One of the exciting things for me about writing historical fiction is the opportunity to delve into the chocolate box of the past to choose all the champagne truffles, while leaving behind the strawberry creams. I didn’t enjoy dry-as-dust history lessons at school but what did fascinate me was how real people lived in days gone by. It was only with the passing of the years that I made the connection as to how much politics impacted on peoples’ day to day lives throughout history. As an author, there are countless factual and imaginary human stories to be told arising from historical social and political issues.
The Light Within Us, the first of the Spindrift trilogy, is set in the late Victorian period from 1891 to 1897. The Fading of the Light takes place only a few years later from 1902 to 1907 but it was interesting to discover the change in ambience through my research. The story opens during the summer of Edward VII’s coronation and the social atmosphere, following Queen Victoria’s death, is generally more liberal. While widowed Queen Victoria became more reclusive towards the end of her life, King Edward VII was a patron of the arts, enjoyed meeting people and traveling. He engaged in international politics, earning himself the name of Edward the Peacemaker.
In homes, the cluttered, dark and heavily patterned interiors of the Victorian era were swept away and replaced with pastel colours, elegant and timeless furniture designs and light-weight draperies. Fashion reflected this change and evolved into more pared-down styles, too. Skirts became narrower, often in a tulip shape and dresses were made of lighter weight fabrics. The Edwardian era was the last in which women were tightly corseted.
The Edwardian era is often referred to as ‘the golden age’ before the Great War, basking in the sun that was never expected to set on the Empire. The quality of the housing stock was improved and infant mortality dropped. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst founded The Women’s Social and Political Union. There was, however, still a long way to go before women would receive the vote. The rich enjoyed extravagant country house weekends, balls and shooting parties, their lifestyle facilitated by the low wages of the poor, who remained in the grip of grinding poverty. Further education became more widely available, even for girls, and the middle classes prospered with more opportunity to ‘better themselves’.
The Light Within Us explores the lives, loves and female friendships of the fictional Spindrift artists’ community on the rugged north coast of Cornwall. The Fading of the Light continues the story with emphasis on marriage and infidelity and the effect upon a woman and her children if it all went horribly wrong. I’d never thought of myself as a feminist until I began to discover how few rights women had in the past and it made me boil with the injustice of it all. In an unhappy marriage, divorce wasn’t an option at this time, except perhaps for the very rich and even then, only about ten private acts for divorce were passed in Parliament each year.
One of the great inequities was that a husband was able to sue for divorce if his wife had been unfaithful to him only once. Repeated acts of adultery or violence on his part weren’t sufficient grounds for a wife to divorce her husband and, in addition, she had to prove cruelty, desertion, incest or bestiality.If she left her husband, she lost custody of her children as well as any property she’d brought to the marriage.The Infants Custody Act 1839, known as the ‘tender years doctrine’, did allow a mother to have custody of children under seven, provided she could prove herself of unblemished reputation. Of course, a husband’s word as to his wife’s reputation was far more likely to be accepted than that of her own.
After a divorce or separation, even an innocent woman would afterwards be shunned by society and the slur passed on to her children. If a marital breakdown became unbearable, the couple often found it preferable to make quiet arrangements to live apart. Or the husband might lock his wife in a lunatic asylum if she displeased him.
Thankfully, women have a great deal more say in their lives these days. Marriage has evolved over the centuries and expectations of the married state have shifted and changed, too. According to an old English proverb, marriages are made in Heaven. Many warring couples will surely agree that an unhappy marriage must be made in Hell? Nevertheless, hope springs eternal and for many second marriages, love will triumph. Hopefully.
The Fading of the Light is #2 in the Spindrift trilogy and is a family drama set in an artists’ community in Cornwall.
1902 Spindrift House, Cornwall
Edith Fairchild, deserted by her feckless husband Benedict eight years before, has established the thriving Spindrift artists’ community by the sea and found deep and lasting love with Pascal. They have accepted that they cannot marry but, when Benedict returns unexpectedly to Spindrift House, all Edith and Pascal’s secret hopes and dreams of a joyous life together are overturned.
Benedict’s arrival shatters the peaceful and creative atmosphere of the close-knit community. When Edith will not allow him back into her bed, the conflict escalates and he sets in motion a chain of tragic events that reverberate down the years and threatens the happiness of the community forever.
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To read an earlier post about Women and Marriage in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (Courtship and Weddings) click here
To read an earlier post about Women and Marriage in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (After the Wedding) click here
To read an earlier post on The Edwardian Era – A Gilded Age? click here