Part of the reason I set my books in London in the 1870s is that for me this decade is one of the most interesting and progressive in Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901). In the 1850s and 1860s, there were waves of social unrest, spurred in part by popular and sensation novels such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White that represented bigamy, adultery, and spousal and child abuse; and by reports of famous legal cases and ardent discussions in the growing number of newspapers and journals. Quite a few bills on issues such as divorce, voting rights, property, child custody, education, and factory working hours were proposed but then shot down in Parliament. But during the 1870s, as Gladstone the liberal and Disraeli the conservative battled for the Prime Ministership and control of the government, a wave of legislation was passed in response to the call for policies that would secure public safety and wellbeing. Many of these had to do with the status of women. Below are some short synopses of legal trends and developments that reshaped England’s social fabric.
In 1856, the first Married Women’s Property petition and bill was debated in the House of Commons and defeated. The bill was one of several that would be proposed and killed before it finally succeeded in 1870. At issue was the fact that under the existing legal doctrine of coverture, a married woman could not own property; and if, as a feme sole (a single woman) she did own property, upon her marriage it became the property of her husband, unless her family had made a special provision or trust that secured her fortune to herself (and her heirs). Also, after 1870, working class women who earned a wage could actually keep it.
In 1857, the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes bill received royal consent and was finally made law. Divorce became recognized as a civil (legal) and local process rather than something requiring visiting two courts and obtaining an Act of Parliament. With this law, women could now divorce husbands if (and only if) he had both committed adultery and committed one of the following four: incest, bigamy, cruelty (defined as bodily injury) or desertion for a period of four years. Men could still divorce wives for adultery alone. But hey, small steps, right? This law also had implications for child custody: now, for the first time, divorce courts had some latitude in assigning custody of children. And the 1878 Matrimonial Causes Act finally provided legal protection for abused wives. If beaten, she could apply for a separation order from a local magistrate (provided she had not committed adultery). Again—small steps.
Until 1832, the only people allowed to vote in England were the wealthy landowners. After the riots of 1831, including some dangerous fires in Bristol that killed 12, the government became willing to consider a reform in order to avoid an outright revolt—or a revolution such as the one in France in 1830, when King Charles X was overthrown and hereditary right was replaced by popular sovereignty. The First Reform Bill of 1832 eliminated some of the rotten boroughs, where only a few voters still sent 2 MPs to parliament. It also extended the franchise to include all men who owned property worth at least £10—approximately one million of the seven million men. Encouraged by the Union victory in the American Civil War (1865), some groups of British men demanded more democracy and public influence. In 1867, the Second Reform Bill was passed, which extended the vote to 2/5 of the male population, to those men who earned £7 annually from rents or who had £50 in savings. In effect, this meant that urban working class men could vote; but the “feckless and criminal” poor was still left out in the cold. However, the fact that the vote was being extended to members of the middle classes provided hope to some suffragists that it might one day be extended to women. In 1866, Barbara Bodichon spoke on women’s rights in Manchester, and Lydia Becker, later the editor of the Wall Street Journal heard her and was profoundly affected. That same year, the Women’s Suffrage Petition was carried to Parliament and defeated … and England did not grant women the vote until 1927, eight years after the vote was given to women in America.
There was reform in the area of education as well. In 1862, Lowe’s Revised Code was an attempt to institute “payment by result” in schools. Matthew Arnold disagreed vehemently, saying this policy would only provide the rich with better educations and the poor with worse. In 1870 the Educational Endowments Act (aka the Education Act) made education compulsory for all children of ages 5-13 in England and Wales and set up school boards.
Beginning with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, various bills were proposed—and some passed—in an attempt to secure decent working conditions for women and children, particularly in the textile industries. These included dropping the work week hours to 55, and then the working days to 12 hours, or 10. But it was very piece-meal and incomprehensive until finally in 1878 the Factory and Workshops Consolidating Act brought together all regulated industries under one statute and stiffened enforcement of workshop regulations by placing power in factory inspectors. Some industries still remained unregulated, but the movement toward safety and reasonable conditions and hours in all workplaces was cresting.
Perhaps the largest global political change however, occurred in 1871, when the balance of power tipped in Europe as a result of the Franco-Prussian War that began July 1870 and ended only a few months later. Before the war, Otto von Bismarck longed to unite all the German states and regions into one entity. In 1870, working as the chancellor, von Bismarck misrepresented the contents of a telegram in order to antagonize France and stir up resentment in Berlin. As a result, France declared war. The southern states, including Bavaria, were largely unarmed, and in the new situation, set aside their wariness of the northern Prussian states and asked for their protection. Von Bismarck had been stockpiling weapons and troops at the French border, and the moment war was declared, they rolled toward Paris, laying siege on the city and taking control within a matter of months. When France surrendered, the May 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt gave Germany the Alsace region and part of Lorraine, and awarded Germany millions of francs worth of reparations and the right to occupy France until they were paid. Germany’s consolidation, France’s determination to reclaim the Alsace-Lorraine region, and British fears that Germany would use their occupation of France as a pretext for further expansion altered the political landscape of Europe forever and became some of the underlying causes of WWI.
