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Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Elinor Glyn and “Three Weeks”

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In 1812 with the publication of Childe Harold, Lord Byron “awoke and found myself famous”. The same could be said of prolific Edwardian author Elinor Glyn who, after stirring a bit of attention for herself with The Visits of Elizabeth, awoke one morning in 1907 to find herself infamous with the publication of Three Weeks.

A native of the Isle of Jersey, that same island from which the equally alluring Lillie Langtry sprung, Elinor and her sister Lucy, who became the first socialite couturier Lucille, also came from humble backgrounds to take London society by storm. Glyn turned to writing after her marriage to landowner Clayton Glyn soured due to his spendthrift ways and their incompatible personalities. She quickly produced a series of light, frothy peeks into high society that proved successful with the public: The Vicissitudes of Evangeline (a series of vignettes detailing a young debutante’s observations of the love affairs of high society, which scandalized the reading public not by its subject, but by a scene where Evangeline is described as becoming in her lingerie!), The Visits of Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth Visits AmericaThe Reflections of Ambrosine and The Reason Why.

three-weeksIt wasn’t until she published Three Weeks however, that Elinor Glyn began to rhyme with sin. Three Weeks was the story of a clandestine affair between Englishman Paul Verdayne and a mysterious older woman he meets while on vacation, whom he only knows as “The Lady.” The most sensual and enduring scene which made Elinor immortal took place on a tiger skin, which inspired the doggerel:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

elinor-glyn2The resulting scandal “helped to ensure worldwide sales of more than five million in the 25 years after it was first published.” The furor surprised the demure Mrs. Glyn who, in an article with the New York Times, mere said she merely attempted to “show what an educated Slav in love would think and do.” Because of this book, Glyn was considered the leading expert on romance, passion and sex, and was asked around the world to discuss such topics, where she left audiences of both men and women hanging onto her every word as she uttered such pronouncements as “Love is a trinity–body and soul and the desire to reproduce love’s image.” In time, Elinor’s flamboyant persona and flair for words brought her to Hollywood of the 1920s where she promptly coined another enduring word: “It,” that is, the innate sexual appeal some people had and most others didn’t. “It” was the title of her 1927 release and also that of a movie adaptation starring Clara Bow, which helped Glyn parlay her Edwardian success far past that era, where she convinced the cynical post-Great War generation that theirs was not the only period for love and sin.

Further Reading:
The It Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon and Elinor Glyn by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher
Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn by Joan Hardwick
Montacute’s Tigress (BBC)
Books by Elinor Glyn

A life of contrast: Daisy, Countess of Warwick

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Daisy, Countess of Warwick

by Victoria Fishburn

Imagine a beautiful woman from Edwardian England who married an Earl, became mistress to the Prince of Wales and astonished Society by standing as a Labour candidate for Parliament. Such a woman was Daisy, Countess of Warwick. Her words, written in two memoirs and countless other books, are still quoted by most historians of the period. In her youth, she was famous for her looks. Cartes-de-visites with her likeness were bought by those who followed the ‘Professional Beauties’, society women whose beauty was admired amongst all classes. Her friend Elinor Glyn referred to her as an ‘It girl’. The fair, curvaceous heiress hit London Society in the 1880s but, although she was painted by Sargent and sculpted by Rodin, her beauty was only part of the reason that she was famous in her lifetime. Even today, her name is widely recognized. This is largely because the life that she led followed so unconventional a path. Despite having good looks, a fortune, a lasting marriage and nine successful years as mistress to the Prince of Wales behind her, she embarked upon a radical life as a social reformer.

My interest in her was sparked by the sheer unlikeliness of her character. She leaves a confusing legacy: an heiress, a Countess and a landowner and yet she signed up to the socialist ideal of land nationalization and tried to give her house away. She had the love of the Prince and yet she pestered him with her ideas for reform. Hugely extravagant, she spent lavishly on entertaining her guests, whilst supporting reforms to help the poor and downtrodden. She stood for a parliamentary seat as a candidate for the Labour party but appeared on political platforms dressed in pearls and furs. Daisy’s life was marked out as unusual from the age of three when she inherited the estates of her grandfather, her father having already died.

The self-confidence and determined independence that characterized her approach to life, started early. She rode dangerous racehorses from her stepfather’s stable, she went to the theatre with Disraeli and, most shockingly, she thwarted the plans of Queen Victoria to marry her to the youngest Prince, her haemophiliac son, Leopold. Brookie was a good catch as heir to the Earl of Warwick but did not have the cachet of a Prince. Young, active and gorgeous she swept all before her as she reveled in her position as Lady Brooke. Having produced a son for her husband, infidelity was accepted in the aristocratic circles in which she moved, as long as affairs were conducted according to that all-important quality of the age: discretion. Daisy threw parties, she bought dresses from Paris by the great French designers, Charles Worth and Doucet, she had lovers and she hunted. But the same impulsiveness that she brought to the hunting field made her indiscreet.

Her reputation was first tarnished by a reckless letter she wrote to her lover, Lord Charles Beresford, berating him for his wife’s pregnancy. The affair foundered at the insult to his wife and recognizing the dire threat of ruin to her reputation, Daisy fled into the arms of the Prince. She entertained Bertie and his friends, first at her own Essex estate and subsequently at Warwick Castle, inherited by her husband Lord Brooke in 1893. Her years as royal mistress should have made her reputation unassailable but even then she was criticized for her indiscreet gossip: a gambling deal involving the Prince of Wales, earned her the nickname, ‘Babbling Brooke’. But both Bertie and Brookie were devoted to her and put up with a great deal. Brookie wrote that he would rather have been married to Daisy ‘with all her peccadilloes’ than to any other woman in the world. They remained married until his death.

Like so many who lavishly entertained their future King, Daisy was extravagant and, what had seemed a great fortune, diminished to the point when she had to sell many of her possessions and property. Her most ignominious episode came about because of debt. After the death of Edward VII, she attempted to raise money by the sale of his love letters to her, offering them, at a price, to George V. The royal advisers were not moved to help her, despite the fact that she had never had the financial benefits and protection given to some of Edward’s other mistresses. She was threatened with an injunction and forced to give the letters to the King. Kept secret at the time, this affair emerged in the 1960s in a book by Theo Lang called ‘My Darling Daisy’ – the affectionate address used by the Prince of Wales in his letters. The name stuck.

daisy-warwick005She was given many labels in her life: Professional Beauty, It girl, Babbling Brooke and My Darling Daisy but, before the end of her life, the Countess of Warwick was known by another, and very unlikely, name: the Socialist Countess. At a time when many Edwardians were clinging to the vestiges of a glamorous Society life which was to end with the First World War, Daisy was again stepping out of the mould. Her kind nature and sympathy with those suffering hardship, had inspired her to many philanthropic actions over the years. She had started a home for cripples and a needlework school for rural girls with a shop to sell their work. She funded a secondary school and championed the cause of women’s education by establishing a training college for women. When her days as royal mistress were behind her, she became interested in the rising Socialist movement. Philanthropy turned to Socialism by 1904, when she joined the Social Democratic Foundation. It perplexed her society friends that she should join the highly unfashionable world of trade unionists and socialists. But Daisy had changed. She was no longer interested in Society, her friends now encompassed many fellow Socialists: George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells and Gustav Holst were amongst them.

Bravely independent, Daisy increased her literary output in order to make some money. Although never an author of the calibre of Shaw or Wells, it is through her writing that Daisy Warwick maintains her hold on posterity. Between 1898 and 1934, twelve books came out under her name, the first a book on gardens. The subjects were varied: essays on Socialism; a short biography of the leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris; a well-respected history of Warwick Castle; a book of essays on the First World War and two substantial books of memoirs. She edited and wrote introductions or essays for a further eight books. Daisy sailed to America in 1912, to give a lecture tour in New York and Washington: the newspapers were full of the outfits she wore and were more interested in society gossip than the socialism she wanted to preach. Back home she contributed articles to London newspapers and the Daily Sketch commissioned her as an advice columnist and editor of their womens’ page. This astonishing literary output kept her name in the public eye.

