Olivia Shakespear’s “Beauty’s Hour” and how it challenges the assumptions of women in the 1890’s through the lens of fantasy and its trope of transformation

©2019 Maria Hanifi, Ryerson University

Aubrey Beardsly “The Savoy” Cover, Sept 1896, Photograph by Author, Ryerson Special Collections. Public Domain.


The story “Beauty’s Hour”, written by Olivia Shakespear was published in the magazine The Savoy(1896), volumes 4 and 5, in the 1890’s. Shakespear was one of the few female authors who got published in The Savoy, as her story reflects ideas of femininity and breaking the stereotypes set for females during the 1890’s. Although her story seems to tackle important topics such as The New Woman movement during the 1890’s, one would assume it’d be because one of the themes of the magazine was regarding the change for women’s rights or equality. But this is not the case, as The Savoy did not publish many New Woman authors, indeed it published almost no women at all, let alone New Woman fiction instead. This  leads readers to think then why was Shakespears’ story published? Romantic links with poet W.B. Yeats, leads to assumptions of the reasoning of her presence in the same magazine as the poet, as many of his works at being the ones, were published in the same magazine(Finneran). Her story challenges the general assumptions about women, beauty, love, and marriage through the lens of fantasy and its trope of transformation. 

Challenging the 1890’s Assumptions of Love

In Shakespear’s story, the protagonist Mary is a young woman who is not married, lives on her own and works. These three descriptions themselves are contradictory to the 1890’s as the women of that time were expected to be married at her age, if not earlier. They were expected to live with their husband, bear kids and spend time being dutiful to their beloved husband all the while, taking care of kids. Throughout the story, readers get a sense of what the 1890’s was like, women rushing to find the perfect man who’ll be rich enough to marry so that they can live peacefully for themselves and among society. “Even so, critics feared that the New Woman, in her hypermodernity, her ambitious attempt to transcend established notions of sexual consciousness and behaviour, would irreversibly unfit herself for her essential role as wife and mother-that, in short, she would follow the decadent down the road to personal and, ultimately, racial extinction.”(Dowling) Most men during the 1890’s really disliked this idea of the New Woman movement as it slowly began to become recognized among society. They thought it’d strip away women from their ideal roles as women such as being a mother and remaining dependent upon their spouse regarding anything. During the 1890’s the New Woman movement or topic of discussion was still almost new as for being widespread. People began to use it as a way of advertising women’s rights and discussing it in their work but not many were willing to actually take action for equality(Stetz). This idea of giving women equal rights and opportunity frightened them and feared that they would no longer follow this specified role that’s been chosen for them and perhaps even leading to racial extinction.

Mary, the protagonist, spends her time throughout the book like any other woman also interested in a man, all the while playing the role of an independent woman as well. The story mixes both the assumptions about women in the 1890’s and challenging all those assumptions at the same time. It is stated in the story that the protagonist is lacking in her physical appearance, and the story goes on to show that beauty holds great value within society and among those within it. That one who possesses beauty is accomplished and set for life as they are able to attract an attractive man and even those with great wealth. Mary challenges this idea and and shows that beauty shouldn’t be the only thing a man loves you for because ultimately that isn’t all that matters. She slowly loses love for Gerald as she realizes beauty really is the only thing that matters to him, and her amazing personality will never be appreciated(Shakespear, pp11-27).

Early Fantasy Fiction at the Right Time

Women in dressed with faces covered, with curtains and candles.
Aubrey Beardsley Front Cover for The Savoy vol 2 April 1896. From the Internet Archive. Public Domain.

