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Behind the Scenes: Edwardian Art Crime

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Illustration from The Painted Dragon by Karl James Mountford

When I started writing The Painted Dragon, I knew that I wanted the story to centre on an art theft. Mysterious stolen paintings are a classic crime trope, appearing everywhere from episodes of ‘Jonathan Creek’, through to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch!

What’s more, a little research soon showed me that there were some fascinating real-life art thefts that took place during the late Victorian and Edwardian period.Here are two of my favourite examples:

The Mona LisaMona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched

The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911 has been described as ‘the greatest art theft of the 20th century.’

A former employee of the Louvre, Peruggia reportedly entered the museum first thing in the morning amongst a crowd of workers, disguising himself in the same white smock the workers always wore. Waiting until the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa hung, was completely empty, he lifted the painting off the wall, and took it to a nearby service staircase where he removed its protective case and frame, before sneaking it out of the building.

Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years, whilst the police investigated the crime. Amongst the many people they questioned were the artist Pablo Piccasso. They even questioned Peruggia himself, but accepted his explanation that he had been working elsewhere on the day of the robbery. Meanwhile, in the Louvre, art lovers left bouquets of flowers against the bare wall, where The Mona Lisa had once hung.

Peruggia was finally caught in 1913, after he took the painting back to his home country of Italy. There, he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of a Florence art gallery, and told him that The Mona Lisa was in his possesion. After ‘authenticating’ the painting (to check it was real and not a forgery), Geri at once informed the police – and Peruggia was arrested.

There was a frenzy of delight when The Mona Lisa was found. Geri was awarded the rosette of the Légion d’Honneur by the French state, and exhibitions were organised all around Italy with great fanfare. Italian children even got the day off school to go to Florence to admire the rescued painting. Finally, at the end of December, the painting was transported back to Paris in its own special railway carriage. Whenever it passed through a station, people would gather to cheer and wave!

To this day, no one is absolutely certain why Peruggia decided to steal the painting. Some think it was for patriotic reasons: Peruggia believed the painting had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon (although in fact, Leonardo da Vinci had given the painting as a gift to the French king Francis I, 250 years before Napoleon’s birth!) and wanted to return it to its homeland. Others believe that it was con-man Eduardo de Valfierno who had masterminded the crime, with the aim of commissioning a forger to make copies of the painting, which he could then sell as the missing original. But whatever is the truth about Peruggia’s motives, there’s no doubt that the theft helped make The Mona Lisa more famous – and enigmatic – than ever.

The Duchess of Devonshire

One of the most fascinating art crimes I found out about during my research for The Painted Dragon was the theft of Gainsborough’s painting The Duchess of Devonshire .

Thomas_Gainsborough_Lady_Georgiana_CavendishIn 1876, the recently rediscovered portrait had been sold to art dealer William Agnew at auction for the astronomical sum of 10,000 guineas –  then the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The auction created a frenzy of interest around the painting, and when it was put on display at Agnew’s Bond Street gallery it drew big crowds of people, who all wanted to see this priceless portrait for themselves.But just a few short weeks after the painting went on display, Agnew’s gallery was broken into – and The Duchess of Devonshire was dramatically stolen!

The theft provoked a great deal of media attention – and the gallery was flooded with letters and telegrams from people all over the country, who either claimed to have spotted the painting, or had their own wild theories about how the theft might have taken place, and how Agnew might get the painting back.

The mysterious theft made the portrait itself  even more famous. The Duchess of Devonshire herself became a fashion icon, and the painting had a huge influence on the styles of the day – with ostrich-feather ‘Gainsborough hats’ becoming all the rage in both London and New York.

Amazingly, the painting wasn’t seen again for 25 years, when the truth about what had happened to The Duchess of Devonshire was finally revealed. The painting had in fact been stolen by Victorian master thief, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’ himself, Adam Worth.

Initially, Worth had stolen the painting in order to raise bail to release his brother from prison. But when his brother was unexpectedly freed without bail, Worth decided to keep the painting ‘for a rainy day’. At this time he was posing as Henry J Raymond, a wealthy and highly respectable American gentleman. At his fashionable residence on Piccadilly, he kept the painting carefully pinned under the mattress of his four-poster bed. Later, he had a trunk made with a false bottom which allowed him to conceal the painting (along with other spoils, such as stolen diamonds) on his journey back to the United States. So began what Ben MacIntyre in his book about Worth, The Napoleon of Crime describes as ‘a strange, true Victorian love-affair between a crook and a canvas’.

