Today’s brief was to write about emancipation and was inspired by a comment my great-grandmother made when I was 13 and she askedme if I’d “started wearing corsets”. This got me thinking about how restrictive life was for young women in the early 1900s – my great-grandmother was born in 1893 and would have been wearing corsets from the age of 12 or 13. (She started work in the cotton mill at the age of 11, so she would have been seen as an adult rather than a child.) I’ve set my story in 1909 when suffragists and suffragettes were both campaigning for women’s rights, but kept the focus on a more domestic thread of the story.
The Emancipation of Violet
“And how’s your sister?” Mrs Wilkins asked, nibbling at the corner of her piece of bread and butter as she waited for a response.
Violet’s mother sighed. “She seems to have become very political these days. I think it started with Emily – you know what these young women are these days (Violet excepted) –“ She smiled at her daughter before continuing, “They’re both mixed up with those dreadful suffragettes. I daren’t tell Henry: he’d forbid me to see Alice ever again.”
“Suffragists, Mother,” Violet chimed in. “Not suffragettes. The suffragettes are the ones who use violence. Aunt Alice and Emily campaign peacefully for women’s rights.”
She had spoken out of turn and she knew it; nevertheless, she could not let her mother and Mrs Wilkins remain in error.
Mrs Wilkins regarded her coldly. “Violet seems as outspoken as your sister and niece,” she said at last, her tone chillier than the November afternoon outside.
Violet’s cheeks burned with shame. She lowered her eyes and regarded her teacup, waiting to see what her mother would say.
“It doesn’t matter what they call themselves,” her mother said crisply. “Do forgive Violet, Mrs Wilkins. She’s too young and impressionable to understand these things. As if women should be allowed the vote! Men run the country and we run our homes – and that’s the way God intended it, Violet.”
She knew the last words were a reproach. Her mother believed in a God who ordered the estate of rich and poor, male and female. She was so Victorian in her attitudes! Violet thought despairingly, forgetting that it was less than a year since she herself had begun reading exciting pamphlets that challenged the ideas she had been brought up with.
At eighteen, she was still three years off her majority, but her mother had already been making noises about finding a suitable husband for her. Since leaving Miss Minchin’s school two years earlier, she had asked her mother about secretarial courses, thinking it might be fun to seek gainful employment for a year or two before she married – Emily worked in a bookshop in London, not just greeting and serving customers but actually doing the accounts at the end of each day – but her mother had looked so horrified at the idea that Violet hadn’t asked again. From time to time, though, she wondered how other girls in her position managed not to die of boredom living lives that consisted solely of tea parties and tennis matches, sewing bees and piano recitals. Her mother spent time with her each week instructing her in the skills needed to be a perfect hostess and efficient household manager, but Violet wasn’t sure she wanted the life her mother lived. She would hate to spend the rest of her life with a man as uninteresting as her father.
She came back to the present, realising with a start that her mother had addressed her directly. “You will enjoy that, dear.”
“Yes, I’m sure I shall,” she replied absently. What would she enjoy?
“I don’t suppose you’ll be able to avoid seeing your sister?” Mrs Wilkins sounded as disapproving as she had earlier.
“Not really.” Her mother paused. “But if we meet at a Lyons tea room, the conversation can be controlled. Alice would never discuss anything vulgar in a public place.”
So they were going to London? Excitement bubbled within Violet, but she managed to maintain a composed expression. She would see Aunt Alice and maybe Cousin Emily too. Smiling inside, she reached for a slice of seed cake, her head already filled with daydreams and plans.
“Do hurry up, Violet,” her mother snapped. “Anyone would think you wanted to get wet.”
The rain had begun while they were at the dressmaker’s. Her assistant had found them a cab and Violet had enjoyed the swaying of the vehicle as the horse trotted through the steadily increasing drizzle to the Corner House where they would take tea. It had set them down only yards from the entrance so that it should have been a simple matter to dodge the drops, but she stood transfixed for a moment, her eyes taking in everything she could see around her. London was so very different to Tunbridge Wells: it seemed a world full of exciting possibilities.
Heeding her mother’s words, she scurried into the Tea Rooms, her heart fluttering with anticipation.
Aunt Alice was already ensconced at a table. She sprang to her feet as they approached, ignoring their slightly damp costumes to enfold first Violet’s mother and then Violet herself in a warm embrace. “Sybil! And Violet! My, how you’ve grown, child!”
Sybil extricated herself awkwardly from the display of emotion. She was not a demonstrative woman. “Alice,” she said, injecting just enough chilliness into her voice to reproach her sister. Then, “Is Emily not joining us today?”
“She’s at work,” Alice said casually, gesturing to them both to sit down. “I told her to ask for the afternoon off, but she said Mr Herring couldn’t cope without her.” She lowered her voice to a confidential whisper. “It’s my belief they’re sweet on each other. He’s quite young – about twenty-six or twenty-seven – and he’s not married.”
“But you wouldn’t allow that!” Sybil sounded scandalised. “A man who owns a bookshop – why, it’s like letting her marry into trade!”
“Emily is twenty-two,” Alice replied calmly, “and she knows her own mind. If she thinks she’ll be happy with Mr Herring, I won’t stand in her way.”
Sybil removed her gloves fussily before muttering, “If Albert was still alive, he wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Albert had his faults,” Alice’s tone was sharp, “but he was a good husband and a good father. He would have wanted to see Emily happy – like I do.” She picked up the menu. “Why don’t we drop the matter and order tea?”
A Gladys was already hovering at their table, pencil poised over her notepad.
“Afternoon tea for three,” Alice told her. Attempting a smile at her sister, she said, “The cucumber sandwiches are excellent, and I’m sure Violet will adore the petits fours.”
