This time period was one of great social change. Alternately known as Fin de siècle or La Belle Epoque (the beautiful epoch), the years between 1880 and 1914 were infected simultaneously by moods of decadence and pessimism, and of optimism and hope. The dominant influences upon the period were the monarchies and their aristocracy, many who reigned near absolute.
Britain in this period was the most powerful nation in the world; the maxim “the sun never sets on the British Empire” rang true. From Greenwich to Malta to Cairo to Cape Town to Aden to Bombay to Sydney to Vancouver and back again to Greenwich, the Union Jack was to be found waving with vigor and sublime assurance. Nonetheless, the Empire felt the crunch of the rapid industrialization of both the newly formed German Empire and the United States of America, and the growing conflict with Ireland and India.
The formation of the German Empire in 1870 shook the balance of power in Europe and sparked a series of secret alliances and double-alliances between world powers (Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, with the satellite nations of Roumania, Bulgaria and other Balkan states) jostling for an equal “place in the sun.” With its saber-rattling by the bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II–who happened to be Queen Victoria’s grandson and the Prince of Wales’s nephew–the German Empire perpetually appeared on the verge of asserting its place as a dominant empire with brute force, further heightening fears of a Continental war.
France, the traditional enemy of England, and newly-made enemy of Germany (due to the seizure of Alsace-Lorraine as a spoil of the embarrassing and disastrous Franco-Prussian War), was rocked by a series of unstable governments and in the first half of the 1890s, an outbreak of bomb-throwing anarchists and in the latter half of the decade, the Dreyfus Affair. Also seen as an enemy was Russia, whose movements in Central Asia Britain viewed with deep mistrust, fearing their thrust through Persia and Afghanistan posed a threat to the Jewel in the Imperial Crown: India.
With the scramble for Africa, which led to Britain and France carving a large chunk out of the Continent, tensions between nations mounted. The decaying Ottoman Empire, aka “the sick man of Europe” also brought out the vultures in Europe; they encouraged the unrest in the Balkans and the creation of independent nations such as Roumania, Serbia and Bulgaria, hoping to swoop down on the remains of the Ottomans. When Germany staked a first claim, this was comparable to a gauntlet being thrown. In the Balkans, Austria-Hungary and Russia butted head, for Russia viewed itself as a protector of the Slavic race, while Austria-Hungary saw the Balkan peninsula as their province.
After the highly unpopular Boer War (1899-1902), Britain emerged its head from the sand to realize it hadn’t any allies. It refused to align itself with Germany despite the strong familial ties, for Germany wanted to be dominant in the relationship and instead, surprisingly turned its eyes to France. The Entente Cordiale, a loosely-defined treaty expression warmth and friendship between the two nations was signed in 1903, and in 1907, Russia and Britain formed an alliance, thereby creating the Triple Alliance of France-Great Britain-Russia. (This latter alliance had a rocky start, as Britain aligned itself with Japan, and France had aligned itself with Russia in 1896, and a war broke out between Japan and Russia in 1904-05, where the Russians were soundly beaten.)
In America this era was known as the Gilded or Progressive Age. Rapid industrialization and the successful thrust westward, which left thousands of Native Americans bereft of ancestral lands, encouraged the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that “uncivilized” peoples could be improved by exposure to the Christian, democratic values of the United States as it joined the scramble for colonial possessions. From this came the annexation of Hawai’i, and after the Spanish-American War, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Despite a series of financial panics that threatened to decimate the economy, this period was characterized by the aggressive, charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, whose Big Stick Diplomacy declared the US “had the right not only to oppose European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, but also intervene itself in the domestic affairs of its neighbors if they proved unable to maintain order and national sovereignty on their own.”
However, nationalism clashed with imperialism. From the Boxer Uprising in China, the riots in India, the ongoing debate over Irish Home Rule and the tensions between Slavic nations in Eastern Europe, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, among other nations, oppressed nations chafed under the yoke of colonial expansion and began to question their status within their respective empires.
Typically seen as the last hurrah of the aristocracy, the Edwardian period was full of social turmoil. Political groups abounded, some violent and some not: Anarchists, Nihilists, and Socialists, whose agitations of and attractions to the working classes upset the delicate balance of the haves and have nots. Not only was Parliament swiftly becoming to domain of progressive, Liberal politicians who had no pretensions to advancing into the aristocracy, as middle-class men formerly desired, but they were fighting to pass laws to shorten work hours, institute income tax, death duties and worst of all, in England at least, old age pensions, unemployment benefit and state financial support for the sick and infirm (per Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”).
By the mid-1900s, there came a schism between the young and their elders, whose wants, needs and desires had long reigned supreme. This “cult of youth” found young men and women creating a separate life from that of their parents, disrupting the notions that only married, settled men and women mattered in society. The suffragist/suffragette movement helped to shatter the lingering ideals of womanhood. Though women entered into the workforce in the 1880s and 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1910s that young women from well-to-do backgrounds thought of attending college and striking out on their own.
The influence of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) dominated this period. His manner of dress, speech, leisure, amusements–and those with whom he chose to befriend, were slavishly imitated by those who wished to be accepted as “smart.” It was he who threw open the doors of society, extending a welcome to wealthy Anglo-, Franco-, and German-Jewish families (the Rothschilds, Sassoons, and Cassells, among others), American millionaires, and the nouveaux riches derived from Britain’s many colonies.
Progressive politics shaped the United States. Guided by the boisterous, charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, America began to take its place as a world power, and after WWI, amidst the shattered, charred fields of Europe, it became the dominant power in the world.
Science and Technology
Many people considered this period to be the “age of optimism.” So many things had been invented so quickly–telephones, typewriters, sewing machines, motorcars, aeroplanes, wireless–it was thought that war would be averted due to the surplus of helpful inventions.
Art, Literature and Music
Writers, artists and composers we consider “modern” had their roots in the Edwardian era. The Bloomsbury Group, included author E.M. Forster, whose first four novels were published between the years 1905 and 1910. Pablo Picasso moved to Paris in 1900, and Cubism was formed around 1909-1912. Authors like Galsworthy and playwrights like Shaw, Ibsen and Pinero challenged mid-Victorian tastes, introducing themes such as venereal disease, fallen women, class, etc as the subject of their plays.
Religion and Spirituality
The church no longer played as vital a role in the daily lives of Edwardians. Darwinism, which gained a foothold in society in the 1850s and ’60s, melded with the rapid technological advances of the period, and many people felt man to be nigh invincible!