It’s certainly true that Worth seems to have felt a strong desire to keep hold of The Duchess of Devonshire. For many years, he kept the portrait carefully hidden in a Brooklyn warehouse – and even when a robbery went wrong, and he was arrested and sent to prison in Belgium, he never tried to sell the painting, nor revealed its whereabouts to anyone.

In fact, it wasn’t until several years after his release from prison, in early 1901, that he finally negotiated a return of the painting to the Agnews (via the famous American detective agency Pinkerton’s) for the sum of $25,000. The portrait and payment were exchanged in Chicago in March 1901, and shortly afterwards the The Duchess of Devonshire arrived back in London, and was immediately put up for sale. Wall Street financier JP Morgan quickly snapped it up for a reported $150,000.

Adam Worth himself is such a fascinating figure that I’ll save writing more about him for another blog post. But you might like to know that after belonging to the Morgan family for most of the 20th century, today The Duchess of Devonshire has at last made her way back home to Chatsworth House, home of the Devonshire family.

The theft of The Green Dragon, the priceless painting that is stolen in The Painted Dragon, ended up being rather different to the real-life theft of either The Mona Lisa or The Duchess of Devonshirefeaturing a forged painting, a locked-room mystery, and a mysterious criminal in red leather gloves. However, there’s no doubt that these real-life Edwardian art crimes had an important part to play in helping to inspire the story.  If you would like to read a bit more about art thefts there are some fascinating books on the subject: I’d particularly recommend The Napoleon of Crime as mentioned above.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Art School

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Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Painted Dragon

The third book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, The Painted Dragon, takes us into a new area of Edwardian London. In this story, we are plunged into the city’s art world – meeting art students, celebrated painters and art collectors – and going behind the scenes at exhibitions, auctions and museums, as well as art school the Spencer Institute.

Whilst the Spencer Institute is fictional, it was partly inspired by a real-life art school, the Slade, which still exists in London today. Forming part of University College London, the Slade was founded by lawyer and philanthropist Felix Slade in the 1860s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, an incredible number of famous artists studied there – including Augustus and Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and (a little later, at around the time  The Painted Dragon is set) the likes of Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer.

This group of young artists – together with their wider circle of writers and intellectuals – were something like the Young British Artists of their day. They enthusiastically embraced exciting new artistic movements such as Futurism and Vorticism and they led unconventional Bohemian lifestyles. They enjoyed wearing wild and unusual clothes – like Dora Carrington, who was one of the ‘Slade Cropheads’, a group of female students who dramatically rejected ideas of Edwardian beauty by cutting off their long-hair into short boyish bobs.

In all these ways, the art students rebelled against the conservative, traditional old-fashioned culture of the Edwardian era – and opened the door to the exciting new possibilities of modernism, taking their inspiration from the avant-garde artists of Paris and Vienna.

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Dora Carrington and some of her fellow ‘Slade Cropheads’

In The Painted Dragon we see this world thorough the eyes of aspiring artists Leo and Jack, as they start their first term at the Spencer Institute. Like Leo, Jack and their friends at the Spencer, the real-life students at the Slade in the 1900s would begin their studies by spending lots of time in the Antiques Room, drawing from copies of plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture. Here, they would be carefully watched over by the strict Professor Henry Tonks – a rather terrifying figure, who was both respected and feared by his students! He was famous for his stinging criticisms, which sometimes made students weep – and rarely praised anyone. (Professor Jarvis, the stern drawing teacher who appears in The Painted Dragon, certainly owes a little something the real-life Professor Tonks.)

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An Edwardian drawing class

Only when Professor Tonks considered them good enough were the art students allowed to graduate to the Life Class, where they would draw real models. Male and female students had separate life classes, for reasons of decorum! But in general, the art school was a place where the strict rules of Edwardian society were relaxed. Students came from many different backgrounds: the Slade welcomed both students like Mark Gertler, a talented sixteen-year old from the slums of East London; and well-off young people, such as Richard Nevinson, who came from a middle-class background and had previously attended an expensive public school. Outside classes, the students enjoyed socialising at bohemian cafes and restaurants like the famous Café Royal – which also makes an appearance in The Painted Dragon.