“I don’t hold with this modern idea of letting girls choose their husbands,” Sybil said in a low tone. “You didn’t believe in nonsense like that either before you… before you and Emily got mixed up in that distasteful political business.”
“Times are changing, Sybil,” Alice said mildly. “This is 1909, not 1809. Young women today have all sorts of opportunities we didn’t.”
“Well, it’s not Christian,” Sybil said fiercely. “If God had wanted women to be as bold as you claim, then there’d be something in the Bible about it. We’re told to be submissive, Alice – or had you forgotten that?”
Alice rolled her eyes at her niece. Violet sat enthralled, trying to take in what she had heard. Emily engaged to a man who ran a bookshop! (Well, not exactly engaged, but still…) It all seemed so romantic.
Somehow, they made it through tea without any further disagreements, sticking to the safer topics of the weather and hemlines. When Alice realised that Violet and her mother were in London for a few days, to facilitate fittings, she promptly suggested a meeting between the two cousins. “Emily would love to see you, Violet,” she said, smiling at the girl. “She doesn’t work on Saturdays, so I’m sure she’d be happy to meet up in one of the parks for a ladylike stroll.”
Violet wondered if these last words were meant to appease her mother.
Before Sybil could express disapproval, Alice went on, “And you and I could chaperone them.”
Violet’s heart flooded with despair. How could she and Emily talk about anything properly with her mother eavesdropping?
“I’m sure,” Aunt Alice continued, “that it would be perfectly respectable to let them walk ahead of us and exchange girlish secrets while we catch up on our discussion of mutual acquaintances. And there may be a concert in the bandstand – that would be a pleasant way for all of us to while away an hour or so.”
“Please, Mother.” Violet tried not to sound too eager. “I haven’t seen Emily for over a year and we used to be close when we were younger.”
Trying not to appear ungracious, Sybil acquiesced, and so it was decided.
It was an unseasonably mild day for November as Emily and Violet strolled through the park, arm-in-arm, chatting quietly with their mothers just a few paces behind.
“Did I tell you I’ve learned to ride a bicycle?” Emily murmured.
Violet’s eyes widened with surprise. It sounded very daring.
“I haven’t told Mother,” Emily continued. “She’s quite forward in her thinking, but I was worried she’d think I was fast if I admitted to something like that. Besides, lots of people think women shouldn’t ride bicycles because it might interfere with their reproductive system.”
Violet blushed at the shocking comment. Had Emily no shame?
“Doesn’t your corset get in the way?” she asked a moment later. The stiff, whale-boned instrument of torture had been the bane of Violet’s life ever since the age of thirteen when she had first been forced to wear it.
“I’ve stopped wearing corsets,” Emily said airily, looking around to make sure her mother wasn’t listening. “There’s so much more freedom in wearing just a chemise and drawers. And when I ride my bicycle, I wear bloomers.”
Forcing herself to keep on walking, Violet tried to process the information. No corsets! How wonderful that would be!
“Is that what the suffragists do?” she asked. “Not wear corsets, I mean.” It was one of the most daring things she’d ever heard.
Emily laughed. “We’re more about campaigning for women’s rights in general – but I suppose the right not to wear corsets could be seen as part of it. You should try it yourself, Vi – it’s so liberating.”
There was no chance of it happening within the next few days, Violet thought gloomily. She and her mother were sharing a hotel room at the Regency, and it would be impossible to leave off her corset in the morning without her mother noticing. It was bad enough that she was scolded for not wearing it to bed – how her mother’s generation put up with that she did not know; but she could imagine the fireworks that would ensue should she be caught without it in the daytime as well.
“I’d give anything to be as free as you,” she said, meaning every word, “but I’m only 18, Em. Mother watches me like a hawk all the time.”
“You poor thing!” Emily sounded sympathetic. “There must be a way to emancipate you from all that whalebone. I wonder…”
A moment later, she stopped walking, turning around to face her mother and aunt. “I’ve just noticed something unmentionable on my dress,” she said apologetically. “A pigeon, I expect. Violet and I will have to pop into the Ladies’ Conveniences so she can help me sponge it off.”
Sybil’s face looked suitably horrified at her niece’s words and Violet knew that she would not examine Emily’s dress for proof.
The ladies’ lavatory was a tastefully designed building of late Victorian architecture – far too pretty when one considered its purpose – complete with a buxom attendant who sat in a chair by the entrance, accepting people’s pennies in a pretty china bowl. Alas, the cubicle was not big enough for two.
“I could unbutton your dress out here and then you should be able to take it off on your own once you’re in the cubicle,” Emily said doubtfully, “but I don’t know what to do about your laces.”
“My corset fastens at the front,” Violet told her, scarcely daring to hope that they might pull this off after all. “I’ll need help rebuttoning my dress afterwards, but I should be able to get rid of the horrid thing on my own.”
No one else was in sight, apart from the attendant – and she was engrossed in a book from the lending library – so Emily helped with the buttons and then Violet slipped inside the empty cubicle. Wriggling out of her dress, she hung it carefully on the hook on the back of the door while she unlaced her corset and took it off. Emily was right: it felt wonderfully liberating to remove the restrictive article.
Placing it carefully on the floor, she stepped back into her dress, pulling it into place and doing up as many of the buttons as she could manage herself before opening the door and stepping out. Turning her back to her cousin, she allowed Emily to complete the task, then swivelled to face her.
“Well?” Emily demanded.
Violet grinned happily. “It feels wonderful,” she said.
No doubt there would be recriminations later when her mother discovered what she had done; but for now, Violet felt free.
“It’s your first step towards emancipation,” Emily said, laughing. “Come on, let’s go outside.”
And leaving the corset on the floor, they rejoined their mothers.