A few weeks ago I was surfing channels and was pretty excited to land on a PBS Downton Abby fund raiser. They were featuring, Secrets of Manor Houses and of course, Downton Abby. So I grabbed my tea and notebook and settled in for the afternoon.
This topic is of special interest to me as I’m in the middle of editing my Edwardian psychic ghost story, Heaven Made. What is so fascinating about this period of time is that it straddles the old with new in what I consider a perfect way. You had some lovely modern conveniences, such as the water closet, telephone, automobile, and electricity, while still embracing the old fashions, styles and customs of the past. Also, in Edwardian times, especially in jolly old England, the lines were becoming blurred as to who could claim access to the peers and highest echelons of society.
With all their posturing and posing, the Ton was going broke trying to maintain their huge estates and elaborate lifestyles. An infusion of money was required and the easiest way for the family heir to get his hands on ready cash was to marry an American heiress.
Another great BBC show that highlights this trend is, The Buccaneers. A wealthy American man sends his daughters to London to find peers of the realm to marry so that he can use those contacts in order to increase his own business interests. This was becoming a very common practice by the late 1800’s and although the Americans were made fun of behind their backs, the English simply couldn’t afford to decline the generous offer of these gauche and sometimes unattractive daughters in exchange for monetary gain.
Another fascinating trend of the time was the chasm between below stairs and above stairs was growing narrower. Part of the reason for this was because modern conveniences, like electricity and the automobile made it possible to run a manor house on fewer and fewer servants. Before, when a lamp needed to be lit in every room and a stable full of horses had to be maintained, it wasn’t unusual for a house to have up to a hundred on staff. This made ignoring the vast number of hired help a bit easier and less obvious.
However, the one event that truly changed the relationship between servants and masters was World War I. It was difficult to ignore the lower classes when they were fighting with their former masters side by side or caring for the wounded elbow to elbow. After that momentous event, it would be difficult to go back to the old ways.
In my book, Heaven Made, which takes place in 1902 London, I found another interesting topic to focus on. Not only were the peers going broke, but of course a lady could find herself in dire straits if she had no means of her own. If she were widowed and her husband’s estate was entailed to a distant male relative, she might very well find herself out on the street looking for a position. Not much work out there for a lady of previous means. During my research I found an interesting occupation described as ‘lady help’. It was a position in a fine home where there was no lady of the house (a wife, mother, aunt or older daughter) yet there was still a need for overseeing of the staff. Don’t forget, most households in this era still had quite a large staff of servants who if given an inch would take a mile. The housekeeper and butler could only do so much without the firm hand of a master and mistress. I took a little liberty with this idea and ran with it, adding a matchmaking psychic employment agency to the mix. This of course is the fun part about writing fiction, mixing some truth with wholly fabricated themes.
If I could travel back in time, I wouldn’t mind being one of those American heiresses shipped off to jolly old England to find myself a cash poor Duke to wed. Maybe I’ll write a book about it.
Sheryl Hoyt aka Saralynn Hoyt lives in North Bend, Washington State near Seattle. She lives in the Cascade foothills with her husband and two cats. A manager in the financial world by day, Sheryl likes to curl up with her cats and a toasty fire creating imaginary worlds in times and places that spark her imagination.