Table of Contents
I. On the Character of the Edwardian Age
II. On J. B. Priestley: The Excesses of Edwardian High Society
III. On Paul Thompson: Sidney Ford (lower middle class, London)
IV. On Vita Sackville-West: Parties and Meals: A Helpful Routine
I. On the Character of the Edwardian Age
Used Texts: A.J.P. Taylor: Prologue: The Year 1906
Donald Read: Introduction: Crisis Age or Golden Age
Bernard Porter: The Edwardians and Their Empire
At first glance it seems ridiculous speaking of an ‘age’ when the period that has to be given a name did not last any longer than ten years. However those ten years which all of the three authors write about, truly deserve this attribute although it appears as rather “dull” compared to the period before, namely the reign of Victoria (Porter, p. 128), a hectic and heroic age when battles were fought and won and frontiers were pushed forward. The term Edwardian Age does not only stand for the reign of Edward, but also for a very special place in British history which marks the changeover from the old to the modern British society. It is associated with a huge number of political and social developments. The question all of the three texts try to answer is whether the Edwardian Age should be regarded as a golden age or as an age of crisis, which has obviously been discussed since the era itself. In fact, there are reasons to define the Edwardian Age with both of these terms. On the one hand the society could be described as wealthy and powerful, while on the other it also showed certain aspects of decay as well. It seems – according to Read – that “some sort of golden age of stability, prosperity and comfort” ended in 1914 although the “golden age retrospect was encouraged by the prevalence of depression and uncertainty in the post-war world” (Read, p. 27). The Edwardian Age can be seen as the final decade of a United Kingdom ruling the waves and its colonised world, being “the largest empire in terms both of territory and population” (Porter, p. 129), and having a traditionally fixed social order.
One of the most striking characteristics of society during the Edwardian Age is the understanding of “personal freedom” (Read, p. 35), including religious freedom which had already been unquestioned for a long time. “The Edwardians’ casual, almost unknowing acceptance of their personal freedoms” can maybe interpreted as “a symptom of innocence” (Read, p. 36). The whole period is characterized by an excessive lifestyle of the high society, to which “wealth had become a virtue” (Taylor, p. 2). This again seems to have been inspired by the personality of the new King Edward who embodied a contrast to his antecessor Victoria. The upper classes considered themselves as a superior “imperial race” (Porter, p. 133) which can live in exuberance without any need to care a lot about the future. Read quotes Priestley when saying that “although the Edwardians could be quarrelsome, yet they could also maintain an atmosphere of ‘hopeful debate’ which was to be for ever shattered by the impact of war” (Read, p. 36).
In spite of the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the resulting prevailing mood which was almost apocalyptic, the governmental change evoked an optimistic, euphoric, and enthusiastic atmosphere “for no particular reason” (Taylor, p. 1). Apparently this only had psychological causes but “nothing to do with reality” (Taylor, p. 1), since the whole British Empire was - figuratively speaking – clouded by crises and approached its end. The Boer War was indeed won in May 1902, but because of its course and a hard struggle, it was nothing to be really proud of. All in all, it was a time of decline, depression and decadence: The wages started to drop (13 per cent fall in 7 years), “poverty, deprivation, unemployment and under-employment were still widespread” (Read, p. 16), there was a civil war in Ireland and beside America and Russia there was the new German threat which replaced the French enemy, to some extent. Moreover, the established peerage system was increasingly criticised as a violation of the constitution. This combined with other movements, such as the fight for women’s rights (e.g. the right to vote) had a strong impact on the entire society.
In conclusion, the description of the Edwardian Age as a golden age only fits if the crises concerning political, domestic, social and foreign issues are ignored. And this is exactly what the Edwardians – or at least the former high society – seemingly have done. At that time the British had achieved the highest living standard, wealth, and power ever which is usually where decay begins. They ignored everything which indicated that things will turn for the worse and afterwards they were longing back to this period, fondly calling it a golden age. Taking the actual developments and crises into consideration, it was not.
II. The Excesses of Edwardian High Society: Food, fashion and the feminine beauty ideal
Used Text: J. B. Priestley: The Edwardians (main focus: Part 1 1901-1905, Chapter 6: High Society)
In his chapter about the Edwardian High Society the contemporary witness J. B. Priestley provides an exclusive and authentic insight into his experiences with the high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. To him, it was the high society which created and inspired the latter image of the Edwardian Age as a lost golden period. As a soldier he often had to take “ridiculous […] reprimands from various specimens of the English ruling class, and listened to accents so extraordinary that they might as well have been foreigners” (Priestley, p. 56), which already represents the decadent attitude and lifestyle of the rich and prosperous. They had compensated their lack of “ordinary duties and responsibilities” by taking food, fashion, nightlife, weekend excursions and similar hobbies as “ferocious taskmasters” to avoid boredom (Priestley, p. 57). Priestley’s remarks on the high society give the impression that the upper classes interpreted their lifetime as leisure time and spent all of it for pleasure. Thus, they were also always in search of new ways to find pleasure. However this assumed attractive way of living obviously was not really something to strive for, since the first excitement a party-life has to offer mostly turned into the nightmare of boredom, which is ironic enough. Pleasure was simply nothing special anymore, nothing to look forward to.
The main intention the high society followed with each of their activities was obviously to distinguish themselves from classes they considered to be inferior, which is best shown by the absurdly low wages they paid for their servants. With each step they did, the high society wanted to express their superiority and wealth. This often led to a way of living which is in fact to be called excessive. Nevertheless everyone’s idol was King Edward who preached social discipline, which is why this still played a major role. As a consequence “appearances” had to be “kept up” and problems, intrigues, dis-likes etc. had to be kept secret “behind locked doors” (Priestley, p. 58).
- Quote paper
- Karsten Keuchler (Author), 2006, The Edwardians and Their Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/160991