As mentioned in part 1, I have resigned myself to having low expectations about Victoria and the next two episodes didn’t disappoint. Having ditched the idea of a regency, attention has now shifted to the question of who the Queen should marry. Her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings), King of the Belgians arrives to foist his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Tom Hughes) on her while her other uncle (the Duke of Cumberland) believes that she should marry Prince George of Cambridge (Nicholas Agnew). Of course there is a lot at stake here as everyone knows that a marriage to a foreign prince will be unpopular but the union between the British queen and a British prince would be well received by the public.
Queen Victoria declares that she has “no intention of marrying” and Daisy Goodwin, again echoing Julian Fellowes, can’t resist beating the viewers over the head. It seems that every five minutes there’s always someone mentioning marriage along the lines of “a husband and children will steady her” or variations thereof. As if the constant refrain of marriage needed to be made any clearer, there were obvious and constant references to Elizabeth I with Victoria even costumed as the Virgin Queen during a ball held in honour of her uncle Leopold.
Once Prince George has removed himself from contention, King Leopold launches Operation Albert with the same dedication and cunning as Wile E Coyote attempting to catch the Road Runner: and unsurprisingly Victoria digs her heels in which doesn’t surprise. Having spent years under the control of her mother and Conroy, she resents other people telling her what she can and can’t do. There’s also another reason for her reluctance and it’s to do with Lord Melbourne and this is where my boo-boo radar started to overheat due to its glaring historical anachronism given that the real Victoria and Melbourne’s relationship was more of a father-daughter or teacher and student.
As we move on to episode four, the series veers into romance novel territory where the Victoria and Albert scenes fall into the standard predictable fare that we see not only with romance novels but even with chick lit and romantic comedies. Man meets woman, they take an instant dislike to each other, they dance at a ball and realise that they are falling for each other followed by a scene running and laughing along a forest with a little obstacle in the form of a little tiff and finally when she proposes marriage, he accepts. So far so good, all boxes ticked.
Generally I have no problems with the characterisation with Prince Albert here. He’s depicted as someone who could be stiff and awkward in contrast to his older brother Ernst (David Oakes) who is charming and not at all shy. The Albert we see here is someone who is artistic, cultured, strongly interested in the potential of new technology and new ways of doing things. Crucially and in contrast to Lord Melbourne, he has a strong social conscience and is concerned about the conditions of the poor.
Having reached halfway through this drama, it’s clear that the downstairs side of the narrative is the weakest and yet again Goodwin seems to plunder Downton Abbey for storylines. There’s Mrs Jenkins’s nephew who is involved in the Chartist movement and would have been hanged if it not for some timely intervention. There’s also Miss Skerrett’s private life which is veering more and more into soap opera territory when the real Marianne Skerrett was one of the few servants who was with Victoria from the very beginning until her death in 1887. She came from a family who had been in royal service since the days of King George III and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser and lady’s maid but was also in charge of the more junior dressers and was responsible for liaising between the Queen and tradespeople, suppliers, artists and engravers. In short, she was a highly valued and trusted servant whose role went beyond that of a lady’s maid.
And lastly there’s Albert and Ernst’s valet who constantly complains to Lehzen in German about British food and the way things are done at Buckingham Palace until he is finally put in his place by Mr Penge who answers back at him in his mother tongue. Yet again one wonders why all this padding is needed when there’s more than enough to fill out the main narrative.
My two main issues with these two episodes was first the absence of Baron Stockmar which to me is a major omission. He was Ernst and Albert’s tutor and together with King Leopold was the architect in bringing together Victoria and Albert. He stayed on as adviser to the royal couple and was instrumental in helping Prince Albert develop his ideas about kingship and the role of the royal family in a changing society. The second one is with regards to Victoria and Lord Melbourne which read straight from the Fellowes book of How to Write a Historical Drama. Of course a lot of people are now going to think she wanted to marry Melbourne and proposed to him, when in reality she was quite keen on the idea of Albert especially after meeting him again where she confided in her diary that he was “beautiful”.
Perhaps the only good scene was in episode 3 when after Victoria berates her uncle Leopold for his meddling, she coolly reminds him that whilst that she’s from a long line of monarchs stretching back to a thousand years, he’s king of a country that is barely a decade old. He retorts that while that as much is true, the political and social realities of the present means that not even the British Crown is secure and one false move could render it vulnerable. Leopold should know with his adopted country being forged out of the Revolution of 1830 which saw one king deposed (Charles X of France) and others forced into making concessions with their subjects to keep their thrones.
With the threat of revolution hanging in the air and Britain in late 1830s being on the cusp of social change, it baffles me why the need for the narrative to be “spiced up” with unnecessary bits and pieces. It’s like a stew where the cook can’t resist adding more and more ingredients to the point where it becomes unrecognisable. And this I believe is Victoria’s main weakness. Goodwin seems to have absorbed the Fellowes philosophy that the viewer is too stupid to appreciate real history and wants the narrative in ninety second bursts rather than something sustained yet entertaining without detracting from the main narrative.
The reign of King George V was marked by a world war and tumultuous change, not least in women’s fashions – hemlines went up, many women began to cut their hair short and corsets were gradually being abandoned for brassieres, reflecting the greater freedoms and opportunities women gained after the First World War. Greater disposable income, the expansion of the retail sector and the motion picture industry fuelled a boom in the demand for fashion, accessories and cosmetics on a greater scale than before 1914.
However the King’s wife, Queen Mary remained immune from these changes sweeping fashion. She remained resolutely wedded to the styles of the pre-World War 1 era which to today’s eyes could be seen as a disregard for and lack of interest in fashion. The reality was far more nuanced than that. Born Princess May of Teck, the only daughter of a minor German princeling Franz Duke of Teck and his wife Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, she grew up in genteel poverty moving from one house to another with her family, even spent a few years abroad to escape their creditors and economise on their standard of living. With her lack of money and her less than royal antecedents (her paternal grandmother was a Hungarian countess who married a younger son of the King of Wurttemberg), Princess May would have most likely seen out the rest of her life as a spinster were it not for Queen Victoria seeing that she would make a perfect bride for her grandson Albert Victor Duke of Clarence. After a short courtship, he duly proposed and she accepted, but not long after he died of influenza and it was then decided that she should marry his younger brother George Duke of York. Their wedding in 1893 was well documented in the papers and magazines that pored over her wedding gown, trousseau and her wedding presents in great detail. Her wedding gown and trousseau was covered extensively and reflected Princess May’s taste and style. The Lady’s Pictorial commented, somewhat truthfully yet disingenuously by claiming that “Princess May, cannot be called a dressy woman and has no extravagant taste in dress, preferring always to look neat, lady-like and elegant, to keeping in the forefront of fashion.”
Photographs of the new Duchess of York showed otherwise depicting her in the styles of the 1890s – all high necklines, leg of mutton sleeves, tight bodices and gored skirts. As the 1890s gave way to the new century, her look also changed with the new Edwardian age but once she became Queen, the dabbling with fashion seems to have ground to a halt. This became even more acute with the beginning of the 1920s as hemlines went up and cuts became looser, but Queen Mary stuck to her look at the King’s instigation despite her attempts to move with the times as recounted by her lady-in-waiting, Mabell Countess of Airlie:
Her style of dressing was dictated by his conservative prejudices; she was much more interested in fashion than most people imagined, and sometimes I think longed in secret to get away from the hats and dresses which were always associated with her.
Having gifted with perfect legs, she once tentatively suggested to me in the nineteen-twenties that we might both shorten our skirts by a modest two or three inches but we lacked the courage to do it until eventually I volunteered to be the guinea pig. I appeared at Windsor one day in a slightly shorter dress than usual, the plan being that if His Majesty made no unfavourable comment the Queen would follow my example.
The next morning she had to report failure. The King on being asked whether he had liked Lady Airlie’s new dress had replied decisively, ‘No I didn’t. It was too short.’ So I had my hem let down with all speed and the Queen remained faithful to her long skirts. (pp. 128-9)
King George V had none of his parents’ taste for fashionable clothing and being very conservative had a deep-seated loathing for change. James Pope-Hennessy in his authorised biography of Queen Mary detected that the King wanted things to be exactly as they were from his childhood and youth – so the “May” he proposed to should remain forever that “May” and so she deferred to her husband’s wishes. Even after his death in 1936, she remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that had long gone out of fashion.
This became Queen Mary’s signature look. By day, she favoured tailored ensembles in dusky pastel colours accessorised with crown like toques (her experimentation with wide brimmed hats was also vetoed by George V), low heeled shoes and an umbrella clasped firmly in her hand. At night and especially for state and official occasions, she wore heavily beaded gowns in the same colours as her day wear and finished off with copious amounts of jewels. Observers noted that “because of her long, graceful neck, her height, her bearing and her instinctive flair for elegance, had always been able to display an extraordinary quantity of jewels on her person.” Upon her husband’s accession in 1910, her jewellery collection was bolstered by those pieces that Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra designated as crown property and to be worn by a female sovereign or consort.
Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary had steadfastly always bought British. As Queen, her clothes were mostly made by Reville Ltd who was responsible for her coronation gown in 1911 and was appointed court dressmaker in 1910 and Madame Elizabeth Handley Seymour. Over the years both Reville and Handley Seymour would turn out variations of this signature look that led society diarist “Chips” Channon to describe her on different occasions as “regally majestic”, “looking like the Jungfrau, white and sparkling in the sun” and formidable in appearance “like talking to St Paul’s Cathedral”.
In retrospect, Queen Mary’s unique style was also reflected by the fact that by the twentieth century and especially after the First World War, royalty ceased to be the arbiter of fashion or set trends. However this removal of royalty from the sphere of high fashion had a resulted in a potent symbolism that curiously perhaps was a factor to the survival of the monarchy, as Colin McDowell wrote:
As a result Queen Mary developed a remarkably stable and stylised form of dress which far from seeming eccentric, became the very embodiment of regality. Such sartorial reliability may have even helped the royal family survive the uncertainties of the abdication crisis. As long as the old Queen was around, looking as she always had, the people felt that the monarchy was secure. (p. 14-5)
Her signature look also allowed her to stand out from the crowd and as Norman Hartnell noted “looked well from a distance”, a winning formula that would be adapted by her successor, Queen Elizabeth and to this day remains the standard template for modern royal dressing.
