37 9.1. The Edwardian Era

The Edwardian era or Edwardian period in the United Kingdom is the period covering the reign of King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910.

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 and the succession of her son Edward marked the end of the Victorian era. While Victoria had shunned society, Edward was the leader of a fashionable elite that set a style influenced by the art and fashions of Continental Europe—perhaps because of the King’s fondness for travel. The era was marked by significant shifts in politics as sections of society that had been largely excluded from wielding power in the past, such as common labourers and women, became increasingly politicized.[1]

The Edwardian period is sometimes extended beyond Edward’s death in 1910 to include the years up to the sinking of the RMSTitanic in 1912, the start of World War I in 1914, the end of hostilities with Germany in 1918, or the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Class and society

The Edwardian era was a period during which the British class system was very rigid. Economic and social changes created an environment in which there was more social mobility. Such changes included rising interest in socialism, attention to the plight of the poor and the status of women, including the issue of women’s suffrage, together with increased economic opportunities as a result of rapid industrialisation. These changes were to be hastened in the aftermath of World War I.

Fashion

Main article: 1900s in fashion

The upper classes embraced leisure sports, which resulted in rapid developments in fashion, as more mobile and flexible clothing styles were needed. During the Edwardian era, women wore a very tight corset, or bodice, and dressed in long skirts. The Edwardian era was the last time women wore corsets in everyday life. According to Arthur Marwick, the most striking change of all the developments that occurred during the Great War was the modification in women’s dress, “for, however far politicians were to put the clocks back in other steeples in the years after the war, no one ever put the lost inches back on the hems of women’s skirts”.[2]

The arts

The Edwardian period corresponds to the French Belle Époque period. Despite its brief pre-eminence, the period is characterised by its own unique architectural style, fashion, and lifestyle. Art Nouveau had a particularly strong influence. Artists were influenced by the development of the automobile and electricity, and a greater awareness of human rights.

Literature

In fiction, some of the best-known names are J. M. BarrieArnold BennettG.K. ChestertonJoseph ConradE. M. ForsterJohn Galsworthy,Kenneth GrahameRudyard KiplingEdith NesbitBeatrix PotterSakiGeorge Bernard ShawH. G. Wells, and P. G. Wodehouse. Apart from these famous writers, this was a period when a great number of novels and short stories were being published, and a significant distinction between “highbrow” literature and popular fiction emerged. Among the most famous works of literary criticism was A. C. Bradley‘sShakespearean Tragedy (1904). Mass audience newspapers, controlled by press tycoons such as the Harmsworth brothers, Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe and Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, became increasingly important.[3]

Music

The available recordings of music, such as wax cylinders played on phonographs, were poor in quality by modern standards. Live performances, both amateur and professional, were popular. Henry WoodEdward ElgarGustav HolstArnold BaxGeorge Butterworth,Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Thomas Beecham were all active. Military brass bands often played outside in parks during the summer.[4]

Performing arts

Cinema was primitive and audiences preferred live performances to picture shows. Music hall was very popular and widespread; influential performers included male impersonator Vesta Tilley and comic Little Tich.[5]

The most successful playwright of the era was W. Somerset Maugham. In 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously in London, andPunch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards. Maugham’s plays, like his novels, usually had a conventional plot structure, but the decade also saw the rise of the so-called New Drama, represented in plays by George Bernard ShawHarley Granville Barker, and Continental imports by Henrik Ibsen and Gerhardt Hauptmann. The actor/manager system, as managed by Sir Henry IrvingSir George Alexander, and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was in decline.

Architecture

Notable architects included Edwin LutyensCharles Rennie Mackintosh, and Giles Gilbert Scott. In spite of the popularity of Art Nouveau in Europe, the Edwardian Baroque style of architecture was widely favoured for public structures and was a revival of Christopher Wren–inspired designs of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The change or reversal in taste from the Victorian eclectic styles corresponded with the historical revivals of the period, most prominently earlier Georgian and Neoclassical styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Science and technology

The period featured many innovations. Continental Europeans such as Max Planck and Albert Einstein were producing some of their greatest work. The first Nobel prizes were awarded, and Ernest Rutherford published his book on radioactivity. The first transatlantic wireless signals were sent by Guglielmo Marconi, and the Wright brothers flew for the first time.

By the end of the era, Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel by air, the largest ship in the world, RMS Olympic, had sailed on its maiden voyage, automobiles were common, and the South Pole was reached for the first time by Roald Amundsen‘s and then Robert Falcon Scott‘s teams.

Sport

 
 
1908 Summer Olympics in London: The water jump in the steeplechase

The 1908 Summer Olympic Games were held in London. Popularity of sports tended to conform to class divisions, with tennis and yachting popular among the very wealthy and football (soccer) favoured by the poorest.

Politics and significant events

In the early years of the period, the Second Boer War in South Africa split Britain into anti- and pro-war factions. Great orators, such as theLiberal David Lloyd George, who spoke against the war, became increasingly influential although pro-war politicians, such as UnionistJoseph Chamberlain, held power. The Unionists proposed Tariff Reform (a form of protectionism) to make the British Empire an economic unit; the Liberals claimed this would make food dearer, and, in the general election of 1906, the Liberals won a landslide. The Liberal government was unable to proceed with all of its radical programme without the support of the House of Lords, which was largely Conservative. Conflict between the two Houses of Parliament over Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget eventually resulted in a reduction in the power of the peers in the Parliament Act 1911. The general election in January 1910 returned a “hung parliament” with the balance of power held by Labour and Irish Nationalist members.

Perceptions

The Edwardian period is sometimes imagined as a romantic golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, basking in a sun that never sets on the British Empire. This perception was created in the 1920s and later by those who remembered the Edwardian age with nostalgia, looking back to their childhoods across the abyss of the Great War.[6]The Edwardian age was also seen as a mediocre period of pleasure between the great achievements of the preceding Victorian age and the catastrophe of the following war.[7]Recent assessments emphasise the great differences between the wealthy and the poor during the Edwardian era and describe the age as heralding great changes in political and social life.[1] Robert Tressell’s popular novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a strong example of the era’s social critique.

Despite this, this type of perception has been challenged more recently by modern historians. The British historian Lawrence James has argued that, during the early 20th century, the British felt increasingly threatened by rival powers such as Germany, Russia, and the United States.[8]

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