Though Edwardian era women made great strides toward their liberation, every step forward was met with opposition.
The slashing of the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery really happened. Suffragette Mary Richardson attacked the painting in protest of the government's torture of suffrage movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst. At the time, Richardson said, "I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history."
Pankhurst had been held in Holloway prison where she and other suffragettes were subjected to inhuman conditions and treatment. The deplorable conditions prompted her first hunger strike, and other detainees soon joined her. Women on hunger-strikes were subjected to brutal force-feeding which caused severe physical and emotional trauma.
Like the confrontation between Valentine and Sandbach at the Eton cricket match, many suffragettes were sexually humiliated by men at the time. Sandbach, upon recognizing Valentine as a suffragette, threatens to "smack her bare bottom" should she attempt any demonstrations and even goes so far as to say: "I know you're Tietjens's whore, you're all gasping for it, you militant bitches."
"The Devil's New Contraption"
Actress Adelaide Clemens (Valentine Wannop), empathizes with the corset-wearing women of the era, having learned firsthand its deeper implications: "You can't get as much breath when you're restricted by a corset. You can't run or pick up things without an effort. You are constrained in a way that men are not. The psychology of wearing it was a real experience because I'm quite a physical person and it gave me an appreciation of what the women went through back then."
Controversy brewed over the corset long before, stemming primarily from the health risks associated with wearing one. Women suffered misshapen bones and squeezed internal organs from tight-lacing, and critics called its continued usage vain and foolish. And as women entered the workforce in WWI, they needed to be able to move more freely. Though suffragettes were vocal corset critics, the changing tides of fashion were the biggest reason the corset went extinct. By the 1920s, fashion trends were moving away from severe silhouettes and towards a straighter, boyish look, epitomized by the flapper.
Glamour became an occupation for wealthy women like Sylvia. Rebecca Hall explains, "Sylvia is in many ways a modern woman. If she existed even 20 years after the fact, she probably would have done a lot better. She's very emotionally intelligent, very able, but she has no education and no career, and all of that resource goes untapped. She has no analytic capability, so it goes into manipulation and turning into a demon. She's a force, and I think a product of her time in many ways. If she had something else to do, she probably wouldn't be quite as sadistic. It's boredom and the injustice of not being able to lead an autonomous life on the same footing as a man."
Valentine and Sylvia represent the range of issues women faced. Even though Valentine is the suffragette, Sylvia may be the one who best understands just how trapped women were by the times. According to director Susanna White, "Valentine is the face of the future but for Sylvia, there's no alternative but marriage. She'll be lost if she has a baby without a husband so it's crucial that she marry Christopher. When that marriage becomes unhappy she's not equipped to exist outside of it. She doesn't have the education and society would have frowned on a divorced woman, whereas the unmarried Valentine can have a job and be her own person."