Natalie Wood, is based on an automobile race from New York to Paris that took place in 1908. I used to love this cartoon with Penelope Pitstop and Snidely Whiplash that was similar because it was kind of Edwardian.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Sorry Snideley was in Dudley-Do Right!

9:14 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Hey, between myself, Belinda, and Camilla, maybe we'll start the new, 'hot' trend--romance goes Edwardian!

Why not?!

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My Fair Lady
Life with Father
Mary Poppins

All these movies showed a cross-cut of social classes...

6:26 PM  

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