I'm reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and I don't understand what a "hard society woman" is in the following paragraph:

'Did you ever kiss a woman before? Did you ever hear of such a thing, before you met me?'

Lilian was blushing, still stroking, following her fingers with her gaze. ‘I don’t know. Yes, I suppose so. But as something indecent. Or as something a hard society woman might do; not as something real.

By "such a thing", she means two women falling in love. Is "society woman" a upper-class woman? If so, what is a "hard" society woman? And why is it something only a hard society woman might do? Can anybody explain the idea for me?

  • The novel is set in the 1920's, and a lot of language has changed. Hopefully someone can chime in with a specific, official explanation. However, in context we have a few clues - they are discussing lesbian relationships, and she asks Lillian if she had ever heard of them. This implies that she might be expected to be completely unaware. She replies that she is aware, but only as something indecent or "not real". Perhaps a 'hard society' member is expected to perform insincere lesbian acts, as an erotic spectacle? Maybe she means a prostitute or actress is low class, or 'hard society'.
    – user11628
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 1:09

2 Answers 2


From the references I'm able to find, like from Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf and this digitized chapter story from a 1927 newspaper a "hard society woman" is a cynical, jaded society woman who had "loose morals" (was sexually promiscuous).

Virginia Woolf, who one of those letters described as partially a "hard society woman", was part of a group of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury group which had a liberal (for the time period) attitude toward sexuality. Given the context in the book, I think that liberal attitude toward sex is probably a defining characteristic.

  • Hi, thanks for the suggestion. But I tried to google with the key words "hard society woman" and found the following paragraph in another novel of 20th century called The Boundary Line, written by Denise Robins: Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 6:30
  • "Pretty, smart, yes. Typical of the hard society woman dear to her mother's heart. Terry had met plenty of them in London. Women who made a fetish of dressing well; who spent half their time and money beautifying themselves, and the rest playing Bridge or Poker." So the image of this type of women seems to be rather upper-class. But then, I still find the idea confusing. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 6:37
  • @novelreader I think that you're right and my answer isn't correct. When I searched a little harder, I found some references to "hard society woman" that contradict what I thought, but don't make it much clearer. I'm tempted just to delete my answer, but I'll try editing it a little first. I don't think I have a good understanding of the phrase either.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:49
  • A society woman is a wealthy woman with a social life. She appears at museum fund-raisers and charity balls. She's not a rich recluse. I think Colleen is on the right track explaining "hard" with cynical and jaded. Unsentimental also fits. A hard society woman would also be impervious to opprobrium.
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 13:34

I think the connotation is the sort of cheek kissing often seen at "high society" parties. I think "hard" was used in such a way as to deliberately make the phrase "hard society woman" jarring. So the society woman wasn't kissing out of a romantic interest, but rather to conform to the social norm.

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