The Edwardian Era began when Edward VII was crowned king after his mother Queen Victoria passed away. Though Edward VII died in 1910, there are debates that the era did not really end until after World War I. The Edwardian era, regardless of the exact dates, experienced many changes within international and domestic British culture.
Victorian England, the era before Edward VII took the throne, had seen the rise of the British Empire where Britain conquered territories throughout the world, increase exportation and profits, and indulge in the industrial era’s progressive ideals. Victorians believed that people were responsible for making their own fortune and that poverty was not a problem of society but rather the individual family’s fault. People operated in family units that relied on the man/husband/father of the house for all citizenship rights such as finances, land ownership and voting. Victorian England was in economic decline by the end of the period, and poverty levels were increasing. Elsewhere, the British Empire reached a stagnant period after 1901. While changes were made in territories that Britain owned throughout the world, conquering land did not seem a priority in the government and progress of expansion slowed to an eventual standstill. Conquest and expansion were losing popularity, and Britain’s Boer Wars fought in South Africa only heightened the realization that Britain could no longer maintain control over their territories. The determination of South Africans fighting for freedom was strong in the Boer Wars, and what became apparent to Britain was their inability to produce qualified soldiers as evidenced through the poor health of boys recruited for the military. The war looked promising for Britain in 1901 when Edward VII took the thrown, yet in 1902 he was signing a treaty with the Boers that England would rebuild ruined farmlands, pardon the Boer commandos, and give control of the land back to the people in 1906. Turmoil within England had gained force, especially those who were still impoverished as well as women’s equality groups. Women had began arguing for voting rights in 1872. The Victorian Era was marked by women’s passive and polite voice, yet the Edwardian era saw a change in that women became willing to cause civil disobedience and go to jail while actively fighting. Though the right for women to vote was not granted until 1918 to women who over thirty years old and had minimum property requirements, and all women over twenty-one could not vote until 1928, women’s desire for equality and voting rights took an aggressive turn in Edwardian times.
While Edwardians did not recover to the same level of decadence experienced by Victorians, a wider populace enjoyed greater financial stability. No longer was family name and status necessarily a prerequisite for financial success, either. Sports, games, and general forms of play began to be accepted in Victorian times, but Edwardians, international and domestic, experienced sport and play as common practices. For example, the Olympics were revived from Ancient Greek sport in 1896, and the Olympic games were brought to England first in 1908.
Perceptions and treatment of children shifted from Victorian ideas of children born as natural sinners and idioms such as “be seen but keep still” and “spare the rod and spoil the child” to the Edwardian ideas of cherishing a child as innocent, embracing the quality of childhood, and viewing children as their own category of development as opposed to small adults. The Victorian Era often employed children at industries starting from a very young age to work full shifts, while the Edwardian era reformed child labor laws. One such law prevented children from working after 9pm, perhaps one reason why the original Peter Pan was played by a woman. Education for children was transforming into a right for everyone, not just the upper class. The 1870 Education Act in 1870 allowed voluntary schools to continue instruction while a system of school boards were set up to build schools and provide education for areas of the country that lacked education. Follow up legislative acts include the 1876 Act that made education compulsory for children between age five and ten. This compulsory age was raised to eleven in 1893 and twelve in 1899. An Act in 1891 abolished all elementary school attendance fees, schools were setup for blind and deaf children after an 1893 Act, and the establishment of schools for physically-impaired children occurred after the Act of 1899.
Plays and literature reflected the shift from Victorian perceptions to Edwardian viewpoints. Victorian novels, had they any children, followed the child into adulthood. Jane in Jane Eyre and Pip in Great Expectations are a couple examples where the main characters begin as children and quickly grow up, partly from their desire to “escape from childhood’s vulnerability and victimization” (Gavin and Humphries 11). Even in stories such as Oliver Twist, children partake in real, not playful, adult activities; they are not protected or excused from financial struggles and other dangers found within the world. Victorian novels were written explicitly for adult readership. Children were not considered as having different interests, nor were authors much concerned about the interests of children readers. The Edwardian Era, by contrast, focused their literature to children and adults alike. Instead of children growing up and always existing in a grown up world, children and adults were often separated. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are two common examples of children protagonists who do not grow up and are not troubled much with real world matters. Neither did children in Edwardian serve as an example of “social moralism as they had been in Victorian novels by writers such as Charles Dickens. Edwardian fiction may set up an ideal vision of childhood but at the same time deconstructs and demythologizes it, moving towards a heightened realism in the portrayal of children” (ibid. 5).
Gavin, Adrienne E. and Andrew F. Humphries, eds. Childhood in Edwardian Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
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