The only drawback of an English summer is that it lasts so short a time.
On the first day of May 1911 temperatures throughout England began to rise, and everyone agreed that the world was becoming exceedingly beautiful. The cold weather of April had held back the flowering of many of the spring bulbs, and with the warmth of the first week of summer there had been a sudden burst of growth. The verges of the country lanes were frothing with cow parsley while late primroses still dotted the roadside banks. Top-hatted men strolling in the London parks had decided it was warm enough to abandon their scarves. Straw-bonneted women had gathered up country bluebells to sell in wilting bunches on street corners in the smarter parts of London, and window boxes were already spilling over with scarlet geraniums and marguerites.
Tiny pink flowers covered the branches that would later produce crab apples, while the ocean of white blossoms produced by other fruit trees had prompted Country Life to declare that “few people can remember any parallel to its profusion.” England was plump with promise.
The unaccustomed warmth coincided with the lifting of official Court mourning, a relief after the constraints of the preceding black-edged year: Edward VII had died in the spring of 1910. A few months before his death the poet Wilfrid Blunt had watched him take his seat in the Royal Box at Covent Garden. The King reached for “his opera glasses to survey the glittering women,” and Blunt saw “a man who looked, I thought, extremely genial and satisfied with his position in the scheme of the world.” But on 6 May Edward fell suddenly and severely ill with bronchitis and “smoker’s throat.” He managed, between puffs on a final cigar, to take in the news that his horse Witch of Air had won the 4.15 p.m. at Kempton Park, and died later the same day, moments before midnight, at the age of 68.
London went into a temporary but immediate state of gloom. A Jermyn Street grocer filled his window with the famous black Bradenham hams. A society hostess sewed black ribbons onto her daughter’s underwear. Crowds outside the gates of Buckingham Palace were delirious with shock. There was a Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall, and on 20 May Margot Asquith, the wife of the Prime Minister, stood on a red carpet outside the door of the medieval Hall waiting for the funeral procession of eight visiting kings and an emperor, on its way from the Palace. At the door of the Hall the Archbishop of Canterbury received the dead King’s widow first, followed by her son George. Soon afterwards the King’s brother the Duke of Connaught arrived with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Margot Asquith observed the Kaiser with his “observant eyes and immobile carriage,” and could not help thinking “what a terrifying result a bomb thrown from Big Ben would have had upon that assemblage.”
Society had breathed a sigh of relief when, days after Edward’s funeral, the new King and Queen announced that Royal Ascot would not, as had been expected, be cancelled. The race meeting of 1910 had been a surprisingly beautiful if sombre occasion. Gazing down from the stands above the racecourse, the Countess of Fingall thought that all the large black feathered hats made it look at first glance as if “an immense flight of crows had just settled,” but as she continued to watch the crowd move in monochrome synchronicity she concluded that “when you came close to them, never in their lives had the beautiful women looked more lovely.”
In certain circles, those that had formed the inner court of Edward VII, some anxiety persisted about whether the new King was quite up to the job. This man now ruled over the four hundred million subjects of the British Empire. Short and red-faced, he seemed a distant and nervous figure, and was accompanied in his new role by an unsmiling, aloof and—let it be acknowledged only in a whisper—less beautiful woman than his glittering mother, the Dowager Queen, Alexandra. That day there was much hushed talk on the racecourse and in the packed stands that had witnessed some of Edward VII’s most spectacular sporting triumphs. Conversations about change predominated. Lillie Langtry, one of the dead King’s first mistresses, was ruined by debt; Alice Keppel, one of his most recent mistresses, had fled to China. The grieving widowed Queen refused to move out of Buckingham Palace to make way for her son. For some it seemed as if a world had come to an end. People “anticipate a good deal of change,” George Cornwallis-West, stepfather of Winston Churchill, wrote to his daughter, and some alarmed race-goers even questioned whether the unshakeable confidence of upper-class Edwardian England had disappeared forever. With withering sarcasm they spoke of “a sweeter simpler reign.”
Although the Age of Edward was over, among the privileged, with their servants, their houses, their money and the convenient rigidity of the class system, there was an unspoken determination that a supremely enjoyable way of life should not alter, as the crown shifted from one head to another. Hopeful that the momentum generated by Edward would remain powerful enough to ensure their untroubled existence, by May of 1911 the aristocracy was looking forward to a glorious summer dominated by the Coronation of George V and filled with an unprecedented number of parties.
Mrs Hwfa (pronounced Hoofa) Williams, wife of the manager of Sandown racecourse (Sandown had been Hwfa’s brother’s estate, the racecourse Hwfa’s idea), a committed socialite and an impressively dedicated social climber, was keeping notes for a book for which she had already chosen the title: It Was Such Fun. Mrs Hwfa (she was always referred to by her husband’s Christian name rather than her own) seldom ran short of material. “The London Season was always strenuous,” she wrote, with no reason to expect that 1911’s would be any different. And though she was well into her sixties, her sense of fun guaranteed her an invitation to every smart party of the season. Her engagement diary confirmed her popularity: “Throughout the week practically every night people were at a dinner party, or a ball or the theatre or opera,” she wrote. “I do not say we were busy in the daytime but there was always something to do and combined with a succession of late nights, the end of the week inevitably found me exhausted.”
Osbert Sitwell had a particular affection for Mrs Hwfa, observing that “at every dance to which she went, she was surrounded by a crowd of young men, waiting for her arrival, and they always addressed her as Madam.” Sitwell knew how much effort she had to put into these parties: Mrs Hwfa was extremely deaf. “It is not easy,” he sympathised, “for someone afflicted with deafness to be amusing; it calls for unceasing alertness which must be a great tax on energy.” Sometimes, he noticed, she lost her way, and with only the odd word to guide her did not always guess correctly when trying to assume an expression suitable for the moment. She would hazard “a smile for the whimsical, a laugh for the witty, a striking look of interest for the dealer in the dramatic, a tear for those who wore their heart on their sleeve.” One small comfort was the knowledge that the Dowager Queen herself, Alexandra, suffered from a similar disability.
In line with Mrs Williams’s expectations, The Times Court Circular on 1 May 1911 overflowed with announcements for the coming months, including balls and weddings, race meetings and Royal investitures. Mrs Cornwallis-West was planning a spectacular Shakespeare Costume Ball. Under the patronage of Lady Ripon, Diaghilev was to bring his Russian dancers to Covent Garden to make their English debut in June. Over the last few years militant suffragettes, led by Mrs Pankhurst, had been campaigning for the vote for women and lobbying the Government with varying degrees of aggressive persuasion. But the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, had pledged to address their demands immediately after the summer recess, so they had promised to lay down their window-smashing bricks and hold a truce for the Coronation summer. And members of the House of Lords were hoping that they would defeat the Liberal Government’s proposed bill for a Parliament Act that would if passed place significant restrictions on their voting powers.
To avoid being crushed by boredom the privileged classes who made up one per cent of the population and owned sixty per cent of the country would go to impressive lengths. According to Lucy Masterman, the observant wife of a Liberal minister, the upper class consisted of “an aggregation of clever, agreeable, often loveable people trying with desperate seriousness to make something of a life spared the effort of wage earning.” Men sat about for much of the day in their clubs; ladies spent the early part of the morning in consultation with the cook over the dinner menu, followed by a shopping expedition to the new ‘department stores’ Selfridges and Whiteley’s (which boasted a staff of 6,000) or a dress fitting at Lady Duff Gordon’s fashionable Mayfair salon which traded under the name “Madame Lucille.” A meeting on a Tuesday with a friend involved in the same charitable cause and an amusing diversion to the gallery of Sir Francis Jeune’s divorce court on a Thursday helped to while away the hours. In spare moments they wrote anonymous letters to The Lady, a magazine which offered them detailed advice on servant management, home decoration, wigs, superfluous nasal hair, and flatulence control.
And yet the upper classes were still bored. Osbert Sitwell’s sister Edith, aged 23, watched her parents’ friends at play and saw them with the contempt of youth as “semi animate persons like an unpleasant form of vegetation or like dolls confected out of cheap satin, with here and there buttons fastened on their faces in imitation of eyes.” Semi-animate they might be, but most of these dolls mustered the energy to fill the empty spaces in their lives. Bridge was a passion, played not just at home but in the new women’s clubs, including the Army and Navy in Cork Street and The Empress in Dover Street. Carriages came to the house in the afternoon, the driver having earlier in the day dropped off small white cards (stiff for gentlemen, flimsy for ladies) at selected addresses to give advance notice of their employer’s intended visits. Since the house telephone was often positioned in a frustratingly public hallway, a call in person was imperative if any urgent society scandal were to be passed on discreetly. Other people’s love lives were endlessly fascinating (that May Lady Cunard was caught in flagrante with a man not her husband). Cinq-à-sept appointments—the late afternoon and early evening hours allocated for sex—thrived under the complicit though theoretically unseeing gaze of the servants. The servants’ hall, it was said, was privy to more secrets than Asquith’s Cabinet. The actress Mrs Patrick Campbell was reassuring. “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom,” she asked, “as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?”
The fashions of the time positively invited flirtation and dalliance. For grander evening occasions married women displayed erotically low-cut décolletage, and the innovative French couturier Paul Poiret had recently brought his sheer evening gown “La Vague” across the Channel. The dress fell straight from the bosom to swirl seductively and wave-like round the body, allowing a tantalising glimpse of the natural feminine curves beneath. A new form of underwear, the brassi’re, permitted the full form of the body to be defined more clearly.
Dinner parties, eight-course affairs with handwritten menus that might be inscribed on the shiny surface of a water-lily leaf or on the sail of a miniature boat, were so elaborate that they became a triumph of presentation and slick teamwork between the cook and the butler. People still spoke of the summer when Mr Hector Baltazzi was so overcome by winning the Derby that he instructed his chef to float a pearl in every plate of watercress soup served at dinner that night. At 10 p.m. carriages would arrive to carry their bejewelled occupants to one of the great Mayfair residences—Devonshire House, perhaps, or Londonderry House or Spencer House—where the grand staircase leading to the ballroom would be wound around with thick garlands of lilies, the musky-sweet scent filling the candlelit space. Dance music was usually provided by a band, but the rich, golden voice of Enrico Caruso had started to resound from crimson enamel horns, the huge metal tropical flowers of a thousand gramophones. New dances accompanied the new music, and couples took to the floor in the turkey trot, the bunny-hug and the chicken scramble.
No one referred to “weekends.” The term was considered “common” or, in the current vogue term, “canaille.” The rich would leave London not on a Friday but for a “Saturday-to-Monday.” On Saturday “The Noah’s Ark,” a huge domed trunk containing enough clothes for six changes a day, would be loaded into the car or, for more distant destinations, a train and transported to country houses belonging to families whose names would have been familiar to Shakespeare. The Northumberlands welcomed their guests to Alnwick, the Salisburys to Hatfield, and the Warwicks to Warwick Castle. Between arrival on Saturday and departure on Monday morning, a sequence of pleasures would unfold. There were tennis parties and croquet matches, bicycle rides followed by picnic lunches, their charm enhanced by white lacy parasols and juicy strawberries and flutes of champagne packed in wicker baskets. During long lazy afternoons in hammocks that summer of 1911 the pampered guests looked forward to reading aloud from the caricaturist and wit Max Beerbohm’s just-published romance Zuleika Dobson, a love story about a group of young men fated to die as a consequence of misplaced idealism. E.M. Forster, whose own novel Howards End had been a bestseller only the year before, found in Beerbohm’s story “a beauty unattainable by serious literature.” Maurice Baring, another young novelist, described how in the afternoons the gilded youth “moved in muslin and straw hats and yellow roses on the lawns of gardens designed by Le Nôtre, delicious with ripe peaches on old brick walls, with the smell of verbena and sweet geranium; and stately with large avenues, artificial lakes and white temples.”
At dinner the placement in the dining room upstairs would be mirrored in the servants’ hall below, the resident butler taking the head of the table with the highest-ranking visiting lady’s maid on his right. After dinner, in the upstairs drawing rooms, small tables lit with lamps in shades of tightly wrapped dark red silk would be laid for bridge or the whist-drives at which Lady Diana Manners, who was making her debut at Court that summer, excelled. Turkish and Egyptian cigarettes would be set out in little boxes. Maurice Baring remembered how they sometimes “bicycled in the warm night past ghostly cornfields by the light of a large full moon” before retiring upstairs, where much silent and furtive corridor-creeping between one double bedroom and another took place. In the morning, a convenient hour before the required appearance, fully dressed, at breakfast, a bell would be rung and the creeping went on again, in reverse.
Some of the rich and privileged were not enjoying themselves at the beginning of that summer. Lady Ida Sitwell could not rouse herself to join in at all. Her life was one of total indolence, as she tried to fill “the blank stretch between hour and hour.” Staying in bed all day was convenient because, as her daughter observed, “there was nothing to do if she got up.” Edith was full of contempt for her mother, a woman so wildly extravagant that her husband had to limit the cash available to her. She claimed Lady Ida was kept so short of money that she would be sent out to pawn her mother’s false teeth in exchange for a bottle of whisky that would make the hours in bed pass a little more quickly.
The eighth Earl of Sandwich had enough time on his hands to become inordinately distressed by his female guests’ habit of lunching with their hats on. At one of his lunch parties the ladies had scarcely begun to enjoy their sole meuni’re when the opera star Dame Nellie Melba, the guest of honour that day, was taken aback to see the butler, sporting a smart bowler above his black suit, approach Lord Sandwich carrying a tweed cap on his silver tray. In vengeful silence Lord Sandwich lifted the cap to his head and pulled it down over his eyebrows, glowering fiercely round the room.
Sir Herbert Tree found himself challenged by boredom. Visiting his local post office to buy a stamp, he waited while the clerk behind the counter produced a sheet containing a gross of identical sticky squares featuring the King’s head. There was a long period in which no word was spoken: Sir Herbert could not make up his mind which stamp to buy. Finally he arrived at a decision, and the clerk’s face remained impassive as with some dexterity he retrieved Sir Herbert’s choice. He had plumped for the one in the very centre of the sheet.
The odd dissenter was heard, but in general there were good reasons for those outside the life of unchanging aristocratic privilege to feel equally joyful at being alive in 1911. Recently returned to England after six and a half years in the civil service in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf detected “a sweeping away of formalities and barriers” which he found “new and exhilarating.” There was a mood of energy and innovation. The motor car had become a more familiar sight at least in the big cities, although the spectacle of a daring young woman, Vita Sackville-West, at the wheel of her elegant De Dion Bouton (known as “Green Archie”) with its electric ignition and water-cooled engine, speeding down her local High Street in Sevenoaks, was enough to bring people running to their doorways to stare.
The car gave its driver a position of power, raising, as Osbert Sitwell noticed, “the rich and even the humble lorry driver to a new and god-like level.” That spring, Rolls-Royce had commissioned Charles Robinson Sykes to design a new mascot for the bonnet of the car, and his elegant winged figure leaning bravely into the facing wind in her body-clinging gown was named, “The Spirit of Ecstasy.” Sykes’s inspiration was the lovely Miss Eleanor Velasco Thornton, whose liaison with Lord Montagu, a leading enthusiast among the collectors of Rolls-Royce cars, had remained a secret for a decade.
Men who until recently had only been able to take their sweethearts on a bicycle made for two were now flying down country lanes in a state of speed-induced sensuality. Osbert Sitwell described “their hair blown back from their temples, features sculptured by the wind, bodies and limbs shaped and carved by it continually under their clothes so that they enjoyed a new physical sensation, comparable to swimming except here the element was speed not water.” Young people had never been so unchaperoned, and “no other generation had been able to speed into the sunset.”
In Vita Sackville-West’s novel The Edwardians, set during the first eleven years of the twentieth century, the mistress of the Duke of Chevron returns exhilarated from a drive. “What I like better than anything is driving in that racing motor of yours,” she says to her lover, “then I feel we may be dashed to death at any moment.” Just as speed had never been so invigorating, so the lack of responsibility had never provided such intoxication.
And yet there were dangers involved on the roads. Not all cars had windscreens; their engines blew up, their tyres exploded; and inexperienced drivers took to the wheel with gusto. Pedestrians were still unused to this mechanical hazard. The Metropolitan Police Statistics for accidents caused by vehicles in London in 1909 were published in 1911. There had been 3,488 accidents recorded involving motor-cars and motor cycles, 2,220 for trams, 1,343 for motor omnibuses, 304 for horse-drawn omnibuses and 6,033 for other horse-drawn vehicles. Of these accidents, 303 were fatal. In the middle of June F.E. Smith, MP, lawyer, and close friend of the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, found himself late for dinner. As he drove along beside the banks of the Thames, on the approach to the House of Commons, his car hit a man who was crossing Westminster Bridge. The man had not, according to The Times, been paying full attention to the road, but looking up at the clock on the tower that housed the Westminster bell, Big Ben. He was killed instantly. Later in the summer the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, was being driven in his official car to London from Berkshire when his car collided with a young woman riding her bicycle; she was critically injured.
Change for this generation was rapid. The novelist H.G. Wells thought Queen Victoria had “like a great paperweight sat on men’s minds and when she was removed their ideas began to blow about all over the place haphazardly.” The Edwardians were the beneficiaries of this exciting and ever-shifting wind. In London new lines were being opened on the underground train system every few years. In 1906, to prove its safety and reliability, a man with a wooden leg had been invited as the inaugural passenger on the first moving underground staircase, on the Bakerloo line. The “escalator” had proved such a success that a larger version was ready for use at Earl’s Court by May of 1911, for the Festival of Empire. An immense ship, said to be as tall as the highest skyscraper in New York and “practically unsinkable,” was nearing completion in the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolfe. The first journey by air over the Channel had taken place two years earlier. Moving films, after the first blurry jerky days, were becoming both an increasingly sophisticated art form and, screened in conjunction with the topical news films, a hugely popular form of entertainment. A visit to the cinema became a valuable source of information about current affairs. Over-busy theatre lovers, including the Queen, enjoyed the new service offered by the post office: special headphones that provided a live link from private homes to many of the shows and operas on the West End stage. Cornflakes and tea bags had arrived on breakfast tables.
The fixity of the nineteenth century had vanished, yet change brought with it a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The rapidly increasing military and naval power of Germany and the continuing debate between the Unionists and those who supported Home Rule in Ireland were England’s predominant off-shore concerns that summer, and the strength of the internal unrest that began to find expression took many by surprise. The vast labour force of industrial England was flexing its muscles, on the verge of reaching full political maturity. The profound despair felt among the poor of the country remained unvoiced no longer, and strike action marked the whole summer of 1911. Even domestic servants were beginning to question their long-accepted role.
Many of the very poor sent their children abroad, after replying to daily newspaper advertisements that seemed to offer the next generation better opportunities. The sum required to separate child from parent, perhaps forever, was a quarter of the average annual wage of a farm labourer. Dr Barnado’s advised that “£10 a head for the outfit and for travelling” would be a good investment for a “guaranteed good home in Canada, for the benefit of the Empire.” Children were evacuated as if to escape a war that had not been declared.
However, many people in England were united in their national preoccupation with the weather. They hoped that the beautiful early summer days would last at least until the Coronation. One woman, however, was doubtful whether even the sunshine could dispel her mood of anxiety. From her bedroom window at the top of the Mall she could hear the hammering of wooden stands being knocked into place in preparation for the unveiling of the memorial to Queen Victoria in two weeks’ time. Queen Mary was not looking forward to the months ahead.