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The Cafe Royal in 1901

These young artists were dedicated to their work, producing everything from portraits and still-lifes to landscape paintings. They played an important role in influencing – and unsettling  – the art and culture of their time. But in 1914, the outbreak of war changed everything. The First World War, in which so many of them fought and died, had a shattering affect upon this young artistic community. Today, it’s sobering to reflect on what they might have been able to achieve under different circumstances: as Randolph Schwabe wrote: ‘Much talent and some genius was born into their generation, and their loss… is deplorable in its tale of waste and fulfilment.’

If you’d like to read more about the Slade and these young artists, I’d highly recommend A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 by Virginia Nicholson also provides a fascinating insight into artistic and bohemian life in the early 20th century, including the importance of places such as the Café Royal.

For fiction, Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy of (adult) novels are partly set at the Slade and focus on a group of young artists. I’d also highly recommend Ruth Elwin Harris’s YA novels The Quantock Quartet (now sadly out of print) about the artistic Purcell sisters – in particular Frances’s Story which follows ambitious older sister Frances to London to study at the Slade.

Today, you can see paintings by some of the artists who studied at the Slade at Tate Modern. For more of an idea of what the Edwardian art world would have been like, I’d also recommend visiting the grand Royal Academy (the heart of the Edwardian art establishement – the opening of the famous Royal Academy show each year was a highlight of the London Season) and the Wallace Collection, a beautiful gallery which includes lots of the kinds of paintings that might be found in Mr Lyle’s art collection – including ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which Lil helps bring to life in The Painted Dragon. You can also still visit the Café Royal on Regent Street, though today it looks very different to the bohemian cafe of the 1900s!

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Theatre

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For my short story for the Mystery & Mayhem anthology, I wanted to try something a little different. Unlike the other Sinclair’s Mysteries,  ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ is written in the first person – from the point of view of aspiring actress Lil.

The action of the story takes place in between Clockwork Sparrow and Jewelled Moth. As well as being a fun opportunity to see Lil doing some solo detective work,  this story also allowed me to explore another area of Edwardian London – the Edwardian theatre!

We see something of the theatre in Clockwork Sparrow when Sophie goes to see Lil performing in the chorus line of a new show called The Shop Girl (fun fact: there really was a popular Edwardian musical comedy with this title – in real life it was originally performed in 1894!) However ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ shows us more of the theatre world – and takes readers behind the scenes with Lil and the other performers.

Theatre was incredibly popular in Edwardian London. Before cinema or television, it was one of the most important form of entertainment; and whether they preferred the lively music halls of the East End, or the grand theatres of the West, the people of London flocked to see all the latest productions. Many theatres took advantage of exciting new techologies, such as electric light, to create impressive spectacles for their productions.

One of the most important of the West End’s theatres at this time was The Gaiety on Aldwych. Run by George Edwardes, known as ‘The Guv’nor’, it became famous for its frothy musical comedy productions – and in particular its dancing, singing chorus line of ‘Gaiety Girls’. Shows like A Gaiety Girl, and Our Miss Gibbs were hugely popular and were soon copied by many other theatres, both in London and beyond.

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Gabrielle Ray on the cover of a 1909 edition of the Illustrated London News

Theatre stars like Gabrielle Ray (above), Gertie Millar, and Phyllis Dare, were the celebrities of their day – much like (the fictional) Miss Kitty Shaw, whose pearls dramatically go missing in ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’.

Theatre also had a huge influence on Edwardian fashion and style – The Merry Widow, which opened at Daly’s Theatre in 1907, not only helped make a big star of actress Lily Elsie, but also inspired a widespread fashion for wide-brimmed and plumed ‘Merry Widow’ hats which were an essential accessory for any fashionable lady over the next few years.

Lily Elsie’s costumes for the production were designed by leading London fashion designer Lucile who went on to design her personal clothes as well as costumes for several of her other shows. Lucile wrote: ‘That season was a very brilliant one… And just when it was at its zenith, a new play was launched with a new actress who set the whole town raving over her beauty.’ Lily Elsie soon became one of the most-photographed women of the Edwardian era.

