Book Review – Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.

Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.

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The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.

Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”

That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”

There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties.  Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.

Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.

And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.

None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax  – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.

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Book Review: The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood

In The Pursuit of Power, Professor Sir Richard J. Evans noted that “British industrialists seemed to many to be to be too keen on ploughing their fortunes into becoming country landowners, rather than reinvesting them into productive technological innovation,” and this observation is noticeable in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend which charts country house living between the wars. Although the First World War’s economic and social effects further accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy that began in the 1870s, Tinniswood’s latest tome demonstrates that the country house and the old ways of living were not yet in their death throes but still surviving: albeit on a form of artificial life support.

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It is true that the high taxes imposed following the war and the loss of a generation led to the selling off of huge tracts of land and sometimes entire estates. Houses were also sold and while some were converted to other uses such as for housing, offices, schools, museums, hospitals and even as monasteries and convents, others were demolished and only live on in old photographs and magazine features.  However despite the destruction of a large number of country homes and the dispersal of several estates, many of these homes and estates found new owners while some like the Duke of Portland were even able to expand their homes.

The building and acquisition of country houses during this period was spearheaded by the royal family and the new rich drawn from the banking and entrepreneurial class. After the First World War, King George V had broadened the pool by which his children could find suitable spouses: which meant that, unlike previous centuries, members of the aristocracy were no longer out of bounds as royal marriage partners. His only daughter Princess Mary married the heir to the earldom of Harewood in 1922 and through this marriage the Princess became chatelaine of Harewood House with its impressive Robert Adam and John Carr interiors and gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. The union between royalty and aristocracy was further cemented by the marriages of the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester to Ladies Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott respectively, which led them to set up homes in the manner befitting their status as royal dukes and allow their wives to continue living the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Meanwhile the Duke of Kent’s marriage a foreign royal, Princess Marina of Greece, led him to acquire Coppins in Buckinghamshire (left to him by his aunt Princess Victoria in her will) which served as an introduction to English country life for the Duchess who with her impecunious upbringing was more used to life in the city.

Their bachelor brother the Prince of Wales acquired his own country house, Fort Belvedere and lived a life that combined both the traditional and modern. While he indulged in traditional country pursuits such as hunting (which he gave up in the mid-1920s), shooting and gardening,  the way he entertained family and friends was a marked contrast to his parents and the older generation. For a start, the food he served his guests was inspired by his travels abroad particularly America. Cocktails and jazz music interposed with the usual games such as cards and charades was also much a staple of dinners and house parties given by the Prince. He and his guests also swam, played tennis and picnicked in the grounds. Informality and comfort were also watchwords at Fort Belvedere, where guests would help themselves during meals and furniture was arranged in such a way as to encourage free flowing conversation. All these were a far cry from the more staid dinners and house parties at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.

As mentioned earlier despite the demolition of several country houses, the interwar years also saw the building of new country houses mostly for those who made their money in finance and trade such as the Sassoons and Courtaulds, as well as Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and Harry Gordon Selfridge. Other Americans were content to purchase demolished houses that were transported brick by brick to America, or fixtures that were incorporated into homes, office buildings and hotels. There is nothing new about the likes of the new rich such as Sir Philip Sassoon acquiring a country house as this was precisely one way by which nouveaux riche arrivistes could be accepted and in time join the aristocracy, but perhaps echoing Professor Evans’ quote that industrialists were more concerned about becoming aristocratic landowners than reinvesting their fortunes into industry was one of the reasons why eventually Britain fell behind further in industry and manufacturing.

These new country homes such as Eltham Palace and Port Lympne were built with the latest comforts: en suite bathrooms, electricity and heating. Two names recur time and again in this book – Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Tilden. Both were busy with designing or modernising houses ranging from the magnificent Castle Drogo for the entrepreneur Julius Drewe to Chartwell for Winston Churchill during the years between the wars. This was also the period when interior design was becoming a recognised profession and an acceptable career for aristocratic and upper middle class women who had fallen on hard times. A notable example was Sibyl Colefax who with her eye for design and colour as well as her social contacts became the interior decorator of choice for those in society building a new home or updating an old one.

Tinniswood is a master story teller with an eye for detail and he weaves both into his narrative. There is for instance an account of a day in the life of the future Edward VIII in residence at Fort Belvedere that put paid to King George V’s grumbling that his oldest son only wanted that “queer old place” for “those damned weekends”. Gardening, golf and quiet evenings doing needlework or playing the bagpipes are certainly a far cry from the Jazz Age stereotypes of dancing the Charleston while quaffing copious amounts of cocktails. There are also descriptions of the lifestyle of the likes of the Dukes of Westminster and Devonshire who still carried on as their predecessors had lived; the former especially with his various houses around Britain also had a hunting lodge in northern France and two yachts that could be described as “country houses at sea” with their panelled wood and Queen Anne furniture.

But Tinniswood is at his best when he writes about those who were the engine that kept the country house ticking – the servants. Although service became an even less attractive career after the First World War, the great houses such as those of the Astors at Cliveden still had a full retinue of servants that included a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet, cook, kitchen staff, maids, footmen and those who worked outdoors. The “servant problem” was more acutely felt among the poorer members of the aristocracy and middle class households but even grand households grappled with their own version thanks to to the high turnover of staff, especially among the junior ranks of maids, footmen and kitchen maids. Using Herbert Parker as a case study, Tinniswood charts the changing fortunes of someone who made his career in domestic service through the eleven households and various country houses Parker worked for and the author brings home the point that the high turnover of servants was down to factors such as desire for promotion, higher pay, ability to get on with the employer and colleagues as well as prestige.

Despite the anecdotes of house parties, shooting weekends and the progress of the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York or the Duke of Westminster, the reality was that they were clinging on to a way of life that was in its death throes and which would come to an end in 1939. The Long Weekend is a poignant look at country house life deftly mixed with the political, social, cultural and even artistic conditions of the interwar period in a way that Downton Abbey had the chance to show but consistently and inexplicably failed to present.

Exhibition Review: Vogue 100 – A Century of Style

I have to admit that I have an ambivalent attitude towards Vogue and other fashion magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Tatler, Town and Country). Sure it’s sometimes nice to look at pictures of wonderful clothes and jewels, stunning locations and even read an interesting article or two. I can also find some inspiration among its pages for how to style my clothes, visit a particular place or even read or see something as recommended by a magazine.

However, what gets my goat is the is not the amount of adverts but rather the subliminal messages that the likes of Vogue peddle – that one has to be rich, be of a certain size or age to be fashionable; the obscene price tags attached to clothes, accessories and beauty products and the pointless vacuity of the parties and events featured where everyone seems to look the same. Crucially what is galling is the celebration of mediocrity and nepotism; the glorification of certain individuals who owe their newsworthiness for who their antecedents are rather than for any real talent, ability or hard work.

So I approach Vogue more from a historical perspective and hardly buy the magazine unless there are articles or features that really interest me. One of the times where I made an exception was to buy this month’s issue which celebrates the magazine’s centenary. The interest in how the magazine has evolved and chronicled the transformation in society is what drew me to visit Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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One can see the effort put into staging the exhibition with thoughtfully curated photographs, footage and old magazine issues that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Despite the sheer number of people when I was in the exhibition, it was well organised with a good layout and what impressed me was that I was still able to navigate the space without any problems at all and I was able to view and appreciate the displays without having to stand on tiptoe or strain my neck.

Displays are arranged by decade with iconic images placed side by side with more obscure ones giving the public a taste of what it was like during the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s and down to the present through the eyes of the magazine. While the magazine does make forays into current events, society, politics, art and literature it’s always fashion that takes centre stage charting the looks that have entered the public consciousness from the flapper fashion of the Twenties to make do and mend in the Forties to the power suits of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties.

More than anything, Vogue has always been known for its photography and from its inception in 1916 has worked with the best photographers of the age as well as being credited with launching the careers of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon). It was also through photography that Vogue attempted to show that it wasn’t just about fashion and frivolity as demonstrated by the images taken by Beaton and Lee Miller during the Second World War.

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As this blog focuses on British history from 1870 to 1939, most of my time in the exhibition was devoted to examining the displays from 1916 to 1929 and from 1930 to 1939. While there were portraits of famous personalities of the age such as the writer and society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, actresses Sybil Thorndike and Marlene Dietrich, theatre designer Oliver Messel and Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor); fashion photography was the main focus. During this time, the photos centred on the clothes rather than the settings and who was modelling them. The likes of Baron Adolph de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton produced ground breaking photographs that served to enhance the subject rather than overwhelm it.

The exhibition over all doesn’t really reconcile the fact that while Vogue features, celebrates and encourages creativity on one hand, on the other it celebrates this unrealistic image and lifestyle that hardly anyone can realistically attain. However, therein lies a certain irony where in the 1916 to 1929 and 1930 to 1939 galleries, Vogue manages to subvert our popular notion of flappers and extremely thin women as exemplified in the illustrations by featuring women – such as Maxine Elliott and Edith Sitwell –  who do not fit our notion of the typical 1920s woman, or by showing the photograph of a “Modern torso” by Arnold Genthe where the body with its gentle womanly curves was out of step with the models wearing the latest fashions by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.

Perhaps therein lies the rub that no matter what Vogue may claim, in the end it has become nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle magazine that has held a mirror to the last 100 years albeit through a very narrow prism, and I feel that it has retreated a long way from the early years when high fashion and society  gossip was combined with serious reportage and ground breaking photography.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 21 May 2016

Photos of the exhibition catalogue, blogger’s own

Vogue 100: A Century of Style was at the National Portrait Gallery (London) from 11 February to 22 May 2016 and will be at the Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June to 30 October 2016 http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/vogue100/

For a review of the exhibition from a different perspective: https://haggartymuseumgeek.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/fashion-art-or-vanity/

TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3) Part 2

In a previous blog, I reviewed the first episode of Million Dollar American Princesses and was disappointed by the wasted potential of this documentary. Sadly the second and third episodes are no better.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Actress Elizabeth McGovern attends The Downton Abbey Ball at The Savoy Hotel on April 30, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Episode 2 entitled “The Wedding of the Century” focused more on the doomed marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While much has been written and said about the Marlboroughs and the circumstances that led to the marriage and its inevitable demise, I take issue with the assertion that she would lose her money and title if she divorced her husband. This is patently not the case as William K. Vanderbilt made sure that Consuelo had her own money separate from the dowry which was for her to use as she saw fit and became her lifeline when the marriage collapsed. Another was the statement that after the divorce she lost her title which isn’t the case as divorced and widowed peeresses keep their titles until they remarry, they don’t lose it just because the marriage is over (as Sarah Duchess of York has).

Another example of ignoring inconvenient facts is that of Mary Leiter’s marriage to George Curzon (later Lord Curzon). There was also yet again another ham fisted shoehorning in of Downton Abbey when it was claimed that the Curzon marriage was the inspiration for the fictional Granthams. While indeed there is a similarity between the two, what the programme fails to mention is the main reason why the Curzon marriage was happy was because Curzon expected his wife to subordinate herself to him and his political career. Mary learned early on that her husband’s needs and career would come first, second and last: although to his credit, Curzon did acknowledge her support and encouragement.

The final episode entitled “Movers and Shakers” was the weakest of the three. The great era of the trans-Atlantic marriages ended around 1910 with the ascension of a new King, George V who had a xenophobic suspicion of anything foreign and this meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins. By this point as well, the supply of heiresses was thinning and not even the money the heiresses brought to their marriages could stem the tide of the aristocracy having to sell up, retrench and in many cases lose their homes and estates altogether.