Queen Elizabeth (1936-1939)
Succeeding to the throne in the wake of his brother King Edward VIII’s abdication, King George VI was far from a promising monarch – shy, stammering, not very intelligent and with a heavy smoking and drinking problem. However he had something in his arsenal that would make up for his shortcomings as king: a charming wife and two personable young daughters. While the bachelor Edward VIII gave up his throne for “the woman I love” here was the married George VI with a family that could help restore faith in the monarchy and royal family to a country shaken by the abdication crisis.
“Us four”, as the king called his immediate family were the perfect model for stability and reassurance in a country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and the fretting over the gathering storm of the possibility of another war. And fashion again would be one tool to transmit the new king and queen’s message of stability to their subjects.
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the then Duke of York in 1923, she was the first female commoner to marry into the British royal family since Sarah Fairbrother married the Duke of Cambridge in 1847. In the wake of anti-German feeling during the First World War, King George V had changed the family surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor and after the war broadened the pool in which royal princes could find suitable brides. Instead of being restricted to princesses from other countries (they had to be Protestant), brides could now be chosen from the ranks of the British aristocracy.
The new Duchess of York proved to be a popular addition to the royal family. Charming, adept at making people feel at ease and a good listener and communicator; she was dubbed the “Smiling Duchess” by the papers. Although she was not the typical flapper, her clothes as Duchess were very much of the 1920s – loose, low waisted dresses, cloche hats and fur trimmed coats, ropes of pearls and shoes with their mid heels and ankle straps. She could be described as “moderately fashionable” if dowdy – unsurprisingly as majority of her clothes were made by Madame Handley Seymour.
Her image underwent a transformation when her husband unexpectedly succeeded to the throne. Conscious of the need to distance themselves from the short reign of King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth “conveyed notions of tradition, femininity and family mindedness” in contrast to the new Duchess of Windsor who was American and childless. However, Queen Elizabeth realised that she could never compete with the Duchess of Windsor (or even the Duchess of Kent) in terms of high fashion and chic and it’s highly doubtful that she even wanted to.
As Colin McDowell observed, Queen Elizabeth even as Duchess of York preferred softness and this is evident from the very beginning when Handley Seymour designed her wedding dress. Although described by the Times “as the simplest ever made for a royal wedding”, one can see from the Medieval inspired dress clues to Elizabeth’s style as she settled into royal life – the use of silk and chiffon and the beading which was used to greater effect when she became Queen Consort. She had never been attracted to tailoring; preferring fluid shapes, drapes and fluttering panels trimmed with fur and feathers which was flattering to her figure which had become matronly by the time her husband came to the throne. Through these “elements she created a larger than life appearance, as if she were on a stage giving a performance.”
Her transformation was overseen in part by King George VI who was very interested in clothes and fashion and had something of the designer in him. He had designed his daughters’ dresses and coronets for his coronation and took a great interest in his wife’s look, determined that she should dress in a manner befitting her new status and in Ingrid Seward’s words “the role he envisioned for her.”
In 1935, the then Duchess of York was introduced to a new designer Norman Hartnell who was making the wedding dress of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, the fiancée of her brother in law, the Duke of Gloucester and her bridal party which included Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of York. His designs made an impression on the Duchess and upon becoming Queen, although Handley Seymour was still her chief designer she began to order a few clothes from this young designer who had his shop in Bruton Street.
In 1938, Hartnell was given the commission to design the Queen’s entire wardrobe for the state visit to France. This would be the first overseas trip for the royal couple and a politically sensitive one at that given the looming possibility of another war. For Hartnell as well, this would be a challenge – how could he dress the Queen in a way that would impress a country whose fashion industry led the way and dictated trends across the globe?
Again King George VI stepped in and gave Hartnell several ideas by taking him on a personal tour of the state apartments at Buckingham Palace particularly in the picture galleries. Hartnell was shown portraits of Empresses Eugenie of France and Elizabeth of Austria by Franz Xavier Winterhalter and suggested that perhaps they could serve as an inspiration for the gowns for the state visit. Although the visit was only for four days, thirty dresses were needed for the full programme of events from morning until night but just as the clothes were nearly ready, the Court went into mourning for the Queen’s mother the Countess of Strathmore. The visit would be postponed for a month but this gave Hartnell time to rework the clothes. As Hartnell recalled asking Queen Elizabeth, “Is not white a royal prerogative for mourning?” referring to the custom of Medieval and Renaissance queens wearing white for court mourning.
This resulted into the famous “White Wardrobe” which would set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look as queen consort and beyond. As mentioned earlier, Handley Seymour had taken Elizabeth’s love of soft and flowing fabrics as well as inspiration from paintings to create the clothes she wore as Duchess of York and her early years as Queen. However, it was Hartnell who took this one step further to help facilitate the final transformation from royal duchess to queen. The Winterhalter paintings served as the muse for the Queen Elizabeth’s evening look – grand embroidered crinolines that would serve as a backdrop for the magnificent jewels, orders and decorations that she would wear.
It was a resounding success and demonstrated that not only could a British queen charm a normally ambivalent French public but that a British designer could hold his own against the Parisian couturiers who dominated and dictated to the fashion industry.
Since Queen Elizabeth’s figure has become more matronly, Hartnell came up with an “uncluttered silhouette” to make her look taller and slimmer “with coordinating hats, gloves, bags and shoes. Her coats were usually designed without buttons or visible fastenings to be worn over fitted dresses, sometimes with embroidery or detailed work in the fabric.” Hats were also created in mind to ensure that her face was visible to the crowds and dresses and coats were also designed with unrestricted movement of arms in mind.
Hartnell also created what he would term “diplomatic dressing”. The following year, he and Handley Seymour were commissioned to create Queen Elizabeth’s dresses and gowns for the state visit to Canada and the United States where she and King George VI were the first reigning monarch and consort to cross the Atlantic and visit North America. In his memoir Silver and Gold, Hartnell recalled the considerations he had to bear in mind for the 1939 state visit:
This time I was not controlled in design by white monotone, but there were other problems including what may be called ‘dress diplomacy’. This is, of course, a development that has come with the rapid communications of our modern world, including the transfer of photographs by air and radio. The psychology of a vast public that may not always see the Queen in person has to be taken into account.
For instance, should Her Majesty wear a magnificent dress of white satin and turquoise in Ottawa, she would not appear, even for an exactly similar occasion, in that same outfit in Montreal. The people of Montreal would expect a new and different dress and might consider it a slight if the Queen wore the Ottawa dress which they would have seen in their morning newspapers. So the task for the designer of a wardrobe for a State Visit is indeed a responsible one.
For the prolonged tour I was most considerately given, from Buckingham Palace, a complete and detailed itinerary. For each day there would be six or seven occasions demanding a change in costume.
In one instance a suitable dress was needed for the Queen, while travelling by train, to awake and dress into a four o’clock in the morning when the Royal train paused at some railway station. Her Majesty was expected, with the King, to meet and greet the loyal people ranged alongside the platform. Should this be a grand dress as worn at midnight, or a little dress for breakfast? A compromise was found. It was kind of ‘hostess dress’, as they are known in the United States, a long flowing negligee dress in nectarine velvet touch with a narrow band of sable. Dresses had also to be suitable to every extreme of climate, from the sultry streets of New York in a heat wave, through the damp heat of a garden part at the White House, right up to the icy heights of the Rocky Mountains. (pp. 99-100)
Again the clothes were a success and Hartnell’s formula is one that not only has set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look but also that of the present Queen and female members of the royal family. As demonstrated by the four royal women featured in this blog, royal dressing is more than fashion and style – it is also a tool of communication and more often than not would have more impact than a speech.
Norman Hartnell. Silver and Gold (London, 1955)
Michael Pick. Be Dazzled! Norman Hartnell: Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion (London, 2007)
Henry Channon and Robert Rhodes James (ed.) Chips: The Diary of Sir Henry Channon (London, 1967)
Anne Edwards. Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor (London, 1984)
James Pope-Hennessy. Queen Mary 1867-1953 (London, 1959)
Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)
Jane Roberts and Sabrina McKenzie. Five Gold Rings: A Royal Wedding Souvenir Album (London, 2007)
Ingrid Seward. The Last Great Edwardian Lady: The Life and Style of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (London, 1999)
William Shawcross. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The authorised biography (London, 2009)
Deidre Murphy and Cassie Davies-Strodder. Modern Royal Fashion: Seven royal women and their style (London, 2015)
Colin McDowell. A Hundred Years of Royal Style (London, 1985)
Caroline de Guitatut. Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration (London, 2012)
Hugh Roberts. The Queen’s Diamonds (London, 2012)
Cecil Beaton with foreword by Hugo Vickers. The Glass of Fashion (London, 2014)
The present day obsession with dissecting what members of the British royal family wear is not new. Whilst today there is social media, forums and blogs that are devoted to the clothes worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, the Countess of Wessex and even the Queen herself, interest in the fashions worn by royalty has been around since before the age of the internet and mass media. During the 1950s, Princess Margaret could command enormous press attention for her clothes which as one newspaper breathlessly proclaimed that “what she wears is news”.
Although royalty is not expected to be fashionable, the clothes that they wear are highly important. They should be visible enough to the greatest number of people as possible and allow them to stand out from among the crowds. Their clothes should take into account the occasion, the climate and who their audience will be. Accessories are also very important – hats should not obscure the face; bags and sleeves should not get in the way of shaking hands and shoes should be taken into account for the hours of standing and walking. Colours are equally or more so, very crucial as they can send out messages that can have more impact than words.
