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Daily Life in the British Parliament: The Political Hostess


One of the most striking differences between American women and English women was the role each played after marriage. The young American girl was sophisticated and cultured, with easy ways and unconscious charm when compared to her English counterpart, but in American society, the position of a married woman was rather restricted to home and hearth. Yes, aristocratic English women had lesser rights than American women, but upon their marriage, they were expected to not only run a large and extensive household, but to support their husband in his choice of career–especially within the political sphere. Because of this gulf in upbringing, more than a few young American heiresses floundered in their new position (and ironically, many American women married to American men chose to live abroad because of the increased social position and freedom post-marriage). In England, women ruled not only on the throne, but in the halls of Westminster. So important was the political hostess to her husband’s career, a gentleman in pursuit of a suitable bride would more often overlook the beautiful, gay young lady for her plainer and quieter, yet better-connected and erudite counterpart.

In the past, titled women such as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, whose “kisses won the votes of Covent Garden porters for Fox,” and others like Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland, the Duchess of Portland, the Countesses of Derby and Beauchamp, the Ladies Waldegrave, etc, all “reveled in election fights in the days when every man knew how his neighbor had voted, and when polling days were marked by fierce rioting and savage intimidation.” By the Edwardian era, it was acceptable for women to canvass for votes, make speeches and otherwise take public part in their husband’s political campaigns. The most notable was Lady Randolph Churchill, who made waves both during the extent of Lord Randolph Churchill’s career, and that of her son Winston’s–her plea, “Never mind about dear bread. Vote for dear Winston,” when he was fighting for election in North Manchester became infamous.

The social success and personal satisfaction of a political wife obviously depended on her own temperament as well as her husband’s talents and popularity. An accomplished political hostess could oil the wheels of her husband’s career, though a talented hostess could rarely push her husband’s interests if a powerful political enemy halted his progress. Anomalies to this process were Arthur Balfour and W.E. Gladstone, the latter of whom had a retiring wife, and the former, who had no wife at all. Women were denied a formal education but they often were very well read, articulate and knowledgeable about politics, and they grew up immersed in a political atmosphere and revered parliamentary leaders as their heroes, espousing the cause of their family’s party. For example, the Lyttleton, Gladstone and Talbot women were influential on such topics as Irish Home Rule, the complex relationship between Church and State, and the iniquities of Conservative foreign policy.

According to the Every Woman’s Encyclopedia, “Leading political hostesses, of course, take a keen interest in the doings of these leagues and associations, which may be said to keep the rank and file of the parties together. But they also have the responsible duty of furthering the interests of their husband and party by extending to the principal members of the latter cordial hospitality at all times. ‘Given average ability, the young politician who marries a clever wife is bound to come to the front,’ remarked Lord Beaconsfield on one occasion. He was referring more particularly to the clever wife who can maintain a brilliant home, charm people with her conversation, prove a discreet and tactful friend and adviser, imbue others with her enthusiasm – in a word, make people want to cultivate the acquaintance of herself and her husband.”

During the 1880s, women boosted the image of the Conservative Party with the foundation of the Primrose League. In 1885, a Ladies Branch and Grand Council was founded by Lady Borthwick and a committee meeting took place in her house on Piccadilly with the dowager-duchess of Marlborough (first lady president), Lady Wimborne, Lady Randolph Churchill, Lady Charles Beresford, the dowager-marchioness of Waterford, Julia, marchioness of Tweeddale, Julia, Countess of Jersey, Mrs (subsequently Lady) Hardman, Lady Dorothy Nevill, the Honorable Lady Campbell (later Lady Blythswood), the Honorable Mrs Armitage, Mrs Bischoffsheim, and Miss Meresia Nevill (the first secretary of the Ladies Council).

Lady Randolph Churchill spoke thus of the league’s early days in her 1908 memoir:

As a Dame I was determined to do all I could to further its aims. The first years of its existence were a struggle. The wearing of the badge exposed one to much chaff not to say ridicule, but we persisted. Recruits joined surely if slowly and today after twenty five years of existence the League can boast of having 1,703,708 knights dames and associates upon its rolls and of having materially helped to keep the Conservative Party in power twenty years.

The Liberal Party had its own counterpart–the Women’s Liberal Federation, the president of which was the Countess of Carlisle, and the Women’s National Liberal Association–though this had considerably less fame and impact than the Primrose League. Of the political hostesses, they have been discussed extensively in other posts. Needless to say, the Duchess of Devonshire, the Marchioness of Londonderry, and Margot Asquith, among others, were extremely powerful and exerted much influence over their husbands and their protegees. Because of their peculiar status, many of these socially- and politically- powerful women were anti-suffrage, feeling that women did not require the vote because they had always wielded political power. In hindsight we know this was short-sighted, and that their reasoning was obscured by their exalted social status, which by and large protected them from the vulnerabilities women of the middle and working classes faced. Nonetheless, in this period of increasing suffragist protests, women in England were powerful and influential on a public scale.

Further Reading:
Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography by June Purvis
Political woman by Melville Currell
Women, marriage, and politics, 1860-1914 by Patricia Jalland
The Edwardian Woman by Duncan Crow
1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey
What It Means to Be A Political Hostess and Worker

Ettie: The Intimate Life and Dauntless Spirit of Lady Desborough


Ettie_UKBiographies on Edwardian aristocrats largely confine themselves to Jennie Jerome, Lillie Langtry, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, so it’s a treat to discover one written about one of the most famous women of the era who has since fallen into obscurity.

Born in 1867 and orphaned at three, Ettie Fane was brought up by a beloved grandmother and then two adoring, almost incestuous, bachelor uncles. At twenty she married Willy Grenfell, later Lord Desborough, a genial sportsman. Beautiful, rich, charming and clever, Ettie soon became the centre of the Souls, arbiters of wit and elegance, and a leading hostess at the two magnificent country houses she had inherited. Leading politicians, writers and artists were very much part of her circle. This was the EnglEttie_USand of country-house parties, separate bedrooms and well understood liaisons. Ettie was soon having affairs. But there was a dark side too, as this book will reveal. Ettie could be manipulative and cruel, and her husband increasingly took long holidays abroad. Her eldest son Julian, after a nervous breakdown at Oxford, rejected her world and values. Nemesis and tragedy were not far away. In 1915 Julian died of war wounds. Six weeks later her second son Billy was killed in action. Her youngest son Ivo would be killed shortly after the war. Other deaths on the Western Front – of lovers and younger admirers – hurt her terribly too. But despite intense private misery, she reacted with outward courage and self-mastery. Grief revealed the greatness of her spirit. In the 1920s and 1930s she continued to collect new types, especially gifted young men, relishing people of all ages up to her death in 1952, a redoubtable survivor from a vanished age. – Source

Released last August in hardcover in the UK, a softcover US edition is scheduled for release this October.

Further Reading:
Heartbreak and Privilege – Standpoint Mag
Review – The Telegraph
Adventures of a lost soul – The Spectator
Revelations of Ettie Desborough, an Edwardian A-List – The Daily Mail

The IT Girl: Lady Duff Gordon


LadyDuffGordon(Genthe)History has unfortunately immortalized Lady Duff-Gordon as the cold, imperious woman who, with her husband, Sir Cosmo, commandeered a lifeboat to themselves during the sinking of the Titanic, thus completely ignoring her position in history as one of the first couturiers.

Maison LucileLady Duff Gordon was born Lucy Christiana Sutherland in 1863. Her sister, the future romantic novelist Elinor Glyn, was born the following year. After a lackluster childhood in Canada and on the Isle of Jersey, Lucy made an even more lackluster match with the alcoholic James Wallace in 1884. In a move that presaged her innate audacity and independence, Lucy separated from and then divorced Wallace nine years later. She took her young daughter Esme, and after a stint at dressmaking from her home, Lucy opened the Maison Lucile in Old Burlington Street, in the heart of the West End shopping district. By the turn of the century, business at Maison Lucile boomed prompting a relocation in 1897 to 17 Hanover Square, and a further move (circa 1901-04) to 14 George Street. In 1903 the business was incorporated as “Lucile Ltd.” and in 1904, the couture house moved to its final premises at 23 Hanover Square. By that time, Lucy had remarried to Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, a dashing sportsman whose keen business sense helped Lucy expand her business and social horizons even further.

Lucile003What made the Lucile brand unique was Lady Duff Gordon’s insistence upon individuality and innovation. Her designs were not startling and utterly different like those of Paul Poiret, but she honed in on what women craved in their attire: romantic, sensual gowns and lingerie full of the frou-frou, silks and lace so popular during the Edwardian era. Her most enduring and famous designs were for smash-hit operetta, The Merry Widow (1908). The large picture hat she designed for lead actress Lily Elsie, reminiscent of the “Gainsborough” hats of the 1780s, swept through fashionable society. Hats blossomed practically overnight in response, and remained that size until around 1912. Another innovation of the Lucile, Ltd was the fashion show, or mannequin parade. Ever since Charles Frederick Worth popularized actual showings of gowns on mannequins (models) in the 1850s, prospective clients liked to see gowns on the bodies of real women before choosing them. Lady Duff Gordon whipped this showing into a stage production, complete with stage, curtains, mood-setting lighting, music from a palm court orchestra, little gifts, and elegant programs. Clientele invited to the mannequin parade would relax with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits (cookies) in chairs facing the “catwalk” as a vendeuse called out the names of what Lucy called her “emotional gowns,” which were influenced by literature, history, and her interest in the psychology and personality of her clients. The models were statuesque and beautiful, and soon became as famous and sought-after as Gaiety Girls.

Lucile Couture Lady Duff Gordon’s influence on the fashion industry didn’t end there. She opened branches of Lucile Ltd in New York (1910), Paris (1911), and Chicago (1915), and licensed her name to Sears, Roebuck & Co for a two-season lower-priced, mail-order fashion line. With such highs, it was inevitable that The House of Lucile would hit a snag. In 1917 she was embroiled in the lawsuit Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, wherein the judge stripped her of the use of her own name after she contracted the sole right to market her name to her advertising agent. Shortly thereafter, the House of Lucile began to collapse. Lucy’s connection with her fashion house was cut short after a restructuring, but as with Paul Poiret and many other trendy Edwardian fashion houses, the name Lucile and the inspiration of its namesake designer were considered old-fashioned and démodé. Lady Duff Gordon briefly resurrected her design career with a ready-to-wear collection, and remained influential as a fashion columnist, but her pre-war success proved elusive. After penning her florid and discreet memoirs Discretions and Indiscretions in 1932, Lady Duff Gordon died three years later at age 71.

Despite living on as a Titanic “villan” and a footnote in legal history, Lucy Duff Gordon is a powerful and unforgettable woman in history. Through her imagination and eye for clothing, she helped lay the foundations for today’s couture and ready-to-wear industry, and the impact of fashion on society.

Further Reading

Lucile Ltd: London, Paris, New York and Chicago by Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye
The ‘IT’ Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the Couturiere “Lucile,” and Elinor Glyn, Romantic Novelist by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher
Lady Duff Gordon, a website
Madame Lucile: A Life in Style by Randy Bryan Bingham
Lucile Couture at The Fashion Spot
Ur-Couture: The House of Lucile
Photos of Lucile’s clothing