After a voracious romance reader had read an advance copy of my debut historical romance, Private Arrangements, she emailed and told me that she loved the book, but being a devotee of the Regency era, she was surprised at how different and modern the turn-of-the-century setting felt. So when Fresh Fiction asked me to guest blog, I immediately thought of a whirlwind introduction to my favorite era for readers who might be unfamiliar with it.
La Belle Époque, aka fin de siècle, aka the (more loosely defined) Edwardian era, refers to a time period that comprises the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first fourteen years of the twentieth century, until the outbreak of World War I.
Victoria still reigned in the 1890s, the decade in which both of my first two books are set. But oh what a different world she lived in from when she’d first ascended the throne.
Early in the nineteenth century, travel was still slow and laborious. But by the end of the century, you could cross the Atlantic in less than a week. And then, make the trip from London to Edinburgh in eight-and-half hours on the Scotch Special Express (later renamed the Flying Scotsman). The telegraph, the Victorian internet, brought news from far ends of the globe to the average man in his next day’s newspaper. The telephone was already in use in wealthier homes, as well as electricity—though with its cheap and abundant coal and still relatively cheap and abundant supply of indoor servants, Britain would not adopt central heating for many years to come.
Globalization, a word that seems synonymous with our era, was but an acceleration of the bustling international trade that was part and parcel of life at the end of the nineteenth century. Tea, sugar, and spices had always been imported. But with the increasing urbanization of Britain, the cities needed more food than could be supplied by the surrounding countryside, and so grains were imported from South America and meat from New Zealand. Raw materials, from cotton to copper to guano, sailed into Liverpool, Southampton, and the Port of London. And finished goods from industrial Britain sailed out in the cargo holds of her merchant fleets.
It was an era of rapid scientific and technological advancement. Vaccines for human use were manufactured. Karl Benz (sounds familiar?) had produced the first commercial automobile. Engineers and aviators had been experimenting with self-powered aircrafts since 1890 (the Wright Brothers made their flight in 1903). And in Private Arrangements, set in 1893, a minor character, who is an astronomer, had a paper of his mentioned, a paper that dealt with the capture of comets by Jupiter—a subject lifted right out of an actual paper published around that time.
In art, salon art reigned supreme, with William-Adolphe Bouguereau being the most admired artist of his day; but under the radar, the Impressionists were working hard. In literature, Dickens was long dead and Oscar Wilde, until he was sent to prison for homosexuality, was the most successful dramatist and one of the greatest literary celebrities. In the upper echelon, the fun-loving, amorous Prince of Wales set the pace, the aristocracy having long tired of his mother’s rather staid and stuffy society.
Women’s lives were becoming less restricted. The Suffragist Movement was in full swing. There were several residential colleges for women in England. Women, even married women, could now work outside the home and still remain respectable. The first woman doctor began practicing in Britain in 1865. The first English woman lawyer would not practice until after WWI, but elsewhere in the British Empire, the first woman lawyer was admitted to the bar in 1897 in Canada (the first American woman lawyer was admitted to the bar in 1892).
There are many things that I love about writing in this period. First, no need to invent heroes and heroines who bathed at abnormal frequencies—given the advances in home comfort and medical understanding, personal hygiene was rigorously practiced at the turn of the century, at least from the middle class on up.
Two, the dynamic life and increasing independence of women. I can write about an heiress who has set a goal for herself to become a duchess, and I do. But my heiress also runs her own large and complex enterprise, because after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, her legal identity was no longer subordinated to her husband’s after the wedding, and what was hers remained hers.
Three, although changes were coming fast and furious, there was still a tremendous formality and rigidity in people’s lives and many, many rules of etiquette. Innocent little things we take for granted today—holding hands in public with a boyfriend, wearing trousers—would have caused an uproar. This gives a wonderful tension for a writer to explore the sexual charge in a look, a word, a hand held a fraction of a second too long.
But don’t take my word for it. Experience the late Victorian/Edwardian era in romance for yourself. The following are my recommendations: