Tag Archives: edwardian

Edward VII Reviews Field

“The simultaneous movement of those hundreds of white arms, the rustling of robes, the flashing of the jewels made him think of a scene from a ballet.”
‘To Marry An English Lord’, Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

The prince lowered his head
As he stood inside the chapel
And wrapped around his temples
He felt the rhythmic carving of gold
With all apprehensions
Responsibilities
And weary years
Impaled on each prong like worms
Suffering with promise
And the ache of the future

When the king raised his head
There was a luminous movement
As one hundred peeresses
Raised their tiaras with round and powdered arms
In a frisson of light
And synchronized loyalty.
Flesh under a king’s review,
A soft population
Bred for discretion
And immodest seclusion

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Spirited Souls

One gilded afternoon in 1899, the Wyndham sisters were seated together on a couch, pliant yet statuesque, within the velvet recess of their drawing-room in Belgravia.  Their satin dresses, weightless and ethereal, merged into an ivory cloud, dimpled with lavender and gold.  Their limbs were slim and exhausted, starved of all bourgeois musculature by centuries of aristocratic breeding.  Ballerina necks balanced on nests of bones, smooth with the lazy flesh of diaphanous bodies.  Their chilly, patrician hands barely had the strength to hold a teacup – warmed only by the bronze liquid that shattered the porcelain into shards of light.

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These ladies – Madeline Adeane, Pamela Tennant and Mary Constance, Lady Elcho – were called “The Three Graces” by the Prince of Wales, Windsor’s glittering roué. They should have been content with their decorative existence as royal favorites, draped across sofas like animal skins, clothed like the sea in gowns of froth, their fashionable spines bent by the bones of whales.  But there was a wary intelligence, entwined with the bland vanity, which lurked in each of the sisters’ faces.  Like a predator, it waited: within eyes as dark as Pandora’s Box, under the brows’ dusky horizons, trembling on subtle lips.

Pamela, the youngest and prettiest of the three, had the misspent spirit possessed by those cursed with such charms.  Overly aware of her advantages, she had the disconcerting habit – though possibly excusable in one so lovely – of rising from the dinner table and facing the wall if she felt she was receiving insufficient attention.

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Lady Mary had the discipline and logistical talent to seamlessly govern a large household, a philandering husband as well as a string of noteworthy lovers.  Her amours ranged from Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt – long past but never over his affair with the courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters.  Mary traveled with Blunt to Arabia, where she would bear his child, in 1895.

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Madelaine was looked on as the forgotten Wyndham, only because she had to audacity to be content with her lot.  Shy and gentle, she was the closest to the Edwardian feminine ideal.  Happy, with a talent for needlework and bringing up her children, Madelaine seemed to embrace all of the housewife’s virtues.

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The Wyndham sisters shared a DNA of foolishness and restlessness, tempered with a soupcon of quietude.  But their dreaming wisdom was designed for speculation and fancy. They had the leisure for thought.  Because of these serene qualities they were prominent members of a unique social group called The Souls.  (Lord Charles Beresford supposedly said: “You all sit and talk about each other’s souls — I shall call you the ‘Souls'”.)

Weary of salons absorbed with politics and gossip, The Souls sought to distance themselves from such mediocre concerns.  They were bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind…their intellect was both arrogant and amusing; their arguments louche, ridiculous and brilliant.

The Souls sculpted their dialogues as if they were works of art, with wit that was nimble and flirtatious.  Lovers and ideas were shared with incestuous abandon.  They were daring, but beautifully so.

The Wyndham sisters’ lives of exclusivity, culture and indolent wisdom would end – as it would for all members of their élite class – with the First World War.  In 1918 peacetime, tethered with a new cynicism, began…but their exquisite lives had ended many years earlier.

“I am and always shall be sorry for wounding the feelings of anyone I care for but otherwise it is difficult to wholly regret days of beauty and romance.”

– Mary Constance Wyndham

I Should Not Envy Them

“Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her physical person the duchy which cast its aura round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room…I came to know many of the Duchess’s distinctive features notably…her eyes, which captured as in a picture the blue sky of a French country afternoon broadly expansive, bathed in light even when no sun shone…”

  • Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past:  “The Guermantes Way”

I should not envy them so; these beautiful, languorous women, collapsed like corseted kittens on their sofas, conversing with their boudoir skin; their soft, fragrant intellect.