Convinced that both literary decadence and New Woman fiction created a sort of  ‘unrestrained egoism’, critics repeatedly warned if such dangerously volatile literary tendencies should enter into combination with other forces agitating for radical social and political change. The way men at the time understood women rights or challenging these assumptions was horrendous. Implying that it will cause ‘Social Wreckage’ and the ‘ego of woman “will yet roll over the world in fructifying waves, causing incalculable upheaval and destruction”(Dowling, Linda). They didn’t want to see women succeed in attaining the rights they deserve nor see them challenge these assumptions that were mapped out for them to follow. There was this notion that writing fiction which challenges all of these ideas might corrupt society and they would no longer be able to control women. Shakespear introduces Mary in her story who breaks all of these assumptions of a woman in the 1890’s. No one is controlling her, and the author utilizes the trope of fantasy to, in a way, incorporate ideas of impracticability. “Mary’s ‘ugliness’ is not as important as her intelligence and strength is of her character”(Warwick). Mary is not known to be quite beautiful but she is given the chance to be through a magic wish.  This allowed her to be given a chance to have a change of fate, which not everyone is given. Through magic, she catches the attention of Gerald and finally has a chance with him. Throwing this lucky fortuity away as soon as she realizes the value she is only given when beautiful, she chooses to continue her life crushing this fantasy she had of a future with Gerald(Shakespear, pp 26-27). Although this is the genre of fantasy, it can also be fairytale. Shakespear ends the story with the protagonist unmarried and back to living her life as the independent woman she was. Shakespear breaks this assumption completely, giving it no so importance, as the protagonist is happy with her own self and not ending the story as a ‘happy ending’ with marriage. Writing a story with a meaning such as this one was definitely still new to the people of the 1890’s, as authors had just begun to write about ‘the New Woman movement.’ The Women’s suffrage rights movement had just slowly began in the 1890’s and was at its peak during the 1990’s(Francisco O., et al.). This could also explain why Olivia Shakespear was one of the first very few female authors whose story got published, that too in The Savoy.

Shakespear’s Story in the Magazine

Many knew of the affair between W.B. Yeats and Olivia Shakespear. Before the first of her six novels was published, she had met Yeats two months prior to that. Both writers stories have been published in the magazine and had first met each other at the inaugural dinner for The Yellow Book. Olivia Shakespear was hardly known at the time and being a female author, it was hard to be quickly noticed and published. This further leads many to think that perhaps Yeats could have had a hand in getting her story published in the magazine as he was quite known at the time and his work was already a part of the magazine. The two were definitely close enough to have had this happen, as after the relationship was broken off by Shakespear, Yeats had wrote many works confessing his love for her(Finneran). He had asked Shakespear to elope with him and she had agreed and was willing to risk everything including, financial support, custody of her daughter etc. She was going to leave her husband Hope but when they both asked their friends for advice on what they should do, they had told them that it would be better that they wait until the death of Shakespear’s mother. This break had another woman who Yeats had previously been with invite him over to London. When Olivia had seen how easily he had been persuaded and left for her she ended the affair. After their affair was over, Yeats miserably wrote works such as, “The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love”: “I had a beautiful friend / And dreamed that the old despair / Would end in love in the end: / She looked in my heart one day / And saw your image was there; / She has gone weeping away”(Francisco O., et al.) One would only write this much about a person who left a huge influence on them or was a vital part of their life. And so, giving into the idea that perhaps Yeats played a role in getting Shakespear’s story published in The Savoy, maybe even as a token of apology or a tribute of his love for her.

Black Drawing on white background. A women is facing the man and his arm is sticking out. Bushes are behind them.
The front cover of The Savoy Volume 5. Designed by Aubrey Beardsley on September 1896. Public Domain.



To conclude,  Olivia Shakespear’s story challenges the general assumptions about women, beauty, love, and marriage through the lens of fantasy and its trope of transformation. Her story is very relevant to the time period (1890’s) as the rise of the Women’s suffrage movement and the New Woman movement was was at its prime. Her story is fantasy/fairytale fiction and the ideas of the story worked to challenge the assumptions of women during the 1890’s and binds together to create a story of woman empowerment and the beginning of fighting for women’s rights.



Works Cited

Finneran, Richard J. “Olivia Shakespear & Yeats.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 34, no. 4, 1991, pp. 484-489.

Gould, Warwick. Essays in honour of Eamonn Cantwell : Yeats annual no. 20, a special number / edited by Warwick Gould. Open Book Publishers, 2016.

Linda Dowling. “The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890’s.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 33, no. 4, 1979, pp. 434–453. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2933251.

Margaret Diane Stetz; The New Woman and the British Periodical Press of the 1890s, Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1 January 2001, Pages 272–285, https://doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2001.6.2.272

Ramirez, Francisco O., et al. “The Changing Logic of Political Citizenship: Cross-National Acquisition of Women’s Suffrage Rights, 1890 to 1990.” American Sociological Review, vol. 62, no. 5, 1997, pp. 735–745. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2657357.

Shakespear, Olivia. “Beauty’s Hour.” The Savoy, 1896, vol. 4, 11-24, vol. 5, 11-27. Internet archive, https://archive.org/details/savoy02symo/page/n179

The images used in this exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.



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