There are lots of pictures of Edwardian theatre stars on my Edwardiana Pinterest board – as well as theatre programmes, tickets and photographs of what the theatres looked like. I found it fascinating to explore all this visual material about the glamorous world of the Edwardian theatre – but I particularly love these pictures of Lily Elsie, because she looks rather like how I imagine Lil!

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If you like reading about the Edwardian theatre in this story, you might also enjoy reading Lyn Gardner’s Rose Campion mysteries, which are set a little earlier than the Sinclair’s Mysteries, and take place in the exciting world of the Victorian music hall!

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian East End

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The docks of London’s East End

In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, the high society whirl of the debutantes and the London Season is set in contrast with a very different side of 1900s London.

Whilst The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow focuses closely on the people and goings-on of Sinclair’s, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth represents a kind of ‘zoom out’ – allowing readers to see more of both the wealthy Sinclair’s customers, such as Veronica Whiteley and her friends, but also something of London’s flip-side – the docks of the East End, where the beautiful goods that were sold at Sinclair’s would first have arrived in the city.

At this time, East End was one of the poorest parts of the London. Whilst just a few miles away, London’s richest grew ever richer thanks to trade with the Empire, life here was tough. Living conditions were poor – some families lived ten to a room, with no access to clean water – wages were low, and disease flourished.

Children’s lives were especially hard – nearly 20% died before their first birthday – and they were often left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings from a very young age, running errands, sweeping streets or helping to make matchboxes to bring in a few much-needed pennies to buy a little stale bread.

061189fe4a5b70ffd554180531e30f58East End child, 1911

In spite of all this, the East End was hugely important to London, as the place where goods from all over the world arrived in Britain. Whilst today our docks are largely automated, in the Edwardian era, they employed many thousands of people. Communities of sailors sprung up around the docks – itinerant populations who came and went on the big ships that sailed out of the London docks and travelled all over the world. As such, the East End fast became one of London’s most diverse and multi-cultural quarters.

It was also a place where crime was rife: perhaps not surprising given that for many people ‘honest work’ would mean working 14 hour days at the docks for low pay. The East End has a long history of famous criminals and gangsters (ranging from the Kray brothers to the ‘racetrack gangs’ of the 1920s and 1930s) but in the Edwardian era, probably the best-known was Arthur Harding, who was born in the slums of the Old Nichol in 1886.

Harding became a petty thief early in life and earned his first prison sentence aged 16, before becoming an East End ‘captain of thieves’ on his release. His major rival was Isaac ‘Ikey’ Bogard – a flamboyant character who strode the streets of Spitalfields in a cowboy outfit, with a six-shooter stuck in his back and an assumed American accent to match. (Later in life, Harding wrote his memoirs about his life of crime, which make for entertaining reading.)

There are lots of stories told about the East End of London in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These range from the dark and sinister tales of the Jack the Ripper murders, to the writings of authors like Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, who passionately wanted to draw people’s attention to the abject poverty of the East End, and the inequalities of British society.

A little later, and closer to the time that The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth is set, Arthur Morrison published a powerful novel A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional version of the Old Nichol slums, whilst Jack London wrote a book called The People of the Abyss, about his experience of living the life of an East End Londoner for a few months, staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets.

Today, it’s difficult to read accounts like these without being struck by the awful contrast between the lavish lives of the Edwardian ‘super-rich’ – with their grand balls, elaborate fashions and extraordinarily extravagant meals – and the daily struggles of the Edwardian poor. In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I wanted to explore this contrast, and to write about the Edwardian East End as well as the West. However, I also wanted to tell a slightly different story from the dark tales we might have previously encountered about this area.

I chose to focus particularly on Chinatown, which in this period was situated in the East End, in Limehouse, close to the London docks. You can read more about why I specifically wanted to write about Edwardian Chinatown on the Guardian website here.

In particular, Jewelled Moth introduces us to a young East End girl, Mei Lim and her family. Compared to many children of the East End, Mei is very fortunate – she’s been able to stay on at school until the age of 13, and her parents have their own business, a small grocer’s shop, making them comparitively affluent. But life is still tough and precarious – especially when the Baron’s gang of thugs appear in Chinatown, and start making their presence felt…

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A real Chinese shop in Limehouse, 1920s.

