Bloomers, Boer Wars, cycling, fashion, femininity, fiction, gender-bending, George Bernard Shaw, masculinity, Oscar Wilde, Pygmalion, reformed dress, romance, spiritualism, Vesta Tilley, women's suffrage
My Fair Gent is a tribute to the enduring genius of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It’s easy to forget that Shaw was writing contemporary drama, grappling with the social realities and inequalities of his own day. To us, the dawn of the twentieth century seems like the distant past, with its corseted ladies, horse-drawn carriages, and precise rules of etiquette. The abyss between rich and poor shocks us, and rightly so. Shaw’s play was an exploration of class, and it reflects the changes that were about to overtake the traditional class system (as seen in Downton Abbey). About gender, however, it has far less to say.
While writing the book, I collected reference photographs to bring 1900 London vividly before my mind. Here are some scenes from the world of Hetty Hilliard and Edgar Dooley.
Cycling was all the rage in 1900, and working women began to use bicycles as transportation. Susan B. Anthony said, “[Bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Imagine wearing a corset and long skirt while cycling. A few intrepid women donned bloomers for this purpose. Bloomers had been introduced in the mid-Victorian era and had enjoyed a brief vogue, but by 1900 they were restricted to athletic occasions, and even then they were worn only by the daring. In my story, Henrietta Hilliard draws stares because she wears her trousers everywhere (though usually beneath a calf-length skirt).
While many men were offended by trouser-wearing women, others found them sexy, as this ad for cigars demonstrates. Two females wearing the offending garment enjoy cigars while taking a break from cycling. Notice the fetching bloomer-clad posterior of the woman at far right. No doubt men were convinced that if a female was willing to throw conventions of dress to the wind, she might also be flexible with regard to other social taboos.
“Reformed dress” movements were gaining momentum. One such school of thought was the “artistic dress” movement sparked by the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their circle. They were inspired by ancient and Medieval designs, and advocated patterns that dispensed with hoops, bustles and corsetry. Henrietta is the daughter of a Pre-Raphaelite goddess who posed for Burne-Jones, and she is a passionate advocate of reformed dress.
“Aesthetic dress” succeeded “artistic dress” in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Championed by Oscar Wilde among others, the movement sought to emphasize the pleasures of beautiful fabrics and colors, simple lines, and comfort. Japanese kimonos and Chinese jackets in silk provided the inspiration for new designs.
Gentlemen’s clothing was closer to what we see today, except that there were no casual clothes, no jeans and T-shirts. Everyone wore suits, or at least trousers and a woven shirt. Mustaches were in style for young men, while older men often wore patriarchal beards in Victorian style. Men could choose from a wide variety of hats: bowlers, homburgs and boaters for informal occasions, and top hats in the evening. Left: three stylish gentlemen ca. 1910. Right: cousins Nicholas II of Russia and George, Prince of Wales, (later George V of Britain) in casual dress.
In my story, Edgar has to pass as “Konstantin, Duke of Melipol of the Kingdom of Molvania.” Hetty and Sybil model his costume on that of the handsome Sergei Alexandrovich, Grand Duke of Russia, shown here ca. 1900.
Henrietta Hilliard lives a privileged life. But only a few blocks away from Hilliard House is Covent Garden, which serves double duty as theatre district and fruit/vegetable/flower market. There she studies the speech of quite a different social class.
In 1900, nobody could have foreseen the changes about to arrive. The motorcar had been invented in 1886, but cars were not mass-produced until 1908. Most transportation was still by horse and carriage. At the World’s Fair in Paris, a marvelous “moving sidewalk” was exhibited, along with an intriguing invention called the “cinematograph.” The new century seemed promising, and the horrors of WWI were still unimaginable.
Englishwomen began to demand the vote as early as 1872. “Suffragettes” were regularly arrested and imprisoned when they protested in the streets. The photo below shows suffragette demonstrators dressed in prison garb to draw attention to their incarcerated sisters. There were hunger strikes, and force-feeding. Not until 1918, after the war, were female property owners over 30 permitted to vote, and not until 1928 did all adult female citizens win the right to vote.
The Second Boer War, fought against white South African settlers of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, was part of the imperialist race to control Africa’s resources. In my story, set in 1900 (rather than 1916, the date Pygmalion premiered), the war is in full swing and men are enlisting in the volunteer forces to travel South.
Gender-bending was not unknown in 1900s London. In the music halls, male impersonators were surprisingly popular, and the most famous was Vesta Tilley. She was the inspiration for one of my supporting characters, Maddy Brockett. Unlike Vesta, who was scrupulous about wearing traditional, feminine clothing when offstage, Maddy is fond of her masculine garments and has even been known to “pass” as a man during the daytime. Henrietta has always been a bit envious of her.
Spiritualism was another great preoccupation of the period. Séances were a popular form of entertainment, and mediums were much in demand. The Society for Psychical Research, the first of its kind in the world, was founded in 1882 to investigate paranormal claims such as Mesmerism, mediumship, and hauntings. Although many members were skeptics, others were sympathetic to spiritualism. My character Sybil Pilkington belongs to the latter faction.
Yes, I did a fair bit of research for this slender little book. But I promise that you won’t notice. It’s light and funny in spite of the serious themes lurking in the background. Shaw was mainly preoccupied with the question of what constitutes social class. He challenged the beliefs of his day by showing the superficial nature of what people considered inborn class traits.
In my version, the challenge is different. What happens when conventional gender roles and traits are reversed? Early in the book, Henrietta (in a rare moment of self-doubt) asks whether she is too domineering and unfeminine to be lovable. And by accepting the role of student, and (at least initially) acknowledging the power that Hetty’s superior education, wealth and class confer, Edgar forfeits the traditional trappings of the male romantic hero. Can there still be magic between these two? You be the judge.