Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Which I Am Wrong About Edwardian England

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. Meanwhile here is a short piece explaining why my fictional Edwardian England is not the same as historical Edwardian England.

My version of Edwardian England is wrong.

I don’t say this because of the handful of deliberate anachronisms, or the things I’ve ignored to make a scene clearer, or the liberties I’ve taken because I thought it would be cool. I’m not even talking about the fact I am basing my novel more on the fiction of the Edwardians and late Victorians rather than the history, or (less authentically) the fiction based in that period that came later. These are the tools of a storyteller; most of the time the constraints of history and reality are part of the skeleton of a work, directing and supporting it, yet sometimes you have to ignore them for the dramatic moment, the clever twist, or even the funny punchline. A good joke at the right time can outweigh several pages of well researched description. But these are not the wrongnesses I’m talking about.

What I mean is that I have half a dozen histories and reference books for the period that I keep by me (and more that I have read or consulted) and attempting to derive or make a coherent structure from these is beyond me.

Some examples:

- The Edwardian Age was a frivolous time, obsessed with celebrity, entertainment and fashion. Led by King Edward, society was interested in image and glorious surfaces, with pleasure and enjoyment. Wearing the right clothes was more important than saying the right thing, and one could do as one wished behind closed doors so long as one said the right thing in public. Yachting, horse racing, and shooting at the top end, music hall, football and gin at the other; the start of the twentieth century was all about passing time amusingly.

- Edwardian England was a very serious time and place. While the British Empire was reaching towards its peak it had already begun to dissolve as the Dominions achieved full internal self-government. Efforts to reform the Empire as a cultural and trading bloc fell apart against the dogma of Britain as a centre of free trade. The House of Lords and the House of Commons had their final showdown, leading to the current constitutional settlement with the Commons supreme and the Lords advisory.

- The Edwardian’s were serious about money, and even more so when it intersected with their entertainment. Much time and effort was taken up with the issue of payment of players for football and cricket, with the gap between amateurs and professionals, or Gentlemen and Players, ever narrowing the more closely it was policed. Meanwhile as the Labour movement began to elect Members of Parliament, it became clear that the social bar to politicians was also an economic one; the nascent Labour Party had to pay it’s representatives so they could maintain themselves while serving their constituency.

- It was a peaceful age, the most peaceful of the Twentieth Century. It was a violent time, the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars giving poorly recognised warnings of things to come. It was an age in which citizens believed it was their duty to be soldiers, in Britain forming territorial regiments the Government barely knew what to do with, and volunteering for the Boer war in great numbers. An age when powerful warships sailed on and beneath the waves, and the first warplanes began to take to the sky.

- It was a time of great social mobility with educational possibilities available to all classes. It was a period of social unrest, with poor working men, and women too, demanding the vote. It was a great age of class divides, with new money buying into old blood so their children would be accepted into the upper crust.

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My point, such as it is, is that Edwardian England cannot be summed up in a single sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. The half dozen references I note above give a bare outline of a time and place. How then can my novel, more interested in entertaining than enlightening, possibly mirror it in any meaningful way? It cannot. It is, of course, wrong.

Still, I hope that I give at least the correct flavour of the corner that I look at, as I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few things right.

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