The Edwardians were not known for their rapier-like wit but they owned a robust sense of humor that left no one in any doubt as to their meaning whether they were enjoying your company or not.
The laconic observations of the novelists P.G. Wodehouse on writing: “I just sit down at my typewriter and curse a bit,” and E.F. Benson on music: “A little Mozart goes a long way, particularly if it is a long way on a wet night,” are delightful examples of the underplayed humor of the early 20th century. And George Bernard Shaw’s vigorous comedy ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ which premiered at the The Royal Court Theatre in 1904 was so relentlessly funny that King Edward VII, a particularly substantial monarch who enjoyed life to the full, laughed so hard he broke his chair.
Serious topics might be discussed in society –war was a continual preoccupation in the 1900s but the tone was kept light. An Englishman never revealed anxiety, and it was bad form to burden others with one’s problems or disappointments or to openly brag “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” was how Winston Churchill self-deprecatingly referred to his downfalls while alluding to his many achievements.
As the impeccably dressed elite ate their way through nine course dinners it was advisable to be ready with a deft response to the notorious Maud Cunard’s ruthless observations:
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Lord Birkenhead asked Lady Cunard long before dinner was over.
“Do you mind if we eat?” She responded sweetly.
“Not if you do it quietly,” retorted his lordship.
It was the done thing to tease one another about accomplishments, especially in public, but always in a slightly offhand and rather understated way:
George Bernard Shaw: I’ll send you two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one.
Winston Churchill: Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one.
And slang? Yes Edwardians used slang. If you were young, male and from the upper crust you borrowed from London’s East End and expressed surprise like a Covent Garden barrow-boy: “Blimey!” delivered in a cockney accent conveyed just the right amount of unperturbed dash. And no one knew how to put-down a young woman exhibiting perhaps a little too much self-confidence than an Edwardian hostess when she said in a voice full of admiration: “Violet is such an awfully bricky girl!”