Currently, the Royal Collection Trust is presenting an exhibition of the clothes of Queen Elizabeth II spread across three royal residences to celebrate her 90th birthday. In this blog, we shall be looking at the sartorial choices of her predecessors and how they have made their own mark though their choices in clothing and style.
Queen Victoria (1870-1901)
By the 1870s, Queen Victoria’s image as a grieving widow was one that the public had been accustomed to. It was also during this decade that she was beginning to emerge from her seclusion and her look was reflecting the prevailing mourning custom then of the transition from deepest or first mourning towards the second stage – crape by this point was less used and she began to wear dresses in black silk.
Although she would time and again return to crape for the deaths of other family members and relations, it was by this point that our enduring image of Queen Victoria began to take shape. Photographs, prints and portraits of her depicted her as a stout woman in a black silk dress or black with touches of white, with her white widow’s cap atop her head and simple jewellery in pearls and diamonds apart from jet.
Even for state occasions such as the state opening of Parliament, Queen Victoria refused to don the state crown and robe of state. Instead she continued to wear her widow’s cap and a simple dress in black and white but as a concession to the formality of the occasion would wear a small diamond crown (made for her by Garrard’s in 1870 and now on display at the Tower of London) which was lighter, fitted well atop her widow’s cap and provided both a compromise for the need of something suitably grand for a state occasion and appropriate for mourning. The sash and star of the Order of the Garter was her only concession to colour.
The same was true with her official photographs and portraits where again she would be depicted in a black silk dress trimmed with white lace, the small diamond crown atop her widow’s cap, the sash and star of the Order of the Garter across her chest and wearing pearl and diamond jewellery. An official portrait of the Queen by Heinrich von Angeli completed in 1875 depicted her wearing a double strand pearl necklace, pearl earrings, small pearl brooch and a pearl bracelet with a miniature portrait of Prince Albert. As pearls were appropriate for mourning, the symbolism of the jewels she was wearing for this portrait was not lost on the public as pearls symbolised “tears” and spoke of her continuing sadness over the loss of her beloved husband.
From the 1880s onwards, Queen Victoria’s dresses were more aligned with the third stage of mourning where ribbons and trimmings in fabrics other than crape were used. Some of her dresses and gowns were trimmed with black beads or embroidered as well as bordered with fine lace. The black of her dresses provided a splendid backdrop for her pearls and diamonds and were suitably grand, presenting a combination of majesty and homely simplicity.
Queen Victoria’s look from the 1870s until her death in 1901 has been described by both Charlotte Gere and Kay Stanilad as “unchanging”. Her clothes could be impressive but overall, her appearance could be described as “frumpy” and could also look older than her years, as Stanilad herself observed, “[s]he had always preferred her clothing to be comfortable, and now, lacking the discipline imposed by wearing fashionable dresses and the controlling influence of Prince Albert, she gradually eschewed the increasingly rigid corsetry required to create a fashionable outline. Photographs frequently show her diminutive but expanding frame enveloped in shawls and mantles. On occasion, however, they also reveal smart, almost chic, outfits, especially mantles and bonnets.”
Much like her granddaughter in-law the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), Queen Victoria also patronised British dressmakers, stores and fabrics. Her dressmakers included Sarah Ann Unitt, Elizabeth Gieve and Martha Dudley – women who were well-versed with meeting the needs of the more conservative tastes of older women. Stores where she made regular purchases included Morgan & Co, John Redfern, Jay’s, Debenham & Freebody, Marshall & Snelgrove, Liberty’s, Robinson & Cleaver, Romanes & Patterson as well as local shops at Windsor, the Isle of Wight and Aberdeenshire. If the Queen happened to like something, she would order it in multiples which further entrenched her unchanging image.
Towards the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria’s clothes were made with greater practical considerations in mind. Her clothes from this period were fairly distinctive and more or less uniform with variations in trimmings, embroidery and beading. This perhaps stemmed from her dressmaker Mrs Dudley using a master pattern to save time on fittings for which an increasingly infirm and elderly woman might not have much patience. The dresses are made for ease and comfort – requiring minimum to no effort in putting on and taking off while many of the skirts could be raised by use of button and loop to avoid tripping. Bodices were sewn in with pockets to keep a watch attached to a chain, keys and glasses which the Queen began to rely on more as her eyesight began to fade.
When she died in 1901, it marked the end of an era but her image, propagated in various media such as portraits, prints, photographs, stamps, coins and commemorative objects has lived on. As Kay Staniland again noted:
As Queen Victoria’s figure thickened in old age the abiding image of the little old lady in black, ‘the Widow of Windsor’ became powerfully imprinted, so much so that even today, for many people, this is the only picture they carry of her. It is an image which in more recent years has been confirmed by the large quantity of large-waisted black dresses and capacious underwear which survives in public and private possession, the garb of an elderly and rheumatic woman. It certainly exemplifies her last years but distracts from a broader consideration of a long and varied life. (p. 169)
Queen Alexandra (1901-1910)
Queen Alexandra, born Princess Alexandra of Denmark and raised in modest circumstances found herself thrust onto a bigger and grander stage when she married Albert Edward Prince of Wales in 1863. Beautiful and glamorous, the new Princess of Wales was the Princess Diana of her day. From the moment she arrived in Britain, she quickly became popular with the public and following her wedding, the Prince and Princess of Wales became the toast of society, their London home Marlborough House becoming the centre of glittering events: in effect deputising for Queen Victoria who ceased to entertain following the death of Prince Albert. All this was aided and abetted by the new medium of photography and the widespread availability of images of the Princess of Wales meant that her style and clothes could be copied by society ladies and even middle class women.
Considered a tad too slim by contemporary standards, Princess Alexandra however proved to be adept at dressing in a manner befitting her new status, accentuating her best features and disguising any flaws thereby setting trends. She popularised high necklines, “dog collar” necklaces or piling several rows of pearls or diamond necklaces in order to cover a scar on her neck and following a bout with rheumatic fever following the birth of her daughter Louise in 1867 that left her with a limp, some women began to copy this as well by wearing mismatched shoes or purchasing a pair of shoes with unequal heels all while carrying a cane or walking stick.
This spawned a bizarre trend known as the “Alexandra limp” and was criticised by several quarters of the press and public. People tutted about how ugly it looked and the papers were quite scathing, noting how this trend was part of a long line of “remarkably foolish things have been done in imitation of royalty” as well as cruel for its “caricaturing of human infirmity”. As many other fashion trends, this proved to be a flash in the pan.
Princess Alexandra also learned early on that clothes and fashion could be harnessed to send a message. For instance in 1874, her sister the Tsarevna Maria Feodorovna (nee Princess Dagmar) and her husband the Tsarevich Alexander (the future Tsar Alexander III) of Russia made an official visit to Britain. The tsarevna was also a beauty and seen as a fashion icon in her adopted country. The two sisters made public appearances wearing identical clothes which many historians noted was making an underlying political point, that perhaps Britain and Russia did have something in common that could be the basis of a future alliance or understanding between the two countries. This was considered risky with the prevalent mutual antipathy between Britain and Russia especially with regard to the Ottoman Empire and over the border between the Russian empire and India but the public lapped it up: especially as the clothes emphasised their physical resemblance and striking looks.
Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Victoria and other members of the British royal family, Alexandra did not see the need to wear exclusively British designs. Her style and taste remained resolutely continental and she relied on Parisian designers such as Doeuillet, Maison Laferrier, Madame Duboc and Worth for many of her clothes. However she did patronise several British companies especially for her daytime clothes. Despite the fact that Paris was the capital of high fashion, London (and the UK in general) did lead the way for smart tailored wear and the likes of Redfern & Sons, Gent and Son (Birmingham), Durrant of Edinburgh, Albert Phillips and John Morgan and Son all had Princess Alexandra as one of their regular customers.
The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 set the stage for a new era and paved the way for a much more visible monarch. Even as Prince of Wales, King Edward VII was already acutely aware that as the monarch now lacked real political power, he still had an important role to play in the ceremonial life of the nation. He was of the belief that the more people saw their monarch and other members of the royal family, the better it was for both the family and the nation. Clothes were to play an important part in Edward VII’s view of the importance of public ceremonial and duty.
Having already successfully weathered the storms in her life and marriage partly due to her what Kate Strasdin called her “astute sartorial decisions” and “ability to dress appropriately for any occasion”, as queen Alexandra’s wardrobe became even more magnificent. Signalling a break from the past, the new King and Queen set the tone for the new reign by attending the State Opening of Parliament with the full pomp and splendour that had not been seen since Prince Albert’s death in 1861. While King Edward VII donned the Imperial State Crown and robe of state, Queen Alexandra was resplendent in her black gown, pearl and diamond jewellery with the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown atop her mourning cap. The effect was a mix of elegance and respect.
The State Opening of Parliament was a dress rehearsal for a much more important and solemn event. For the coronation in 1902, the part of the Queen Consort in the ceremony and what she would be wearing was problematic as the last Queen Consort to be crowned was Queen Adelaide in 1831 and hardly anyone who witnessed that event was still alive to recall it. While courtiers scrambled to find records of previous coronations to ascertain what role the new consort would play, Queen Alexandra was seemingly unconcerned with precedent as she told one of the King’s equerries that “I know better than all the milliners and antiquaries. I shall wear exactly what I like and so will all my ladies – basta!”
And wear exactly what she liked it was. Her coronation gown was made in Paris by Morin Blossier, a Parisian dressmaker, from fabric designed by Lady Curzon (vicereine of India) and made in India. Her gown, actually two pieces consisted of a boned bodice and a long skirt, was made up of a cloth of gold and over it a net of Indian embroidery containing the motifs of the British Isles and the Empire. Completing the gown were long hanging sleeves and the standing collar that was trimmed with gold lace. Kate Strasdin has studied Queen Alexandra’s coronation gown, now stored at Kensington Palace’s Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, and has noted that the design of the fabric was based on the queen’s romanticised view of India, a country she never had an opportunity to visit but that was seen as the “jewel” of the British Empire. Through her choice of the fabric to be made in India, this demonstrated how important the country was in Alexandra’s mind and like her husband she understood the importance of how her appearance at the coronation would have an impact on her husband’s subjects at home and abroad. The only part of her coronation ensemble that was British made was her robe of state made by Marshall and Snelgrove but instead of the traditional violet and crimson, it was in petunia purple; while she eschewed the traditional four arches atop her crown in favour of the continental eight half arches.
However there was a limit to how much Queen Alexandra could get away with wearing exactly what she wanted. King Edward VII was a stickler for correct dress especially when it came to official and state occasions and in one instance he took exception to her wearing the sash of the Order of the Garter the wrong way round (the correct way is that its worn over the left shoulder down to the right hip) and asked her to wear it the right way before heading downstairs for an official dinner.
Cecil Beaton in his book The Glass of Fashion observed that Queen Alexandra “probably started the modern tradition that British royalty can wear anything. During her husband King Edward’s reign she would wear spangled or jewelled and bead embroidered coats in the daytime, an innovation which has now become an accepted royal habit. Or she might wear half-length jackets covered with purple or mauve sequins and garnished with a Toby frill collar of tulle. These were clothes which most women would have worn at night, but the fact that she wore them during the day removed her from reality and only helped to increase the aura of distance that one associates with the court.”
And this aura of distance continued into the next reign as royalty took a back seat to fashion. Just as King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra used clothes to foster the idea of a ceremonial monarchy especially against the backdrop of political, economic and social changes, their successors King George V and Queen Mary would use their lack of interest in current fashions to project a wholly different image and a response to greater changes that not even his two predecessors could ever have dreamt of.
Bloggers’ note: Although the early years of Victoria’s reign falls before this blog’s specialisation we have decided to review this programme as we believe that the years before 1870 are crucial to understanding the era she lent her name to and how in some ways they affected the twentieth century, even today.
In my old workplace, I had a colleague who had a collection of humorous workplace maxims on his desk. One of them read: “aim low, reach your goals and avoid disappointment” and this came to my mind when I read in the papers that ITV had commissioned a drama about Queen Victoria’s early years with the script being written by Daisy Goodwin. Given that she is a historical romance writer known for such novels as My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter, I guessed early on that Victoria will dwell more on romance and skirt over the pressing issues that bedeviled the early years of the queen’s reign and which would set in motion the changes that would take place over what turned out to be a long reign.
Two episodes down and I have been proven right. The chryon in the opening episode already gives away that this would be long on drama and short on historical accuracy – “1837: The monarchy is in crisis” and sets the stage for the new queen Victoria who had just turned eighteen only a few weeks’ before, pitted against Sir John Conroy, her mother the Duchess of Kent and her uncle the Duke of Cumberland who for reasons of their own all want a regency. Complicating matters is the presence of Lord Melbourne the Prime Minister who Victoria comes to heavily depend on leading to talk among society and sniggerings about “Mrs Melbourne”. Her determination to break free of her past and hang on to Melbourne at all costs as demonstrated by the Lady Flora Hastings scandal and the Bedchamber crisis were touched on lightly as it became clear that the main drama would be the supposed attraction between the Queen and Lord Melbourne.
Before telecast, the press had been hyping this as the “new Downton Abbey” and seeing the first two episodes, it’s easy to see why. We are treated to the machinations of some of the servants -particularly the steward Mr Penge (Adrian Schiller), the lady’s maid Miss Jenkins (Eve Myles), her deputy Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), Brodie the footman (Tommy Knight) and Francatelli the chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). When Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz) tartly informs Mr Penge that she is now in charge of the household the grumbling between Penge and Jenkins afterwards is reminiscent of Thomas and O’Brien while Skerrett’s mysterious past has parallels with Baxter as do her interactions with Francatelli which has a whiff of Baxter and Molesley about them. The subplots involving the servants are mostly fillers and don’t really add much to the narrative so its baffling why they are included at all unless as a nod to Downton and a belief that viewers want to “identify” with characters and are more likely to do that with downstairs.
The acting is mostly hit and miss, Jenna Coleman does strike a fairly good balance with Victoria’s girlishness yet strong will but she does seem to lack the gravitas say demonstrated by Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria) and especially Annette Crosbie (Edward the Seventh). Peter Firth (Duke of Cumberland) and Paul Rhys (Sir John Conroy) are out and out pantomime villains supported by Catherine Fleming (Duchess of Kent) and Alice Orr-Ewing (Lady Flora Hastings). German actress Daniela Holtz makes a brisk Baroness Lehzen but the best actor so far is Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne. He might be too young to play the ageing Prime Minister and bon vivant but he brings a depth to Melbourne that goes beyond the sappy script. A scene where he recalls his late wife Lady Caroline is one of his best in my opinion and he conveys grief through gestures with no need for words.
The CGI shots of London also looked fairly unconvincing save for the external shots of Buckingham Palace as it existed then with Marble Arch serving its original purpose – as the main entrance to the Palace. It was well done and for me it brought to life how the Palace would have looked just as its’ architect John Nash envisioned it.
Over all the script is very uneven, while there are a few flashes of good dialogue such as an exchange between Melbourne and Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) where the former gives the latter some advice on how to deal with the Queen (a foreshadowing of Gladstone and Disraeli); others were verging on the hammy and straying into cliché territory. Goodwin also can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head – the Duke of Cumberland’s constant mutterings over his father George III’s madness was irritating as is the tug of war between Penge and Lehzen over whether Buckingham Palace should convert to gas lighting.
Historical accuracy has also gone out of the window here for the sake of the drama. I can understand why certain liberties are taken for the sake of the narrative but to say that the monarchy was in crisis in 1837 is an exaggeration. The only “crisis” was that the new queen was 18 and totally inexperienced; everyone was looking forward to getting shot of the gouty dissolute old men who had preceded her. Her youth was seen as a breath of fresh air and she was generally preferable to her unpopular surviving uncles. The early years of Victoria’s reign is ripe for exploration of the political, social and economic conditions during that period and yet that was barely touched on. Another niggle that I have is why Lord Melbourne was not wearing court uniform especially in the scenes where it would have been necessary to wear it – during the Coronation and Queen Victoria’s first Privy Council. It’s a little detail but the court uniform would have helped establish Lord Melbourne’s character and his position.
I’d like to think that somewhere in this programme is a decent drama and one that can help viewers learn and appreciate more about a pivotal period in British history but I get the feeling that Daisy Goodwin is not exactly the writer who will do that. As for what will follow next, who knows but in the meantime, I will stick to that maxim of aiming low to avoid disappointment.
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and the real Lord Melbourne by John Partridge at the National Portrait Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)
A detail of Queen Victoria’s First Council at Kensington Palace by Sir David Wilkie showing Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne, currently on display at the Queen’s Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)
In a few days’ time, the world will descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. It is acknowledged that the modern games have their roots in Ancient Greece, most notably the games at Olympia and Nazi Germany where parts of the opening ceremony such as showcasing the host nation’s history and culture as well as the journey and lighting of the Olympic flame were introduced.
What have been overlooked or forgotten are the British roots of the modern Olympic Games, something that London was keen to emphasise when it hosted the Olympics four years ago. When the Olympic and Paralympic mascots were unveiled to the press by Lord Coe, much was made about their names Wenlock and Mandeville. Both mascots were named after places from where the Olympic and Paralympic movements traced their origins. In particular, Wenlock was named for the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire where since 1850, the Wenlock Olympian Society have been organising the Wenlock Olympian Games. In 1890, the games were attended by a French educator and aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin and what he saw that day in Much Wenlock would play a part in his idea for reviving the Olympic Games.
However there is more to the British roots of the modern Olympic Games than the Wenlock Olympian Games. The whole ethos and ideals of the Olympics – the concept of amateurism, the emphasis on taking part rather than winning, the role of sport in character building and the notion of fair play all has its roots in the nineteenth century British education system. While amateurism in its purest form has largely disappeared from the Olympics, the others have remained the bedrock of the games despite all the controversies that recur every four years that the games are held.
Character and Manliness in Victorian Britain
When well-known sports people such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, Andy Murray and Chris Hoy are interviewed they frequently cite the benefits of sport, not only in the physical sense but also in the psychological – sport can instill a sense of team work, sense of accomplishment, discipline and develop character. None of these ideas are new in fact, they have been around for more than a hundred years and the roots of these ideas can be traced in the Victorian education system anchored by middle class values and respectability.
The 19th century Victorian education system was male dominated and geared towards not only providing boys with academic knowledge but crucially and more importantly it was aimed towards developing and moulding their characters. The notion of “character” was pervasive in nineteenth-century British political, social and educational discourse. As Stefan Collini detected, aspects of Victorian political discussions on character can be seen as a way of imposing middle class values on both upper the working classes as well as the impact of diverse influences ranging from religion to literature and even science!
A recurring theme in discussions about character is the concept of manliness which was used by religious personalities, social commentators and educators in what John Tosh described “an extraordinary variety of contexts”. In addition, the concept of manliness was an important aspect of Victorian thoughts on gender that included the rigid designation of the sexes and the ideal qualities associated with both. Manliness was usually synonymous or used interchangeably with “character” and “self-reliance” where it was seen as a way to describe so-called masculine virtues and refer to the way that those virtues governed a man’s relationship with his fellow men and with women as well. The language of warfare was frequently used as metaphor and “success was viewed as a personal achievement, and adversity could only be overcome by calling on personal reserves of character.”
Instilling manliness in middle and upper class males was taken seriously and the transition from boy to man was accomplished by several rituals. First was by the age of six, he was recognised as a male child and began wearing breeches or trousers. The trousers enabled the boy to engage more in outdoor play and sports with other boys. This was also the time where a boy’s home education with a governess or tutor came at an end. By the age of eight, he would also be sent away to public school in the belief that schooling prepared boys for the wider world – not just for a future occupation but also the discipline that would hopefully stand him in good stead throughout his life.
Also being sent away to school meant reinforcing the gender divide between masculine and feminine roles. As it was observed, “manliness was as much to do with separating from the feminine as with affirming the masculine” and this resulted in a further social gap between men and women as well as reinforcing the bias among men that the company of women was generally not stimulating due to their supposed inferior intellect. Public schools were basically all-male environments in which camaraderie, obedience and excellence were instilled in the pupils. As there were virtually no women in schools manliness could be instilled by discouraging any reference to female members of the family as well as family pictures and room décor that might be perceived as “feminine”.
Another aspect of manliness apart from the physical was the revival of the medieval idea of chivalry. Along with the Gothic revival in art, architecture and literature (Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe being a classic example), there was also the interest in how the ideals of chivalry could be adapted and translated to a nineteenth-century audience. It was asserted that the revival of interest in such an idea “helped to make the old chivalry a valuable imaginative resource in the midst of the social and economic dislocations of the industrial revolution- ” – the earnest middle classes appreciated chivalry as a “timeless and classless moral ideal,” although many of the manifestations of chivalry during this period were mostly concerned with producing replicas such as Queen Victoria’s medieval themed ball and homes in the style of medieval castles for the aristocracy. Others were bordering on the ludicrous such as the Egremont Tournament of 1839.
The Evangelicals added a Christian and moral dimension to manliness and chivalry: for them, what was important was the presence of the “inner moral resources of a man which should determine his dealings with the world.” Manliness in the evangelical sense meant channeling one’s energy into work that led to true freedom from dependence. Work was also meant as a means for self-discipline, and thinkers like Thomas Carlyle extolled the virtues of work as another way to avoid falling into the trap of idleness. For evangelicals, manliness and the work ethic went hand in hand. In addition it also referred to the home: the evangelicals sought to disassociate manliness from sexual licence and instead focus on the man as a paterfamilias figure with the ability not just to provide materially for his family and household but to strengthen the bond between his wife and children. Emphasis was also placed on purity – the ardent love of a man for his wife steering him away from sexual temptation. The regime of cold baths and ceaseless physical activity was designed to keep impure thoughts at bay and the evangelical notions of a strong work ethic, fidelity and a close knit family were instruments in the constant battles against temptations of the flesh.
In the case of chivalry, its ideals appealed strongly to the evangelicals as well. There was the appeal of qualities like nobility and virtue that were juxtaposed with so-called Victorian values such as steadfastness and duty. To be a man meant discipline, self-sacrifice and stoicism, the evangelicals anchored the belief that a true Christian man accepts and “acknowledges Christ as [his] captain and master.” Aspects of Christian manliness and chivalry could also be found in the literature of the day. Novels such as Westward Ho! and Tom Brown’s Schooldays promoted the ideal of a true Christian man who “should dedicate his body, mind and will to the service of God.” Consecrating masculinity for the greater glory of God in all endeavours was another major theme of Christian manliness.
Another Victorian ideal that was connected to character and manliness was self-help and one of its most prolific and famous exponents was the author Samuel Smiles whose various publications most notably Self Help (1859) was a bestseller during its time and translated into various languages, remaining in print to this day in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Kenneth Fielden, in his article on Samuel Smiles noted that self-help as a doctrine was vague – the way it was presented was not coherent enough, “it did not appear in the form of abstract, logical argument, but through biographical tales, by parables, stories, aphorisms, proverbs.” Smiles’ books profiled personalities according to categories such as military heroism, achievers in the arts and culture and what is termed as “new heroism” found in scientists, engineers and inventors. Smiles believed that the formula for success rested on traits such as hard work, diligence, self-control, sobriety and cultivation of potential. He disagreed with the idea that innate genius determined success; quoting the painter Joshua Reynolds that hard work was also a road to success sometimes even more than natural talent.
What then, is the connection between character, manliness and self-help? Mandler writes that during the nineteenth century, there was the assumption that many British men had all three in spades. Certainly, the achievers that Smiles profiled were seen as the epitome of improvement via self-help where they overcame their handicaps by dint of hard work, integrity and perseverance. Max Jones in The Last Great Quest mentions that heroic exploits exemplified the notion of character and manliness. Like Fielden, Jones also mentioned Smiles’ contribution to nineteenth-century notions of character. The emphasis on manliness was in line with the dominant Victorian discourse on gender and the rigid separation of male and female roles. It is therefore not surprising that in Smiles’ pantheon of self-help icons, only two were women.
Jones goes further: “The Victorian idea of character was rooted in four core qualities: self-restraint, perseverance, strenuous effort, courage in the face of adversity.” In Smiles’ view all four were present in the work place. For him, the work place was a “stage for moral endeavour” and the root of progress and civilisation. This represented a shift from the previous century’s preoccupation with leisure and gentlemanly politeness as well as the growing influence of middle class values such as thrift and industry against that of aristocratic indolence. Tosh agrees, stating that manliness was also a benchmark to “distinguish the broad citizens from the privileged and idle. What ‘the people’ had in common was what made them socially useful – the dignity of labour. In popular culture this was the foundation of true manliness, and it distinguished the people from the aristocracy.”
Ironically the reality is that once some had become wealthy through hard work their aspiration shifted towards their children acquiring the traits of and becoming gentlemen. In this sense they begin to absorb the upper and middle class disdain for manual labour. Manliness then would have to be taught and instilled through another means, most notably through schools and sports.
The role of sport in instilling manliness
Perhaps the most famous way by which manliness was instilled in schools was through sports and organised games. They were heavily promoted as one way to develop and instill character as well as to channel the hormonal urges of young men in to a hopefully more positive direction. Headmasters and clergymen were concerned with youth possibly falling into sin and impure thoughts: while many social commentators frequently harped on the “physical and moral vigour of the race.” As a result, young men were constantly pushed into a ceaseless round of physical activity – running, cricket, rowing, archery, hiking, climbing and cycling together with cold showers (even in the dead of winter). It was believed that the constant stream of activities as well as the Spartan lifestyle that was demanded would prevent young men from getting into trouble, as the school authorities took seriously the Benedictine maxim that an idle mind was the devil’s workshop.
An assertion of manliness through sport was also tied to prowess in battle. The Duke of Wellington was alleged to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and his own exploits on the hunting field were equal to his reputation as a general. It was thought that partly due to the Duke, the “connections between sporting and military manliness [was] already well-established.” Jeremy Paxman mentions the “Breed”, an adjective to describe the embodiment of the ideal man which he describes as “fearless…..bold, unreflective and pragmatic….men you could trust.” The Breed was also poised for action and was seen as reliable in times of crises. In reality, this was not always the case but the all-male public schools did turn out some men who attempted to live up the ideals of the Breed.
Alongside cricket, another sport popular in schools and universities was rowing. Part of this appeal was the reminder of the Athenian navy which like its army was comprised of citizens. With the emphasis on sports and organised games as means to develop character, there was also the acknowledgement of its importance to the development of the citizens’ physical and moral vigour as well as the occasional self-congratulation that to be born British meant being the most fortunate person on earth. Apart from the self-congratulatory pronouncements on the strength of the British national character, this was set against other nationalities (especially against the French during the nineteenth century) that often appeared as cautionary tales/moral of the story and served as warnings to the general public.
Apart from Christian influence, the concept of manliness was also influenced by ancient Greece. With emphasis on sports and its curriculum dominated by the classics, the public schools were bound to be attracted to ancient Greece as a role model. The admiration for ancient Greece was also apparent in both Oxford and Cambridge and by extension this admiration also filtered through a popular literary genre from the nineteenth century; the school story which always had for its heroes those who “combined dazzling feats of athletic prowess with brilliant scholarship.” Headmasters and university dons emphasized to their students the ideal balance of arête gumnastike (athletic excellence) and arête mousike (literary excellence) and as we shall see later these ideals especially the former would make their way to the revival of the Olympic Games.
Baron de Coubertin and the revival of the Olympic Games
There was also a strong sense of individualism and competitiveness in the idea of manliness as the industrial revolution gradually broke down the predominance of the landed aristocracy and led the way for others to succeed by virtue of hard work. As a result, there was the encouragement to “always to excel over others” and the competitive ethos spilled over to all aspects of life most notably in sports as played in schools and universities. Foreign visitors to Britain were always struck by the ultra-competitiveness mind-set that prevailed in school and universities as well as the British passion for sports. One visitor to Britain, the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin was so impressed by what he saw as the dedication to sports that he thought of applying British methods to French schools as a template for France’s recovery in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.
Coubertin was heavily influenced by the writings of contemporary educators such as Jules Simon and Thomas Arnold, the latter introduced to him via reading Notes on England by Hippolyte Taine, a historian and philosopher. From Taine’s work, Coubertin was “intrigued by the concept of the British gentleman and by stories about the Englishman’s attitude to sport. Britain seemed to be an enviably successful imperial society.” (p. 68)
He undertook trips to the US, Germany and the UK to study their education systems and how they might be adapted to France. Coubertin was impressed with the British public school and university system especially what he saw as the balance between intellectual and sporting pursuits which was in contrast to the French system which he felt was too much tilted in favour of the intellect over the body. If France was to recover from the humiliation of defeat in 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine then reform and a re-think in attitudes would be needed.
Coubertin strongly believed that the British education system would provide the template and suggested an injection of sports and healthy physical content into the existing French curriculum to balance out the intellectual content. Playing fields and playgrounds together with changing facilities should be introduced together with a variety of sports for French schoolchildren. He asserted that sports and games could help suppress vice and impure thoughts among the young by diverting their energy into physical activities. To critics who accused him of promoting sport as a form of militarism and military training, Coubertin argued that that on the contrary, channeling the energy into sport was a form of freedom. Sport for him provided moral lessons in fair play, sportsmanship and character building. Crucially he believed that sport had the capacity to bring people together united in the common pursuit of excellence and passion for sport.
Gradually Coubertin began to further take his ideas about bringing people together through sport by talking about the idea of reviving the Olympic Games which were last held in 393 AD when the Emperor Theodosius put a stop to them for what he saw as their pagan characteristics. The “Olympian Games” he saw at Much Wenlock convinced him that it was possible and in a meeting in Paris in 1894, he spelled out his main motivation for such an undertaking:
It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more…Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally.
This is enough to encourage your servant to dream now about the second part of this programme; he hopes that you will help him as you helped him hitherto, and that with you he will be able to continue and complete, on a basis suited to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and salutary task, the restoration of the Olympic Games.
This set the motion for the eventual staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Since then every four years, they have been held in a different city and while the Games have more often than not fallen short of the ideals set by their founder, the notion of sport as character building, instilling discipline and fostering the values of sportsmanship and fair play with its roots in 19th century Britain still lives on.
Peter Mandler. The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (Yale, 2006)
Stefan Collini. ‘The Idea of “Character” in Victorian Political Thought’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1984), pp. 29-50
John Tosh. ‘Gentleman Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002), pp. 455- 472
John Tosh. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class home in Victorian England (Yale, 2007)
Mark Girouard. The Return to Camelot (Yale, 1981)
Jeremy Paxman. The English: A Portrait of a People (London, 1999)
Norman Vance. The Sinews of the Spirit: The ideal of Christian manliness in Victorian Literature and religious thought (Cambridge, 1985)
Kenneth Fielden. ‘Samuel Smiles and Self-Help’, Victorian Studies 12 (1968), pp. 155-176.
Max Jones. The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice (Oxford, 2003)
Michael Llewellyn Smith. Olympics in Athens 1896 (London, 2004)
David Wallechinsky and Jamie Loucky. The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 edition (London, 2012)
Christopher R Hill. Olympic Politics (London, 1996)
John J Macaloon. This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London, 2007)
On 30 June and 1 July, the Queen and members of the royal family took part in events to observe the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It was telling that the Queen and Duchess of Cambridge were both in grey and white while the Duchesses of Cornwall and Gloucester were in navy blue. The clothes worn by the royal women were respectful but not sombre, the colours being a dignified choice for the solemnity of the occasion. The choice of colours was redolent of half-mourning, a custom that disappeared with the end of the First World War: with only women of a certain generation and the Royal Family observing a variation of this mourning etiquette.
When we think of women in mourning, the first person that comes to mind is Queen Victoria after 1861 when on the death of her husband Prince Albert; she went into prolonged mourning and wore black in his memory until her own death in 1901. By the time of the Prince’s death in 1861, the standards and etiquette of mourning which originated from the observation of court mourning in previous centuries had already been established, but Queen Victoria’s own mourning for her husband was echoed by the widespread observation of mourning etiquette by almost all classes high and low.
Fashion, clothing and etiquette
As Jessica Regan observed in her 2014 lecture, Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century, mourning rituals reached its peak in the 19th century as fashion became aligned with mourning and the resulting elaborate mourning codes became widespread in society. A number of factors contributed to this; first, high mortality rates were still prevalent during this period, the expansion of the middle class and finally the development of the retail sector and advances in technology meant that the use and production of black fabric became much more widespread than in the past.
The use of black is one of the most highly visible of the ritual of mourning with regards to clothing. In the past, black was not the exclusive colour for mourning; other colours such as brown, grey and dark blue and even white were also used while black was mostly used by religious orders to depict sobriety and their renunciation of the world. However by the 19th century, black became the norm for mourning, the colour speaking of the “desolation within” as well as a sign of the deprivation of a life. Additionally, black as the opposite of light represented the analogy of death as darkness extinguishing the light of life.
As photographs, illustrations and accounts of the period show, mourning was also a social ritual. It was seen as a sign of respect, suffering a loss that should be honoured and those feelings being matched by the sobriety of the garment being worn. It was also seen as a burden as several surviving letters and diary entries of the period showed, many women found having to don mourning as an inconvenience especially as for a set amount of time they could not wear any coloured clothes or take part in society.
Mourning rituals were precisely and minutely calibrated and defined: and breaches or perceived breaches of the code were looked at very much askance. For the first few weeks after a bereavement the family remained secluded, while letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black-edged paper and sent in a black-edged envelope, the thickness of the borders being indicative of the social position of the deceased, his or her relationship to the letter writer and the time that had elapsed since the death. Thick black borders indicated a recent death, narrow ones a sign that time had passed and the family was ready to resume their ordinary way of life.
However mourning was also a useful mean of articulating that sense of loss and for some it became a central part of their image. This is especially the case with Queen Victoria through the dissemination of the image of the “widow of Windsor” in photographs, paintings, drawings and engravings. Mourning became that key aspect of her identity and the clothes worn were both seen as a manifestation of middle class respectability.
It was women who bore the brunt of mourning especially if they were widowed. Widowers, because of work and duties outside the house were expected to go back into society quickly, with their only sign of bereavement being a black tie, black arm- or hatband, but it was very different for women. As Lou Taylor in her book Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History wrote:
Women were bound by the labyrinth of mourning dress etiquette for a much longer period than their menfolk. They were burdened with the duty of wearing depressing, and often in their eyes, ugly clothes for many years of their lives, whereas the men, once the funeral was over, needed only to wear an armband. The difference is symbolic of the whole social position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women were used, albeit willingly and even eagerly by most, as a show piece, to display their family’s total respectability, sense of conformity and wealth. Amongst the ‘respectable’ classes, the whole way of life of women was built on these foundations and with these goals in mind. Mourning dress was perhaps still the most perfect vehicle for this purpose as it had been in the past.” (pp. 135-6).
Women in mourning in fact were as much the outward manifestation of a family’s status and conformity to social norms and demands as a carriage and horses, servants and household decoration. It was harder for female courtiers, those who attended to members of the royal family as ladies-in-waiting because not only did they have to observe mourning for a family member who died but also to observe court mourning. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria decreed that everyone in the household had to appear in full mourning while on duty for two years and although official mourning for the Prince ended in 1863, women at court still had their wardrobes dictated by the Queen. Many of the ladies in waiting were older women or widows who had experienced multiple bereavements and were well versed to cope with the Queen’s demands however it was harder for the maids of honour – young, unmarried women not yet accustomed to the rigid customs of mourning. As a concession, she permitted them to wear half mourning colours such as white, grey, purple, mauve except during official court mourning for a member of the royal family whether here or abroad, when they had to wear all back with jet jewellery.
Mourning rituals, etiquette and dress became more elaborate by the middle of the 19th century. The period of mourning lengthened and even the most distant relatives were also mourned and magazines and journals were on hand to offer advice as the more elaborate the etiquette had become the more likely a faux pas would be committed. Mourning warehouses and factories that specialised in mourning fabrics also flourished. Courtaulds for instance published a leaflet entitled Notes on Fashionable Mourning which was a summary of advice given by leading women’s magazines of the period such as Queen, Gentlewoman, The Lady, Lady’s Pictorial and Ladies Year Book. The magazines could not agree on the precise length of mourning but the overall agreement was that at least there should be a respectable length and in the end it was up to the individual depending on their circumstances and personal taste as well as to navigate the balance between fashion and respect.
A general consensus however emerged and this was with regards to the stages of mourning that the family especially the women observed. Mourning was a universally understood signal with accepted gradations (‘first mourning’ ‘second mourning’ ‘ordinary mourning’ ‘half mourning’) that meant outsiders could observe the bereaved and see from the depths of the mourning being worn how recent the bereavement was, the relation of the deceased to the mourners and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. During the first stage of mourning which lasted for a year and a day (‘deepest’ or ‘first mourning’), a woman must wear a paramatta or bombazine dress and mantle with crape applied to the skirt. Cuffs and collars were made out of lawn and the rest of the dress (the bodice) was made out of crape. The bonnet should be made entirely out of crape; inside should be a widow’s cap with a crape veil. By the second stage which lasted nine months, duller black silk fabrics were permitted and widows were allowed to divest their dress of some of their crape, although not all, in order not to appear to have recovered too quickly. Crape could be restricted to trimming into dresses, capes and bonnets; then after six months widows could lessen the crape still further and the cloth could be recycled through other means particularly as trimmings for hats or dresses.
During the third stage which lasted for three months, crape was finally abandoned and silk or satin trimmed with ribbons, lace, jet and embroidery were permitted. Finally after two years of mourning, half mourning was permitted and could last from 6 months to a lifetime. They consisted of the latest fashions but in colours such as white, grey, soft mauves, violets, pansies, purple and lilacs.
Mourning also extended into underwear and accessories such as parasols, shawls, gloves and handbags. Underwear and handkerchiefs were trimmed with black ribbon or black border. Hats were also in black with a veil and a widow’s cap underneath trimmed with black crape. By the 1890s the custom of wearing a veil over the face for the full year of deepest mourning was dying out. “Mary Stuart” widows caps as helped popularised by the Empress Victoria of Germany also became ubiquitous in the 1890s.
The strict prescription and the style of dress also reinforced the widow’s social ostracism, she could not go out into society for a year and it was considered poor form to accept invitations or appear in public, and calls were paid only by relations and very close friends. It was only in the second year could the widow resume any semblance of social life and even then, the widow could be seen both as an object of pity and a threat – the former because of the sense of loss and loneliness as a result and the latter because she was legally free to remarry or not as well as seen as much more sexually experienced. Hence the “woman in black” was seen both as a tragic figure and a temptress.
A widow emerging from her first mourning also had to reassess her position in the world – she might well have lost both her income and her social status with her husband, and women who remarried were regarded with faint distaste as being unfaithful to the memory of their husbands, which was regarded as almost as bad as physical infidelity and was not immune from severe censure. The fiance of Lord Tennyson’s sister Emily died before they could be married and eight years later she became engaged again, to the considerable shock of her first fiance’s cousin.
Only conceive, Emily Tennyson is actually going to be married…can you conceive of anyone who he (Arthur Hallam, the dead fiance) had loved, putting up with another? I feel so distressed about this, really it quite hurts me. I had such a romantic admiration for her, looked at her with such pity, and now my feeling about her is bouleverséd.
Etiquette for the rest of the family was less strict. For children and parents, a year was all that was required. Crape was required for the first six months then gradually plain black could be worn and finally half mourning. The family was obliged to retire from society for two months. Mourning for grandparents lasted six to nine months; two months in silk with crape, two in black without crape and two in half mourning.
Siblings were mourned for six months (three in crape, two in black & one in half mourning); uncles and aunts for six weeks to two months. For great uncles and aunts six weeks (three in black, three in half mourning) sufficed while the mourning period for first and second cousins were four and three weeks respectively. Crape was not necessary for relatives and relations by marriage were mourned in the same degree as blood relations. John Morley observed that the mourning etiquette and the degrees by which family members are mourned “points a curious feature of the highly formalised mourning of Victorian society – it founded its rules firmly on the institution of the family, that sacred focus of Victorian life.” Mourning codes – what to wear and for how long – were prescribed for each and every family and social relationship, even distant relatives and ‘connections,’ such as mourning by parents for the parents of a child’s spouse or the second wife for the parents of a first wife.
The widespread observation of mourning and its formalised etiquette was aided and abetted by advances in technology such as the production of textiles, dyeing techniques and the discovery and introduction of aniline dyes in the 1850s that made shades such as mauve, lilac and violet prevalent and popular. The fabric most associated with mourning was crape, a mix of matt silk and cotton whose crimped appearance resembled crepe paper. Other fabrics used for mourning attire included bombazine, a mix of silk and cotton is a type of fabric made in Norwich, while paramatta, which was a cotton wool blend, was a cheaper alternative to crape and bombazine.
Because crape was the fabric prescribed especially for the first stage of mourning, there was huge demand for the fabric and Courtaulds a textile firm specialising in silk ended up monopolising production. Apart from pure crape, Courtaulds began to introduce cheaper alternatives such as “Albert” crape, a mix of cotton and crape which was first produced in the 1870s and seen as an inferior and coarser fabric than pure crape.
Because of the etiquette surrounding mourning, apart from the reams of advice in magazines and the fashions adapted to mourning featured’ it became an industry. There was the growth of “mourning warehouses”, the most famous being Jay’s Mourning Warehouse at 247-249 Regent Street. It was the biggest in London and catered to a diverse clientele – high and low, rich and poor and even held a royal warrant as providers to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal household. Other warehouses included Pugh’s Mourning Warehouse, Peter Robinson’s “Court and General Mourning Warehouse”, Nicholson’s “Argyle General Mourning and Mantle Warehouse” – all in Regent Street. Mourning Warehouses provided convenience and shopping for mourning wear, accessories and other assorted paraphernalia under one roof. They could also provide home delivery services when required and the warehouses were staffed by assistants knowledgeable in the rituals surrounding mourning. For those who lived outside huge cities, warehouses also published catalogues allowing a wider reach than simply confining their business in places such as London or Manchester.
Mourning warehouses also specialised in clothing that while conforming to mourning etiquette also displayed the latest fashions. For instance Jay’s would present clothes in the latest styles with elaborate descriptions and illustrations. As contemporary illustrations and descriptions would show, a death need not interrupt following the latest style and fashion as well as develop the ability to strike a balance between fashion and respect.
For the women who could afford it the permutations were endless. Those lower down the scale had to attempt to obey the rules laid down by the more prosperous – either a mourning dress was bought or made or if that was not possible, dyeing a dress already in wear was a less expensive solution. Most of the working class could only make a token gesture towards mourning.
Observation of mourning etiquette also extended to jewellery. Coloured stones and jewels were frowned upon during the mourning period and just as the colour of the clothes denoted at what stage the person was during the mourning period, the jewellery worn also provided the same function.
During the first two years of mourning, jet – a type of hard coal, lignite and probably formed from driftwood was the only acceptable material for jewellery to be worn especially during the period of deepest mourning. The hardest and best quality natural jet came from Whitby in Yorkshire where they could be carved and moulded into elaborate jewels. Spanish jet was too soft for fine work and hence considered to be inferior to that from Whitby.
Jet was first used for mourning jewellery for court mourning for William IV then reached its peak in the mid-19th century. It was fashioned into earrings, necklaces, brooches, hair clips and hair combs, bracelets and lockets; and demand for the material reached its peak in the 1870s but by the 1880s demand slowed due to shortages of the best quality hard jet and competition from cheaper jet and man-made ones such as French jet which was made from dark glass and jet waste combined with rubber to make a mouldable compound. There was also vulcanite, (an early form of plastic which was much more affordable but prolonged exposure to sun caused any jewellery made of vulcanite to turn brown) as well as bois durci – a combination of hardwood, sawdust, blood and albumen mixed with binding and colourised agents which could be moulded by machine. Other alternatives included stained horn and Irish bog-oak which were mostly used by the lower middle and working classes.
By the second year black and white stones and material were permitted such as black onyx, black enamel, pearls, diamonds, cut steel and ivory. For half mourning, amethysts were a popular gemstone as were pearls and diamonds. Pearls were an interesting choice especially because of its redolent symbolism. As Beatriz Chadour-Sampson noted: “The cycle of life was marked by jewellery, and pearls were significant in the symbolism of childhood, marriage and death……black pearls featured on many of the mourning jewels that Victoria commissioned after Albert’s death in 1861 to give to her extensive family, confidantes and members of her household.” An example of this is a memorial pendant locket with a photograph of Prince Albert surmounted by a gold crown studded with small pearls and a black pearl at the base made by Garrard & Co in 1862 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Queen Victoria herself until the end of her life always wore diamonds and pearls with the latter sending out a clear message – pearls could be seen as “tears” and spoke of her continuing grief and anguish at the loss of her beloved Albert.
From the 18th century onwards, memorial jewellery in the form of brooches, pins, pendants and lockets became popular. They would be emblazoned with a portrait of the deceased or their name and year of birth and death or a lock of their hair. They use of symbolisms was also popular such as the cross; holly and thorns for the passion of Jesus; oak for strength and enduring love; the empty acorn cup which denoted the inevitable end of love and forget-me-nots.
Lockets described as the “most enduring and charming of mementoes” where a photograph or a lock of hair could be placed were one of the most widespread jewels and common amongst all classes. Their commemorative nature made them ideal jewels to mark important occasions such a birth, coming of age, engagement, marriage and death. For mourning they were made out of black enamel or carved from dark onyx or jet and could be studded with diamonds or pearls. Outside they could be plain or decorated with the person’s initials or the words “In Memory” or symbols such as the cross. These could be worn as pendants suspended from a chain around the neck or attached to bracelets.
The end of Victorian mourning etiquette and rituals
Even as early as the mid-19th century, there was already criticism about the excesses of mourning rituals and etiquette with the likes of Charles Dickens satirising these customs in his novels and William Morris refusing to bow to the conventions of the day by insisting on a simpler funeral and a shorter mourning period to be observed by his family. Critics felt that these mourning customs was too much, over the top and smacked of one upmanship. There was also condemnation about the lack of sincerity demonstrated by some women whose mourning clothes were too fashionable while others noted that since women bore the greatest burden of mourning, the strict codes and etiquette reinforced their subordinate status in society.
In addition there was the prohibitive cost of observing mourning rituals where families could go into debt over the cost of the funeral, having memorial objects made and the wardrobe that women especially needed during this period.
By the 1890s there was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the mourning customs of decades past. Women began to wear the mourning veil over the face only during the funeral while the Princess of Wales refused to wear crape to observe the mourning for her oldest son the Duke of Clarence when he died in 1892: and Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll did not wear crape either on the death of her mother Queen Victoria in 1901. The new king, Edward VII also decreed that court mourning would only be observed for three months and that “decent” rather than “deepest” mourning was to be worn.
When King Edward VII died in 1910, official court mourning was only for a month. It coincided with the London Season hence it became known as the “Black Season” and the famous 1910 Ascot races where instead of the showy dresses and hats of previous years, race goers were dressed in black from head to toe was dubbed “Black Ascot”.
However, what would hasten and cause the major breakdown in funeral and mourning etiquette was the First World War. Despite the huge number of deaths, not many women resorted to the customs of the past which had been in retreat even after 1901. As Lou Taylor again observed:
It was partly a question of morale, both for the troops on leave from the trenches and the public at large remaining at home. The sight of millions of women of all ages shrouded in crape would have been too much to bear. As made clear by Lady Duff Gordon, a great many women of every class were involved in war work and were far too busy to retire into periods of seclusion demanded by the old etiquette of mourning. As well as running charity and nursing organisations, women were taking on every kind of job left unmanned by the departing troops….the fashion magazines continued to give their sartorial advice but they commented frequently on the changes so evident in society. (pp.267-8)
During the early years of the war, there were some who continued to follow the mourning customs of the past but as the conflict dragged on and the losses mounted, the public began to see omnipresent black mourning as lowering morale for both the troops and civilians. Fabric shortages also meant that it became more expensive to order a full wardrobe of mourning attire and even dyeing proved to be costly. Crucially as well from 1910, there was a fashion for black clothing that had nothing to do with mourning, pre-war designers such as Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) offered dresses and gowns in black then during the war, black dresses were worn for elegance, for office work or for the uniforms worn by women taking on male work such as being bus conductors and police constables. In the 1920s, this would be taken on further by Coco Chanel with her “little black dress” and even to this day, black is seen as both a practical and elegant choice for everyday wear.
White also became an increasingly becoming an alternative to black for mourning. This echoed the custom of medieval and Renaissance royal women wearing white clothing as well as countries in Asia such as China, Japan and Korea where white was traditionally the colour of mourning instead of black.
Increasingly, a number of women attempted to find alternative to traditional mourning attire such as wearing purple armbands or a sort of memorial pins or badges. It was, as Lou Taylor noted, to find “another way of showing that they mourned their menfolk who had not died in the normal way but had died for their country. It was perhaps an attempt to rationalise and cope with the deaths – a way of making the sacrifice and loss more bearable, and demonstrating that the deaths had not been in vain nor the lives of loved ones wasted.” (p. 269)
After the war, despite the determination to return women to their pre-war world of children, church and kitchen many women remained in employment and there was certainly more opportunity for them not only for gainful employment but to pursue sports and hobbies that had been denied to them and enter university and male dominated professions. There was certainly no way back for the mourning customs of the Victorian era and even the wearing of mourning jewellery died out by the end of WW1 where less and less memorial jewellery was being made.
However, some women during and after the First World War clung on to the mourning etiquette of the past with regards to clothes. While there were some who wore black for the rest of their lives others never emerged from half-mourning – seeing it as less aggressive than full on black but nonetheless seen as a tribute to a life lost and a mark of continuing affection for the deceased. For instance in Downton Abbey, from series 4 onwards, Cora is always almost seen in half mourning for her youngest daughter Sybil who died in childbirth. As mentioned earlier, mourning was a universally understood signal by which people showed what stage of the mourning process they had reached and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. Cora in this way sends a strong signal by way of mourning protocol to her husband Robert (and of course anyone else who knows the rules) as there are more than enough indications that she has neither wholly forgiven him nor forgotten what she thought was the role he played in their daughter’s death.
Further reading and viewing:
Helen Rappaport. Magnificent Obsession (London, 2012)
Nina Edwards. Dressed for War (London, 2015)
Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)
Clare Phillips. Jewels and Jewellery (London, 2008)
John Morley. Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London, 1971)
Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)
Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)
Lou Taylor. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (London, 1983)
Judith Flanders. The Victorian House (London 2003)
Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2013)
Cassie Davis-Strodder, Jenny Lister & Lou Taylor. London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank (London, 2015)
David Cannadine. ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Joachim Whaley (ed.) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981) pp. 187-242
Even after 100 years and when no-one who remembers it is alive, the Battle of the Somme and especially its first day remains a scar on the British psyche. The 1st July 1916 and the deaths in action of nearly 20,000 thousand men on that day alone has come to represent for many people the entirety of the Great War. Books, documentaries, battlefield tours and above all the annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday keep the memory of the battle fresh, but behind all the pomp and remembrance it’s easy to forget that the names on the war memorials were men known, loved and grieved for, and that every name carried a story of pain and loss for the ones left behind.
Until the late 1990s I’d always thought that our family was the exception to the truism that every family in the country was touched by the 1914-1918 war and for some reason always felt slightly ashamed of that. My grandfather was born in 1900 and therefore too young to enlist, but he joined the army as a boy soldier in 1914, either out of patriotism, being swept up in the fervour of the early months of the war or the thought that it was time to find a steady paying job and take some of the burden off his widowed mother’s shoulders and the army looked like a good bet. In this family picture he looks both proud and slightly pathetic in his ill-fitting khaki: as if a harried stores clerk, busy kitting out men to go to the front, had held the uniform up in front of him and thought it looked as if it would fit and it would do. In any case, what did it matter one way or another? There were more pressing things to attend to.
I can’t remember that either my grandfather or my great-aunt, who was born in 1898, ever talked about the war in anything but general terms. Of course I regret that I did not ask them for their memories, but in retrospect there were small hints, especially with my grandfather (to whom I was very close and whose favourite I was) that even after fifty years he retained painful memories of that 1st July.
My grandfather was the third of four children and was born in rural Hampshire – his parents met when he was a coachman and she was a maid. The world they all grew up in is unimaginable now, with the slowness of its pace and the lack of the hundreds of small daily amenities we take wholly for granted – and of course it was a world where transport, especially in rural areas, was very much dependent on horsepower. As children growing up in Devon in the 1960s we spent many of our holidays in London with our grandparents, and I recall rushing to see my grandfather one day after a day out and proudly proclaiming that we’d seen horses and him laughing – because of course when he was a child horses were so ubiquitous they were not worth a comment. They drew ploughs and buses and vans and carriages – everything wheeled, in fact. What was worth remarking for him was something he told us that happened when he was about eight or nine – that the teacher had sent them all out into the school playground to see a flying machine – a brand new technology still in its infancy but which would take a dreadful momentum from war.
My great-grandfather died in 1910 leaving a young widow, four children, the eldest of whom was twelve, and no money whatsoever. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the village churchyard and the day my grandfather took me there to point out the place is the only time I can recall him showing any emotion over his father’s death or talking about him to any extent – and I can understand that completely. My own father died when I was thirteen and my brothers just eight and seven – and to this day I find it hard to talk about that. Even after decades some things just still are that difficult.
I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the Great War since the commemorations started, and I’ve wondered what it was like for my grandfather and his family and their Hampshire village. The news of war in the papers, the men he knew enlisting and marching off – relatives, neighbours, friends, the older boys at school – all determined to give the Kaiser a good kicking. They’d have heard in church every Sunday that God was on our side, and the more or less constant expansion of the British Empire over the previous hundred years had made defeat almost unimaginable. What young man wanted to be the one who held back when all his mates and relatives cheerfully did what their leaders told them was a civic duty? Then of course as the months went on during leave visits home the young man would see the signs in the windows proudly proclaiming A man from this house is serving in the forces; perhaps he heard the distant mutter of the guns in France, saw the street shrines to the fallen, and he’d have heard of the delivery of telegrams that every family dreaded with their messages of Missing. Wounded. Dead – and seen the drawn blinds that meant the death of someone in the house. Perhaps as well he felt, early on the morning of the 1st July, the shudder of the earth as nineteen mines were exploded one after the other on the Western Front as a prelude to the opening day of the battle of Albert.
All this, of course, is conjecture. What is not is the story of my great-aunt Martha, my grandfather’s elder sister. She was born in 1898 and when her father died she and the brother next to her in age were sent to relatives – my great-grandmother couldn’t support four children on what she made taking in washing. My grandfather and his younger sister stayed with their mother – Kathleen because she was the youngest and grandad because his mother thought he was so ugly no relative would want to take him. (He wasn’t. He was slight, fair haired and blue eyed).
Aunt Martha was the archetypal spinster aunt. She lived near us in South London, my grandfather visited her nearly every Saturday and often took me along. She spoiled me and my brothers and cousins, made us cakes, gave us money and presents at birthdays and Christmas and generally gave the impression that she loved the company of children and their noise and mess. I don’t remember giving any thought to why she wasn’t married – she lived with my great grandmother until the latter’s death at the end of the 1950s, went out to work at a solicitor’s where she was a valued employee, had a wide circle of friends and an active social life. If I did think about it I assumed that she had missed her chance of marriage thanks to the deaths of so many men and was one of what were cruelly called in the 1920s ‘surplus women’ – those who would never fulfil what was regarded as their natural function of marriage and motherhood.
She lived to be 100, independent almost to the end, and died just after her hundredth birthday. On the day of her funeral I travelled home with my uncle’s sister in law Josie and heard a completely unsuspected side of the woman I’d taken for granted.
In 1916 Aunt Martha was eighteen years old and had a boyfriend her age or a little older. He, like millions of men, had enlisted, knew he was going to France and they wanted to marry before he went, but both sets of parents – or rather mothers – said that they were too young. Knowing he was going to France he and my great aunt threw caution to the winds and made love. He went to France, was killed in the battle of the Somme, and my great aunt found that she was pregnant. (Josie turned to me at that point in the story and said,” she said to me, we only did it once because he was going away.”)
Of course her story was never going to have a happy ending. Being unmarried, with no prospect of a husband, pregnant and living in a society where illegitimacy was a social stigma that marked both mother and child for ever was going to make sure of that: and my great grandmother by all accounts embodied all the worst traits of Victorian censoriousness and narrow mindedness. In retrospect it is hard to blame her – perhaps she knew from her experience of widowhood that life would be hard enough for my great aunt without the added burden of a child and was little chance of a husband, let alone one who would take another man’s baby. Perhaps as well my great grandmother was very well aware that they lived in a society markedly unsympathetic to a woman perceived as sexually transgressive and she didn’t want that reputation for her daughter. No doubt there were admonitions about bringing shame into the family and that Martha was “damaged goods”. It’s one of the things people now don’t understand because pregnancy out of wedlock now doesn’t carry anything like the same stigma – unlike in the past where it could be a source of a lifetime of extreme shame for both mother and child. For a working class woman like my great-aunt, her reputation was everything. Whatever the reasons, a termination was arranged (illegally and no doubt expensively), and my great aunt embarked on her long life of spinsterhood.
Did she have regrets and cry in the night for what she had lost, or catch herself watching children as they played? Was it horribly traumatic or did she bury it all deep down and try to forget? I have no idea (although she was a woman who had a twinkle in her eye and once told my brother she would have on her grave stone “Martha Ruffle, missed, but not as much as you think she did!”)
Certainly she remembered her lost love and his child even at the end of her life. She and my grandfather came from a world where you did not inflict your emotional pain on anyone, no matter who you were, high or low. You stiffened your lip and your spine and jolly well got on with the hand life had dealt you. My grandfather certainly recalled the sacrifices of that July – he was usually quiet and withdrawn every 1st July and even less talkative than usual. Perhaps he was recalling friends and neighbours, his sister’s lost love and what she’d sacrificed thanks to war, or perhaps as a professional soldier of 40 years standing his grief and silence might have been not just for the men he knew but his knowledge and anger that the first day of the Somme was, in the words of another soldier (talking this time about the retreat from Dunkirk), an almighty great fuck-up. One that irretrievably changed the lives of people he knew and loved. Anyone would be silent thinking about that.
I have no idea of the boyfriend’s name, what regiment he was in or when he was killed, whether it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the last or some day in between. I do not know if he has a grave somewhere or if he was one of the many missing whose only memorial is a name carved in stone. Perhaps somewhere there is a family who still talk about great uncle so-and-so, killed so young fighting for his country and what a waste of a life – I like to think there is. I do make sure that every November three crosses are placed in the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey – one for an unknown soldier and two for a woman and child who were as much victims of an industrial war machine as any man who went over the top to his death.