The adventure that follows shows two contrasting sides of Edwardian London – the glamorous West End, and the more dangerous and down-at-heel East. The Lim family grocery shop certainly couldn’t be much more different from the glittery, glamorous surroundings of Sinclair’s. Yet I hope the story also points to some of the ways that the carefully-maintained social barriers of the Edwardian era were just beginning to unravel. Although they may live in very different worlds, Mei and her family become unexpectedly entangled with Veronica and her debutante friends, and before long, they find themselves helping each other. Perhaps the people of the West and East Ends of London are not necessarily so very different from each other, after all?

If you’re interested in reading more about London’s East End during the 19th and early 20th centuries, I’d particularly recommend the following books:

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. Written in the mid-nineteenth century, this is an in-depth and very influential exploration of the lives of the London poor based on Mayhew’s interviews with street traders, entertainers, thieves, beggars, sewer-scavengers, chimney-sweeps and many more.

The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Author Jack London was a passionate social activist and in 1902 he decided to experience hands-on how the London poor lived, exploring the slums, sleeping rough and staying in workhouses. This is the book he wrote about his experiences, which makes for a powerful and thought-provoking read.

Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur. This wide-ranging book captures the day-to-day lives of working people in Britain throughout the 1900s. It brings together information about many different people and places, but includes lots of memories about what daily life was like in the East End of London during the Edwardian era – including some snippets from Arthur Harding’s memoirs.

You might also want to check out the fascinating blog Spitalfields Life, and in particular amateur photographer Horace Warner’s portraits of East End children in the 1900s.

This post is based on some content first produced for the Jewelled Moth blog tour. You can read the original post on MG Strikes Back.

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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Behind the Scenes: Debutantes and the London Season

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Illustration from The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth © Júlia Sardà

In the next installment of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ series I wanted to write in a little more detail about the London Season and the Edwardian debutante – both of which play an important part in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth.

Each year from the mid-nineteenth century right up until the Second World War, the focal point of Britain’s high society calendar was the London ‘Season’. Every May, wealthy society folk would leave their country houses and travel to their London residences for a three-month whirl of balls, parties and events, that lasted until the end of July.

Highlights of the Season included: the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, visits to the Royal Opera House, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta and Ascot – as well as all kinds of balls, parties and dinners, at which members of the aristocracy could meet, mingle and show off.

‘The Season’ was of particular importance for debutantes – young ladies who were making their first appearances in society. For the aristocatic girls of the Edwardian era, growing up happened almost overnight. The Edwardians had no concept of being a teenager or young adult – so until the age of seventeen or eighteen, girls were treated like children and kept to the nursery or schoolroom. Then, all at once, it would be time to pin up their long hair, lengthen their skirts and exchange the schoolroom for the ballroom, as they were plunged into their very first Season.

This sudden transition from childhood to adulthood must have been quite alarming. First of all, there was the etiquette to master. Edwardian society was governed by a strict code of conduct, and woe betide any debutante who put a toe out of line! Sometimes it would be a young lady’s governess who would be responsible for instructing her so that she was ready to navigate the complex social rituals of the London Season – or perhaps she might be sent to a Finishing School to learn dancing, deportment and the proper way to behave.

Etiquette guides were also popular, like Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell’s Etiquette of Good Society, published in 1893, which contained chapters on ‘Letter-Writing’, ‘Private Theatricals’ and ‘Field Sports’ amongst many others. Tips and advice on important matters including fashion, manners and what a girl should expect from her first Season were also published in magazines such as The Lady. (For  Jewelled Moth, I had a lot of fun inventing my own etiquette guide inspired by some of these real-life writings. Snippets from my fictional Lady Diana DeVere’s Etiquette for Debutantes: a Guide to the Manners, Mores and Morals of Good Society appear throughout the book though Sophie and Lil don’t often follow them! )

During the Season, debutantes would be accompanied by a chaperone at all times – usually someone like their mother, an aunt or an older sister, who would watch them with an eagle eye to make sure they were behaving properly. They were expected to dress beautifully and appropriately, to display perfect manners, and to be able to dance – but not to do a great deal else!

