• England in the 1890s •
By 1890, Queen Victoria had already been on the British throne for 53 years. Polly would have celebrated the Queen's Golden Jubilee three years before, as Flora Thompson describes in Lark Rise to Candleford:
'There was going to be a big 'do' in which three villages would join for tea and sports and dancing and fireworks in the park of a local magnate. Nothing like it had ever been known before. As the time drew nearer, the Queen and her Jubilee became the chief topic of conversation. The tradesmen gave lovely coloured portraits of her in her crown and garter ribbon on their almanacks, most of which were framed at home and hung up in the cottages. Jam could be bought in glass jugs adorned with her profile in hobnails and inscribed '1837 to 1887. Victoria the Good', and, underneath, the national catchword of the moment: 'Peace and Plenty'.
Yet since the death of her beloved husband Albert in 1861, the Queen had shut herself away at Balmoral Castle and showed an increasing lack of interest in ruling the country. The 1880s could be called Edwardian, rather than Victorian, because society was dominated by Queen Victoria's playboy son – Edward, Prince of Wales – and his values and habits set the tone. A small group of aristocrats amused themselves by descending on each other's houses to gossip, eat and drink as much as possible, hunt, shoot and fish, conduct illicit love affairs, and size up their friends' children as possible future matches for their own. They were the celebrities of their time, exquisitely dressed (changing outfits at least four or five times a day), dripping with jewellery, and driven about in the finest carriages, their every whim catered for by an army of servants.
The cost of such entertaining could be ruinously expensive, particularly if the Prince of Wales himself was coming to stay with his large retinue of staff (a mixed blessing!). Many old families who owned the great country houses were beginning to find themselves short of money, made worse by the downturn in farming during the 1880s. Cheap corn was being imported from America and British farmers couldn't find anyone to buy their more expensive crops. It was a time of peace, but there was not so much plenty for agricultural workers. Landowners had to sell off land or farms they had rented out in order to survive, and several lost their entire estates.
Worse still, the kind of people who could afford to buy these properties were businessmen, bankers – even (shudder) factory or colliery owners.The rigid structure of the English aristocracy began to alter as landowners were forced to become more business-like. The shrewd ones began to take their money out of land and invest in the new industries which were progressing at such a great pace: banking, journalism, manufacturing, and the rapidly advancing railways. Wealthy heiresses were prized more than ever as matches for their sons, and rich American girls were welcomed into London society with open arms. The photograph below shows the heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, married against her will at the age of nineteen to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, and thus becoming mistress of Blenheim Palace.
Although society might have been shifting a little at the top, the working classes still found themselves kept firmly at the bottom. It was a case of: 'The rich man at his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate,' in the words of the hymn written in 1848, 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'. Lady Vye would have visited the sick and needy in the village beyond Swallowcliffe's gates (as Eugenie does, somewhat reluctantly), and Lord Vye might have built almshouses for the poor, but the gulf between these two sections of society was as wide as it had ever been.
There was also a huge difference in the way girls and boys were treated. Boys as young as seven were often sent away to boarding school, which was seen to be character-forming, while girls stayed at home to be educated (often very haphazardly) by governesses. They would be taught subjects such as reading, writing, embroidery and perhaps French and German, rather than anything unconventional like science, mathematics or politics. The older they grew, the more restricted their lives became. Their accomplishments might catch them a good husband, but only if they could be kept pure and innocent, carefully shielded from the temptations of the adult world. After 'coming out' into society at the age of eighteen or nineteen and putting up their hair, they would be carefully chaperoned everywhere by their parents or governesses. Miss Harriet Vye's ambition to become a female doctor was shocking indeed.