Subtle and notorious, these ladies controlled a groveling society that stared into their dance cards and invitations like so many pools of Narcissus.  They held the reins – a silken touch resting on the demimonde’s gilded shoulders.

So I insist that I should not envy them.  But their lives were like honey – thick, lazy, sweet.  Their wealth was undeniable; their seductiveness incurable.  So I do envy them:  for their romantic, animal lives; their velvet wit; their exotic rapture.

By all rights they should by now be long forgotten.  But their images remain – and this alone will guarantee that they will live forever.

I am thinking of one photograph in particular.  It is a famous one and has woven a hypnotic path through my consciousness for many years.  It is known for the beauty of its subject and for the twisting, loving embrace of her gown.

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Ėlisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, Proust’s Duchess of Guermantes, was the Queen of late 19th century Parisian salons.  Personalities from James Whistler to Gustave Moreau to Marie Curie to Edward VII populated her rooms, where the high words of art and science could entwine and grow only to evaporate in the smoke of the King’s ubiquitous cigars.

The Countess was a magnificent creation – statuesque yet sensitive, with an expression full of dignity and incantation.  Her eyes were dark, reflecting a mysterious violet light.  A besotted writer, Mina Curtiss, described them as “The dark purple-brown tinged petals of a rarely seen pansy.”

But we might never have seen her face had the photographer not taken pity on our curiosity.  He has arranged his stately subject so that she stares into a mirror. An expression echoes back at us, as pert as a spoiled school girl’s:   with an upturned nose, the eyebrows arched and mocking.   She might begin a flirtation or a discourse on modern dance…or just as easily pull a competitor’s pigtails.

Her hair is swept into a chorus of curls, crowned with a galaxy of pearls:  the twisting movement continuing through her neck and brought to a stop by the soft plateau of her shoulders. The rest of the photograph is dedicated to her celebrated gown.

It is black velvet, with a latticework of white lilies that travels down her spine, all the way to the hem where it pools into an exhausted garden.  It lies flat against the panels of whalebone and grips the strong slow curve of torso and hips. With the pinched, breathless waist, the outline of irresistible femininity is complete.

Yet the Countess did not like the idea of her photographs being circulated; such invasive reality was a private thing – meant only for an elect few.  She also disliked Proust and his hysterical worship.  Observations such as “in her there is not a feature that can be found in any other woman or anywhere else” – she found sticky, over-wrought and in poor taste.

What would she say if she knew that such envy and admiration would continue unscathed for more than 100 years?  And what would she think of those who still choose to write about her – and who dared commit her image to memory, holding it as they would hold it in their hands?

Her Unusual Gown

The photograph was taken at the most opportune time.  The studio of Professeur Edouard Stebbing had suddenly become oppressive and murky and his subject, the lady with the undulating body, Mademoiselle Paule Morly, would never be the same.

The artists that shouted and theorized in the cafes lining the Boulevard des Italiens – Tortone, Paris, Frascati, Francais – must have noticed it curling between the fumes of coffee and absinthe:  the gray, nautical scent of the ocean.  Even though it was over 100 miles from the coast, the Professeur’s workplace on the Boulevard seemed to rock on invisible waves.

Inside, Mademoiselle Morly had begun to notice the alterations in her dress – but they were not the type that would have been wrought by a seamstress’ fingers.  At first she was annoyed – for it had been chosen carefully for her:  a silk bandage wrapped about her curves, designed to adore her femininity.  But suddenly the fabric had turned chilly and uncomfortable and the folds clutched at her skin:  she felt them moving like currents, like the roaming tides.

The hem that had hobbled her ankles slowly, inexorably, extended into a shoreline of froth; she sensed the green motion ripple around her feet before drifting towards an unknown coastline.  The gown had become a living thing – as real as the elements, as muscular as the sea.  The silk had melted away, yet she was still covered.  But the seams had been replaced by latitudes and longitudes; her gown was no longer silk, but a verdant breath of fog and salt.

Paule no longer wore a crown of glass and paste (valuables were not necessary for a photo shoot, besides, they would not be safe on a Boulevard crowded with strident and starving artisans).   It had been replaced by fluttering tiers of coral, waving a jade invitation to invisible mermaids, deadly on their perches of seaweed and song. It was heavier than her cheap tiara, and her plump shoulders ached, but she did not mind.

She was aware of a tickling down her back – not unpleasant, but alarming all the same, like a stranger’s knowing fingers.  She looked, and saw that her shockingly transformed gown had grown a cape – as thin as an insect’s wings, a delicate membrane shining with jade droplets.  Bemused, she held it between her fingers, to observe the studio light through the delicate tissue.   And it was at this moment of pleasant bewilderment that Professeur Stebbing snapped his picture.

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That was over 100 years ago.  The picture postcard of Mademoiselle Morly has had more than one owner since then.  Someone had lovingly traced the folds of her unusual gown with glue before sprinkling it with green and blue glitter.  And now it is mine.   I don’t think that her image to be accentuated any more – so I have chosen to write about her.

This distant miracle never made the headlines.  Was it too shocking – too unbelievable?  Whatever became of the lady?  Did she disappear – to join the green faces curling out of the absinthe bottles that winked from  the bars of the cafes?  Did she ever travel to the coast – to melt into the water, to join her sister sirens?

No one knows.  And perhaps that is best.

 

 

 

 

Flowers

Pretty little flowers, their heads tilted in the breeze, sing with spring’s lullaby blossoming in their hearts like a pastel-colored garden.  Their tiny voices, as light and fluid as a bird’s, fly into the balconies of the Theater du Chatelet and disappear – perching alongside other songs that have melted into the distant, singing air.

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Innocent lips, curved and painted, welcome but will not seduce.  They are not full of the threat of a more heated season.  Instead, they are a coy promise of the brilliance that trembles and a joy that hides.  It is only at the very edge of their smiles, coiling sweetly upwards, that vulnerability and danger wait.

Thick coils of hair, twisted and singed with curling tongs, flow across their shoulders, languid and soft.   Teased and pulled to Gibson Girl heights, the tresses then gently collapse beneath the weight of ornament and millinery into a froth of curls that tickle eyebrows and shroud eyes.

Dainty ankles are poised above footlights.  Arms show dimpled and white beneath sleeves that ebb and flow with each movement, like veils of pastel oceans.  Hands arch and change – eyes glitter, reflecting candles hoisted into the air, the diamonds scattered throughout the audience, the images in the glass paneling.

But their storytelling was unskilled; and they used their bodies – with all of the flesh’s eloquent potential – with a blunt girlishness.  They fulfilled the Edwardian feminine ideal of decoration and foolishness, and danced with tiny, curling steps, before pausing, yielding flowers, ready to subside into their lovers’ bouquets.

 

Behave

There exists a tiny book of lessons – pages of delicate instructions that could be held in your hand.  They are filled with drawings so light, that the lines seem to whisper with words that have been pulled from the air:  like an atmospheric embroidery.  They barely have shape; each one sighs with a pretty thought and then is gone.

The book is called “Whimlets” and was published in 1902. 

Whimlets

Directed chiefly at women, it teaches them to behave, just as their clothing – pulled from the ribs of whales – taught their bodies how to behave:

Know When To Quit

The ladies are pretty, exasperating, shallow and charming.  And they need a good talking down.  They are tall and willowy; trapped in Edwardian curves and overcome with eyelashes and dark, unraveling hair that dripped onto delicate shoulders. 

Mirror, Mirror

The ladies are foolish, of course, but the men are content that they stay so and are willing to only scold them with a dainty rhyme.

An Expensive Ring

This book is a light tap on feminine fingers, a loving frown, when the ladies are being too delightful.  Pouting and frivolous, silken and stupid – they must not wander outside their fairy circle of rules and destinies.

This book has survived many decades, many changes – but inside its pages, the delicate little laws remain.  They still live, condescending to this world from one that has long vanished.

Billet-Doux…Or Billet-Don’t?

"Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-Doux."
                                – The Rape Of The Lock

'Billet-Doux' is a phrase born in the squalid masquerade of the 17th century:  a time of pretty falsehoods and flattering hypocrisies.  Ballrooms reeked.  The wealthy were protected and cosseted, yet could die from the complications of a pin prick.  Women dressed for society and were abused for domesticity.

Yet from this swirl of powder and sweat came the 'sweet note'.  Originally, 'billette' referred to a sealed document; serious, formal, its parchment coils wound tight with a dollop of hot wax and a buried initial.  The Latin world 'dulcis' sweetened many languages:  Spanish (dulce), Italian (dulce) and Franch (doux).  Then – no one knows how:  can anyone tell the exact moment of conception? – the two words married into a phrase, to mean a private letter, filled with secret words – perfumed and delectable – the 'billet-doux'.

It was the birth of the love letter.

What a serene and decadent way to enjoy another's whispered written words!  Scented and perfect, she is wrapped in robes of embroidered muslin and tinted quilts.  Her hair enjoys a final breath before being braided, pulled and piled into the strained style of 1909.  The tousled locks need battle only a barrette or two – no proper dam to hold back such a gleaming river.

Her supine figure is round and lovely.  A light touch to her arm would leave a shallow dimple.  Her back, her shoulders aren't sullied by any allusion to a skeleton, except for the slight well dividing her shoulder blades.

The note in her smooth hand has clearly raised a question.  The finger pressed against her lips, red like a blush and not a warlike streak; the smoky eyes raised – focused, yet distant; arched, shadowy brows – all indicate a pretty inquiry.

Was the letter brought in with the flowers?  Did a suitor tip her maid a few coins to hide the note amidst the white and colored sprays?  Is the gentlemen known to her? Or is she wondering where they met – at a ball (will whe have to consult her dance cards?), riding – he might have been one of the men observing the 'seats' of the ladies as they rode by; did their eyes ever meet…did he tip his hat?

Or is she just wondering:  do I, or don't I?

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A Woman Of Experience

I think she was my first.  Her dark brows, her heavy eyelids, her tired and shadowed expression, the mouth about to purse into petulance – the elements of a spoiled Edwardian countenance – charmed me into purchasing her.  I collect many images of lovely ladies, but this gilded siren was my first.

She wears a dressing/morning gown, en dishabille:  low cut, but reflecting the hard outlines of the corset underneath. Her hair is hastily pinned up, threatening to break loose like dusky tendrils of sea spray.  The gown itself is a seamstress' nightmare – pieced together and decorated in some dim factory room so that it could now blaze in a light of ribbons, linen, velvet, muslin, lace, brilliants, folds, ruffles, pleats and ruches.  The embroidered panel at the hem glitters with flowers and medievel quatrefoils.  Braided fringe sweps the floors when she walks:  more dust for the skivvies to clean.  The apron of needlepoint lace is a pale garden of leaves and vines, sprouted from bobbin and thread

Strings of pearls are looped and knotted; dangling from her throat and shoulders.  The fruits of a mollusk's lonely labors are valuable indeed, yet they are deemed by this lady of experience to be worthy only of her boudoir.  Bows are pinned to her sleeves, like a 17th century courtier's – she is alternately bare and lavishily covered.

She's leaning forward.  Her right arm is passive, with silken fingers resting on a satin pillow.  Her left arm, however, is uncomforatble, bent:  what few muscles that a life of leisure hasn't atrophied are tense, prepared to push her out of her painted chair.  She hasn't moved yet, but is ready to – she is both lanquid and exasperated.

My theory?  She has just risen from bed, and wrapped herself in her rustling, complicated gown.  She is either about to welcome someone in, or make sure he closes the door behind him.

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“She’s A Bird In A Gilded Cage…”

"…the ballroom was filled with fashion's throng,
It shone with a thousand lights;
And there was a woman who passed along,
The fairest of all the sights…"

Every decade has its own peculiar type of celebrity.  oracles, courtesans, alchemists, carnival freaks…for better or worse they commanded our attention.  Many of these have vanished.  For instance, I haven't encountered lately anyone claiming they can turn base metal into gold.

One particular type of luminary has always fascinated me.  She was beautiful.  She had style.  She was witty.  She was discreet.  She was married.  And if not born into society, these qualities would soon draw her upwards into that rarified galaxy.

She was called a "PB" or "Professional Beauty":  a woman whose face was her fame.  She was an English phenomenon; and the idol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Their photographs were displayed in shop windows for a couple pennies each:  to be bought by envious and adoring factory girls or ladies wanting to see how Georgiana was curling her hair, or what hat Mrs. Langtry was wearing this season.

A PB was a necessary decoration – any party or ball needed to have at least one, holding court, laughing delicately, making sure that the overeager gentlemen would hold her gloved hand while dancing, and not touch her bare arm.  She wouldn't have to reciprocate with a party of her won – her presence was payment enough, making her hostess famous, for at least that one season.

She would never have to pay for a dress.  She would only have to murmur the designer's name that evening, and the next morning his salon would be inundated with ladies demanding that same gown, the same color, the same neckline.  She was worth – literally – 100 paying customers.  She was a walking – no a gliding – advertisement.  Trussed into cuirass-like corsets, weighed down with velvets and brocades, glittering with beads, sequins and jewels, navigating complex bustles, she was fashion's creation – made to be stared at.

Once a lady was recognized as a PB, a comfortable life was guaranteed – for herself and her husband.  The PB was always married.  Her husband was either too blind to notice the notoriety his wife had gained, or was too greedy to mind, and let himself be drawn into society's echelon, riding on the train of his wife's ruinously expensive Worth gown.  Or would it be Poiret this evening?

Where did she get the money?  The jewels?  The carefully sealed letters?

A Professional Beauty was a realist.  Sometimes the gifts did come with a price.  Nearly every PB would eventually become the King's mistress.  Edward (as Prince and King) had an eye for a pretty face – especially one that came with a husband, and hopefully children.  If she came with such convenient baggage, any pregnancy would easly be fobbed off onto the – possibly very surprised – husband.

Those were the rules.  It was how the game was played.

Lillie Langtry was the Prince's first publicly recognized mistress.  She wasn't hidden away in seclusion, a 'kept' woman.  She was even introduced to his beautiful wife, Alix – they got on excellently well together.

Her appearances caused near riots.  People stood on chairs, ladies jostled each other to get a better look at her classic profile, at her lovely rich chestnut-colored hair.

Georgiana, Lady Dudley, also created an uproar.  Huge crowds would gather on Rotten Row as soon as her carriage would come into view.  Invariably Georgiana, referred to in many memoirs of the time as the 'most beautiful woman I ever saw' would be seen holding a brown Holland umbrella over her elderly, unfaithful husband.

Frances, Countess of Warwick, was Edward VII's mistress for 9 years.  Nicknamed 'Daisy', she was the inspiration for the popular song, "Bicycle Built For Two" ('Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true…')  She wore emeralds to match her eyes.

In the end, she was reduced to selling her love letters to the King.

Jennie, lady randolph Churchill, was dashing and outspoken – a typical American, charming English society.  She was one of the Yankee 'Buccaneers":  rich American girls invading England in search of a title to marry. She was the mother of Winston Churchill and shocked society mothers with the unrestrained affection she showered upon her son,  in a time when the parent was only an occasional visitor to the nursery.  Her husband reputedly died of syphilis.

'Patsy' Cornwallis-West was one of the Prince's private guests invited to his coronation.  She and the other special ladies were the occupants of what was dubbed "the King's Loose Box."  She was wild, flippant and "mad":  with a preference for descending the stairs balanced on a tea-tray.  The King might have been the father of her son – who would later become Jennie Churchill's second husband.  (Which brings up one of society's axioms:  NEVER comment on a likeness)

So how did it all end?

I began this post with the opening verse of a popular ballad from the turn of the 20th century.  I'll end it with the final verse:

"…when sunset adorned the west;
And looked at the people who'd come to grieve
For loved ones now laid at rest.
A tall marble monument marked the grave
Of one who'd been fashion's queen;
And I thought, 'She is happier here at rest,
Than to have people say when seen.'"

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