A very important occasion in a girl’s first season was being presented at Court. For this special (and nerve-wracking) ritual, each debutante wore a head-dress of three curled white ostrich feathers, a white dress, and a pair of long white gloves. Accompanied by a sponsor – a lady who had already been presented  – she would attend the Court Presentation, and when her turn came, be formally ‘presented’ to the King and perform her curtsey.

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The Edwardian debutante in her court ensemble

Once this ceremony was out of the way, a debutante could embark on the whirl of balls, parties, dinners, afternoon teas and events that made up the Season – by the time the three months were up, many a debutante found herself completely exhausted by the frenzy of social activity!

During the Season, she would have the chance to dress in beautiful gowns, mingle with London’s high society, and most importantly, meet eligible young men – though of course, never without the supervision of her chaperone! For many young ladies, finding a suitable husband was the ultimate goal of the Season – years earlier, Lord Byron famously called the London Season ‘The Marriage Mart’, and so it still was during the Edwardian period.

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The Edwardian Ball

Balls were an especially important part of the London Season. They usually began later in the evening – guests might have already attended a dinner party or another event before arriving. They were often held in grand London houses, where guests would dance, eat a delicious supper, and perhaps stroll out onto a terrace to cool off between dances.

On arrival at the balls, young ladies would be given a dance programme: a small card listing all the evening’s dances, with a tiny pencil attached. They then had to wait patiently by the side of the dance-floor with their chaperones, hoping for a young man to approach and ask them to dance – ladies were never allowed to ask men! He would then write his name in the appropriate space on her dance-card. Many debutantes dreaded being left to sit on the sidelines, and their great hope would be to fill their dance-card up as much possible before the dancing actually began.


Illustration from The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth © Júlia Sardà

The most important of all the dances was the supper-dance, because after this, a young lady’s partner would take her through to have supper, meaning that they would have chance to spend more time together. But even this was not really an opportunity to talk privately with a potential suitor: even whilst chatting over supper, a debutante knew that her chaperone was always watching! The sharp eyes of Edwardian high society were always on the look-out for even the smallest signs of what it considered ‘improper behaviour’.

As well as more traditional balls, the Edwardians enjoyed themed dances such as the Royal Caledonian Ball, where men dressed in Highland attire and everyone danced Scottish reels. They also loved fancy-dress balls like the one that takes place in Jewelled Moth – though their costumes were perhaps a little different to those we might wear at a fancy-dress party today.

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An impressive fancy dress costume from the Duchess of Devonishire’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1897

For some girls, the highlight of their first Season would be their own ‘coming-out ball’ which was usually organised by their parents in their honour, as a celebration of their coming-of-age. In Jewelled Moth, debutante Miss Veronica Whiteley’s coming-out ball has an especially important part to play in the story.

Writing about Veronica and her fellow debutantes – and the ritzy, glitzy world of the London Season they inhabit – was great fun, but it also gave me chance to explore what I can only imagine must have been the turbulent ups-and-downs of a girl’s first appearances in society. Tightly-corseted (in more ways than one!), the debutantes had to contend with strict rules, high expectations, the pressure to look perfect, and a complete lack of any kind of freedom or independence. What was more, they were constantly pitted against each other in a competition for social triumph that makes Mean Girls look tame.

My debutante character, Veronica, is a bit of a Mean Girl herself – but who can blame her when she has been so suddenly plunged from the sheltered, comfortable world of childhood and home into the unfamiliar adult world of London society? In this story, she soon finds herself grappling with some dark and shocking secrets, and alarmingly sinister schemes – but with the help of Sophie, Lil and friends, her first Season becomes an opportunity for a coming-of-age of a very different kind.

If you’d like to find out more about debutantes and the London Season during the Edwardian era, I’d recommend The 1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey. It’s sadly out of print now but if you can find a copy second-hand or in a library it’s a fascinating and entertaining (if rather idiosyncratic and not altogether factual) portrait of the lives of upper class girls and women of the Edwardian period.

Debutantes and the London Season by Lucinda Gosling is a great little summary of the history of the debutantes and the Season – from their eighteenth century origins right up until the final Court presentations in 1958.

This post is based on some content first produced for the Jewelled Moth blog tour. You can read the original posts in full here:

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian society.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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