In 1923, Daisy Warwick stood as a candidate for the Labour Party for the parliamentary seat of Warwick and Leamington. Her opponent was her relation, and later Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. But the overdressed Countess of Warwick, who owed money to many of those who might have supported her, was shunned and, ignominiously, beaten into third place. With this result, she left parliamentary ambitions behind her although she continued to support the Labour Party. In the late 1920s she tried to give her house in Essex away, first to the Labour Party and, when that failed, to the Trade Union Congress. Ironically, it was the fact that she was a Countess and a symbol of privilege that caused the rejection of her offer. Disillusioned with socialism, she retreated back to her home and an old age concerned with the welfare of animals.

Daisy Warwick’s seventy-eight years had been eventful: from her birth as a beautiful and privileged heiress to an old age where looks, money and society friends had all gone. But her name lives on today and this is where her literary output has extended her fame. She is a valuable source for most historians of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Theo Aronson in The King in Love, Stanley Weintraub in Edward, King in Waiting, Henry Vane in Affair of State, Leo McKinstry in his recent biography of Rosebery, Andrew Roberts in Salisbury: Victorian Titan and Anthony Allfrey in Edward VII and his Jewish Court are just some of the many historians who use Daisy’s insights taken from her memoirs and other writings.

Victoria Fishburn is presently writing a biography on Daisy, Countess of Warwick and can be contacted by email: victoria [at] fishburns [dot] co [dot] uk.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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March 25, 2009 is the 98th anniversary of the fire that tore through the workrooms of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and left 148 women dead. It had been a normal day in the factory where hundreds of young immigrant women worked in fourteen hour shifts for six or seven dollars a week to make shirtwaists for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The company in which these young women labored was located on the top three floors of the ten-floor Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square. Hard-worked they were, but these young women had won a notable victory just two years before, putting the shirtwaist factory in the public eye when they struck boldly for higher wages and better working conditions in event known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”

That day the young women stretched their arms and cramped fingers, joking and chatting with one another as they tidied their workstations and shoved their arms into their coats as the clock’s hands pulled closer to 4:45. Then someone yelled “Fire!” Within moments panic broke out amongst the workers and everyone scattered, jamming doorways and halls in an effort to escape. Outside, United Press reporter William G. Shepard happened to stroll near the area when he suddenly saw smoke:triangle

I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.

To his horror, and that of the crowd rushing to the scene of the fire, more young women jumped from the burning building. Firemen appeared on the scene, but the ladders were too short, and the life nets held aloft for the jumping girls to land on tore upon impact. All around the building lay dead bodies, broken, charred and covered with blood. The fire was put out not an hour later, and firemen rushed to the top three floors and were met with dozens of burnt bodies. They cleared the building of the last body by 11 that night.

triangle3The following day, grieving relatives and curious onlookers streamed through the morgue set up on the 26th Street pier to identify the dead. By April, the public outcry against the unsafe working conditions in New York forces the authorities to do something about this long-neglected blight on the city. That same month, owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck are indicted for manslaughter in connection with the fire deaths. Further reports indicated that the escape route from the ninth floor was blocked by a locked door. Harris and Blanck were brought to trial in December and to the horror of the crowd, they were found “not guilty” after a deliberation of two hours. blankharrisThe family of the victims and the survivors took Harris and Blanck to court in a civil suit and in 1914, the twenty-three individual suits for damages against Triangle were settled for an average of just $75 per life lost. In the aftermath of the fire, New York created a Factory Investigating Commission to examine the need for new legislation to prevent future fire disasters. In part because of the work of the Commission, “the golden era in remedial factory legislation” was launched and over the next three years, New York enacted 36 new safety laws.

Today we are linked to the tragedy through Rose Freedman, last living survivor of the fire, who died in 2001 age 107 and the designation of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building (Brown Building) as a National Historical Landmark. For more information, please visit the following websites:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial
The Triangle Factory Fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial

The fire in fiction:
The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by Suzanne Lieurance
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory by Charity Barger
Triangle: A Novel by Katharine Weber
Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch