Folly Friday: Posing Nude and Girls Behaving Badly.

1905 Life Modeling Class, Art Institute of Chicago

1905 Life Modeling Class, Art Institute of Chicago

I knew I would eventually hear comments about Vicky posing nude and whether an Edwardian girl would ever think about doing such a scandalous thing.  My editor questioned Vicky’s actions when we first embarked on our editorial journey together, so I knew it would come up in readers’ minds, too.  It’s a valid point because most books written about or set in the Edwardian and Victorian era paint the picture of proper young ladies who wouldn’t dream of doing such a scandalous thing as posing nude.  But truly, the Edwardian era wasn’t as buttoned up as you might think. For instance, affairs were common.  People tended to marry for other reasons besides love.  Love came later.  After children were born, both wife and husband were free to fall in love and have affairs, providing they didn’t speak of it out loud or flaunt it. King Edward had many affairs, most of them public.  His most famous paramour was Alice Keppel, maternal great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and second wife of Prince Charles.

When talking about Victorian morality, Sally Mitchell, in her fabulous book, DAILY LIFE IN THE VICTORIAN ERA, says: “All stereotypes simplify the real world, and most people’s values are too complex to express in easy maxims.” She also says that “more nonsense has probably been written about the feminine ideal than any other aspect of Victorian life.  Many Victorian essays about women’s delicacy and fragility, for example, were written by men who wanted to prevent girls from playing sports, studying Latin and mathematics, or planning to practice medicine when they grew up.”

Let’s talk about the nude posing. Life drawing is an important anatomy lesson for an artist and always has been.  Without it they never truly understand how to portray the human figure.  Artists know why they are drawing from the nude.  It’s not for sexual reasons, and anyone leering or asking a model to pose provocatively is usually asked to leave.

It took Vicky a long time to even contemplate posing, and the decision wasn’t an easy one for her to make, but when she was confronted with her own hypocrisy, she couldn’t say no.  As Vicky says: “There can’t be two sets of expectations, one for them and one for me, the only girl in the class.” Of course there was fallout from Vicky’s decision to pose, but there often is when anyone dares to step outside the norm. And this risk led, ultimately, to a better life for her.  But how did Vicky become so free thinking? Her time in France around the artists opened her eyes to a different sort of life, one where creativity is found beyond the clutches of society.  She wanted to have a life like the male artists had, and so she naturally followed in their footsteps.

It’s said that female models were usually prostitutes who had nothing to lose or working class women who often didn’t adhere to the morals of society, but I’m sure there were other women like Vicky who posed nude.  The last time I was in Rye I discovered this photograph of a teenage model in a book called EDWARDIAN RYE by Geoffrey S. Bagley.  The photo was found in Mary Stormont’s house after her death.  Mrs. Stormont was a famous artist in Rye and today her house is the Rye Art Gallery. I can’t help but think this model is Vicky every time I look at it.

Nude model. Rye (1905)

Nude model. Rye (1905)

1909, the year my novel is set, was a time of girls behaving very badly indeed.  Suffragettes were becoming more and more militant, chaining themselves to railings, heckling politicians, and smashing windows.  Even today people often reflect upon this militancy as out-of-control hysteria, which really annoys me.  It’s perfectly fine for men to wage wars on other countries or in their own country when rights and freedom were threatened, but when women dared to rise up and insist on equal rights they were called hysterical and unladylike.

Dora Thewlis, 16-year-old suffragette.

Dora Thewlis, 16-year-old suffragette.

I don’t think women had any less passions and desires in the Edwardian era than they do now.  We didn’t invent sex, after all. In my research I found many cases of women acting in a way we would label modern.  For instance, Sylvia Pankhurst had a long love affair with the very much older and married politician Keir Hardie.  In 1899, Vita Sackville-West was a teenager when she fell in love with Rosamund Grosvenor and a long, secret affair with her.  Also as a teen, Vita had an affair with Violet Trefusis, daughter of the aforementioned Alice Keppel. They even ran away to Europe together for a time.

As Elizabeth Wein says in the author’s notes in her wonderful book CODE NAME VERITY, all she asks is that her details be plausible.  And so for Vicky, it’s certainly plausible that she would pose nude.

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2 Responses to Folly Friday: Posing Nude and Girls Behaving Badly.

  1. Abby Murphy says:

    It’s been fascinating to read about your thought and research process with this book. I’m working on a YA novel about an Ohio girl who longs to be an artist a few decades earlier–1883–and I struggled with some of the same issues. How could she become an artist if nearly every American art school banned women from life classes? During my own research, I discovered that many accomplished female artists ultimately studied in Paris, since some of the lesser academies allowed women to take exactly the same classes as men did, but for a higher fee. But conveying the character’s thoughts about life drawing was tricky.

    I’m really looking forward to reading A MAD, WICKED FOLLY. Counting the days!

    • Sharon Biggs Waller says:

      Thank you so much, Abby! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Women artists were truly at a disadvantage, and a quite a lot of them were encouraged to stick with decorative work. Decorative work is beautiful too, but not if you long to be something else. I’m interested in hearing about your story. Keep in touch!

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