21 July 2008

Famous People: Infamous Women of the Edwardian Era

By Evangeline Holland

Lady Randolph Churchill: Though known primarily as the American mother
of Sir Winston Churchill, the former Jennie Jerome is too dynamic a personality to be shunted to the footnotes of history as a mere mother. Despite the controversy that rages over her today (Did she neglect Winston? Was she promiscuous? A selfish spendthrift?), Jennie Jerome Spencer-Churchill Cornwallis-West Porch (though she preferred Lady Randolph Churchill) carved a place not only in a foreign society, but in a time where women had little rights if not little place in the public sphere.

Admired by all who met her, many people stated that had Jennie been a man, she could have ruled the world. So keen was she, it was rumored that she drafted many of Lord Randolph's rousing speeches--certainly Randolph did appreciate his wife's intelligence, and when he and other Conservative politicians formed the Primrose League in 1883, Jennie was there beside him, with her own exalted status within the organization. When Randolph died in 1895, her sons had reached their majority and they became closer. It was Jennie who was Winston's right hand as he fought his way to the top of the British Government, her political expertise and background handy for her scrappy, ambitious son. She however, passed away before she could see the fruition of the career Randolph threw away in an impulsive, foolish moment, in the form of Winston's leadership in during WWII and after.

Lillie Langtry: Born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton on the isle of Jersey, Lillie Langtry was both calculating and warm-hearted. Aware of her beauty and what she desired in life, her first step to achieving success in society was to marry the first man who ferried his way into her life on his yacht. Unfortunately Edward Langtry was an alcoholic who'd mortgaged his property to the hilt to fund his yachting. Lillie however, made lemonade out of lemons and if marriage couldn't achieve her wants, her beauty would, and it did, for her first foray into society created a furor, the artists dining with her nearly expiring over her beauty and a chance to paint it.

From there, Lillie went from strength to strength, culminating in a four year affair with the Prince of Wales. After their passion cooled, Lillie used her fame and beauty to launch a successful acting career which took her throughout Britain and America. With Edward's death in 1897 and a newly discovered talent for horse-racing, Lady de Bathe (for she had married a much younger baronet), Lillie became a leading owner in the horse-racing world before retiring with her husband, quite wealthy, to Monaco.

Daisy, Countess of Warwick: She was rich, she was scandalous and she was indiscreet. She also had the notoriety of being the Prince of Wales' mistress throughout most of the 1890s. Having inherited an estate worth 30,000 pounds a year, the beautiful Daisy Maynard was so eligible a parti, Queen Victoria had hopes for a match made between she and her son Prince Leopold.

Daisy settled for something a little less stressful, marrying her darling "Brookie," in 1881. Within a few years, Daisy's predilection for acquiring what she called "admirers" in her memoirs had taken its toll on their marriage and she and Lord Brooke went their own way, as most couples did in this period. Fortunately for her, her next admirer happened to be the Prince of Wales. With a hearty dislike of boredom, Daisy's wealth and high spirits were a perfect match. So great a match that in 1914, Daisy's ruined financial status lead her to attempt to blackmail the Crown with love letters written to her by King Edward. More so than her liaison with Bertie, it was her conversion to Socialism that earned her infamy. With her heart in the right place, Daisy founded schools for girls to learn needlework or other handy crafts, and a store where the items were sold. This earned her much scorn from her own social class, sneered behind her back as "Red Countess." She plowed on, however recklessly, tirelessly fighting for socialism and the Labour Party til her death.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell: She was difficult, mercurial and vain. But she was one of the finest actresses of the period, if not the history of British theatre. Born Beatrice Stella Tanner to an English father and an Italian mother, Stella was born for theatrics. Her father a natural schemer, moved to America early in her life hoping to strike it rich. He never did, and it was this memory of poverty, and the absence of her husband, he himself in South Africa trying to strike it rich, that enticed her to enter the stage.

By the 1890s, the theatre had become respectable, as did actors and actresses. It was this time when the domination of sappy plays and Shakespeare was shaken by the "problem play." Writers like Pinero, Galsworthy, Shaw, Ibsen, Wilde, etc put on plays that probed the mores of society and highlighted hypocrisies. It was in one of these plays that Stella, known professionally as Mrs. Patrick Campbell (for it was more respectable than plain "Stella Campbell"), became a star. Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was shown in 1893 and it was an instant hit with the crowd, the lead actress with her ghostly pallor, deep-set black eyes and lustrous hair, and most of all, marvelous voice, moved the crowd so, it became one of the most successful dramatic works of its day.

Margot Asquith: She shocked society with her indiscreet memoirs and an apocryphal but typical story has her meeting the American film actress Jean Harlow and correcting Harlow's mispronunciation of her first name — "No, no; the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow'." When Margot Tennant made her debut into 1880s society, she was no ordinary debutante. Due to her mother's vagueness and her father's social-climbing, she and her siblings were allowed great freedom to mingle with gentlemen and form opinions (and even speak on them) long before the age of 18.

Spurred by her intellectual pursuits, Margot wasn't content with the endless round of parties, balls, and house parties and formed a group of like-minded aristocrats known as the "Souls." But it was her marriage to Liberal politician Henry Herbert Asquith that changed her life. She was his "spur to ambition," using her wit and drive to pull him into the Premiership--a goal realized in 1908. Unlike her predecessors, Margot didn't intend her new position to slow her down. Margot's independence and ready tongue got her into a bit of trouble, as the time when she hosted a show of Paul Poiret's modish gowns at No. 10 Downing Street!

Nancy Astor: That an American woman would be the first female MP to take a seat in the Commons is slightly ironic. Though, those who knew Nancy personally wouldn't have found it unbelievable. A Langhorne of Virginia, she and her sisters were renowned for their beauty and this, combined with the recently-restored family wealth boded well for a meteoric rise. Divorcing her first miserable husband, Nancy went overseas, as did all wealthy Americans, and quickly conquered society with her saucy wit and restrained behavior. Soon after her entrenchment in British society, she married Waldorf Astor, the son of expatriate William Waldorf Astor (yes, those Astors) and began life as an elite hostess.

When her husband succeeded to his father's title in 1919 and moved to the House of Lords, Nancy took up the cudgel for the constituency and campaigned for her own election. This was a bold move as at no time had a woman taken public part in politics--and with her own platform. Though women had greater freedom, they were seen as too ignorant and led by emotion to exact justice. Nancy proved them wrong. In her day, she was either loathed or loved, and personal accounts written by those close show her to be a demanding, prejudiced and arrogant woman. In spite of these defects, or rather because of them perhaps, Nancy Astor did what she wanted to do without any thought to her sex.

Mrs. Pankhurst: Widowed at 40, Emmeline continued the work she and her husband accomplished by continuing her involvement in politics. Disillusioned by the existing women's political organizations,in 1903 she founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). This changed the face of women's suffrage, for the traditional background of a suffragist was upper-middle class, professional ladies from comfortable backgrounds. From the first Emmeline the main aim of the organization was to recruit working class women into the struggle for the vote.

But it was in 1905 the break between the old guard (NUWSS) and the new guard (WSPU) ruptured: this was the rise of militancy. Pankhurst's tactics for drawing attention to the movement led to her being imprisoned 13 times between 1908 and 1914. Her daughters Sylvia and Christabel became prominent leaders in the movement, Christabel seeking temporary refuge in Paris to escape imprisonment under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. Hated by outsiders, Mrs. Pankhurst's ideals and actions created controversy within the WSPU, creating splits that included one from Sylvia. Her militancy did pay off, as women over 21 received the vote in 1918, and all women were enfranchised in 1928.