My next novel features Annabel Rowe, an aspiring painter at the Slade Art School in 1875 London. Her older brother Edwin is a ne’er-do-well gambler but a brilliant painter and art restorer, and on the day he is murdered, a priceless French portrait by Boucher is stolen from his studio. Being Edwin’s closest living relative and knowledgeable about both art and auctions, Annabel convinces Inspector Matthew Hallam (readers may recall him from A Dangerous Duet) that she’s essential to his investigation.
Regarding the making of art, I have no abilities in this direction at all. Rendered helpless at the sight of a white plate, I resorted to polka dots at those paint-your-own-pottery places where I used to take my daughter. But I do know something about the auction world, and this became one of the seeds for this novel.
In the 1990s, I worked at Christie’s auction house in New York, back when it was still at 502 Park Avenue. On days when the weather was fair, I’d walk from my apartment on the Upper West Side across Central Park, past the store A La Vieille Russie, which always featured exquisite antiques and objets de vertu in the windows, to the employee entrance. I worked behind the scenes in the marketing department, buying advertising space for Christie’s in a broad array of magazines, newspapers, and specialty publications. And what did I have to do in order to buy effectively? I had to read about art and auctions, extraordinary collections and shocking scandals, outrageous wealth and daring thefts.
(Insert back-of-hand-to-forehead gesture and a melodramatic sigh.)
As a new employee at Christie’s I received a quick and lively tutorial in our history. As my protagonist Annabel tells Inspector Hallam, Christie’s was begun by James Christie, who in December 1766 held the first catalogued auction in the Great Rooms at Pall Mall in central London. Among the items sold were two chamber pots and two pillowcases. (So glamorous!) But it was almost inevitable that Christie would begin to engage with the art market. The rooms in Pall Mall served as the location for the exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts until 1779. James Christie was part of a social circle that included the actor and playwright David Garrick and the painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Christie later moved to a residence next door to Gainsborough, who lived in Schomberg House, 80-82 Pall Mall. This building had a second tie to the art world, as the artist John Astley resided at no. 81 Pall Mall, where he installed a studio on the roof. (Later, however, his rooms were purchased by a Scottish quack doctor who turned the space into a Temple of Health and Hymen; it was a high-class brothel, featuring a “celestial bed” with electrical devices—?!!—and was eventually raided by the police. More on this in a moment.)
For the next two decades, Christie built his business. In 1778, he achieved a phenomenal and defining success with the sale of the art collection of Sir Robert Walpole to Catherine the Great of Russia for £40,000. It is now part of the Hermitage Museum collection. In 1780, George Stubbs’ painting Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, now considered a masterpiece of sporting art, sold for the first of four times at Christie’s. In 1785, Christie’s sold Samuel Johnson’s library, and in 1795 Sir Joshua Reynolds’s entire studio. Paintings purchased at Christie’s were a significant part of the original 1824 collection of the National Gallery, where Annabel takes Matthew to show him a forged painting.
My fascination with art is partly because nearly every piece of art, and particularly it seems every painting, has a story—because often it brings together so many people and events. Take the painting of Emma, Lady Hamilton, by Elisabeth Vigeé-LeBrun, which Christie’s sold in 1801. You have Elisabeth herself—French daughter of a portraitist and a hairdresser, who entered a convent for six years, survived a wretched step-father, and had her studio seized because she was painting without a license. She painted hundreds of portraits including dozens of Marie Antoinette and her family. Then you have Emma—a beautiful model and actress and the muse for the portrait painter George Romney. Born Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith, she worked as a maid to actresses at the Drury Lane theater and also worked an attendant at the aforementioned Temple of Health and Hymen. She had several affairs with wealthy men, but she was best known, however for being the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson (yes, that Nelson). The hero of Trafalgar abandoned his wife for Emma, and when he learned about the portrait of her, he arranged to purchase it privately before it even reached the sales floor, for 300 pounds, saying, “If it had cost me 300 drops of blood I would have given it with pleasure.”
To me, the painting’s very frame is like a window; the captured image suggests worlds and people, their passions and stories beyond and behind what we first see.
I realize I like the mystery of it.
Check back for more blogs about the art and auction world in 1875 London.
Karen Odden is the author of bestselling novels A Lady in the Smoke and A Dangerous Duet. Her forthcoming novel, A Trace of Deceit, is available December 17, 2019.