What made the final episode the weakest was apart from the persistent errors in the usage of titles were yet again the inaccurate hyperbole and the clumsy shoehorning of Downton Abbey. The assertion that Emerald Lady Cunard (nee Maud Burke) wielded power and influence is a misnomer as David Cannadine observed that “exclusive, aristocratic society had been transformed so fundamentally that it was no longer clear that it existed in its traditional sense……[i]nstead of being an adjunct to political life, patrician society was increasingly being detached from it. And even functioning as a marriage market, it was by no means as exclusive as it had been thirty years before. As one of the most important institutions through which the traditional elite has exercised power as a class, London society was effectively dead by 1914.” By the 1920s, it simply became “society for society’s sake” echoing the words of the American-born MP Sir “Chips” Channon who once described himself, “In society I am a power. In Westminster I am a non-entity.” The same could be said of Lady Cunard, her entertaining might have brought together politicians, aristocrats, businessmen, journalists, artists, composers and authors but they were a far cry from the gatherings that Consuelo Manchester helped organised with her mother-in-law the famed “Double Duchess” where house parties and dinners were as important as cabinet meetings.

Another inconvenient fact that the programme skates over is that by this time the few Americans who married into the peerage were not heiresses but upper middle class women who were a far cry from the so-called Dollar Princesses at the turn of the 20th century. The likes of Catherine Wendell (later Countess of Carnarvon) and Nancy Langhorne (later Viscountess Astor) only brought modest sums with them upon their marriages. One is struck at the irony of Elizabeth McGovern narrating what happened to the aristocracy after the First World War with the increase in income tax and death duties when Downton Abbey shows the Crawleys in complete denial about the whole financial situation facing their class and the economic and political situation outside the Abbey gates might as well not be happening.

The biggest disappointment however was concluding the documentary with Wallis Simpson and the Abdication crisis. If the whole point of the documentary was about wealthy American heiresses then Wallis Simpson certainly does not fit the bill. I suspect she was included as another way to shoehorn how another American interloper made her way into the British Royal Family (a previous episode mentioned that Frances Work was an ancestor of the Duke of Cambridge and his son). In my opinion, the documentary should have ended with a woman who I believe to be the ultimate Million Dollar American Princess – Kathleen Kennedy, one of the daughters of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and sister of a future President of the United States. Like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Mary Leiter, she was part of a nouveau riche family and snubbed by the American elite – a snub which was compounded by their religion. However she succeeded where the likes of the Dollar Princesses failed – to bag the heir of a first rank peer and unlike the Marlborough or Curzon marriage, Kathleen’s marriage to the Marquess of Hartington was clearly a love match in the face of some opposition owing to their different faiths.

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Crucially ending the episode with the Kennedy-Hartington marriage would have brought the documentary full circle. If the first episode was all about the financial decline of the British aristocracy then Kathleen’s wedding which took place during the Second World War and its tragic twist foreshadowed the fall of the aristocracy after 1945. Instead, what we have is a documentary that, much like Downton Abbey itself, ignored its material and the ability and potential to tell the viewer anything new or informative in favour of saccharine recounting of transatlantic “romances.”

Debs’ Delight? What Being Presented and the Season Was Really Like

Disclaimer: While there are occasional references to the Season and presentations during the Victorian era, the focus of this post will centre more on what it was like after the First World War

One ritual that has passed into history is the presentation at court where women are presented to the reigning monarch (or his/her representative). For two centuries and over three courts a year (with additional ones held in Edinburgh), women ranging from debutantes to married women to ambassadresses and wives of government ministers, officers from the armed services, civil servants and other men of rank and status donned the regulation court uniform of three ostrich feathers, veil, train and a white or pale coloured gown then made the requisite obeisance and the acknowledgement from the Sovereign that marked the lady’s formal entry into society and the official start of the year’s Season.

The presentation has always been popularly associated with young eighteen year old ladies called “debutantes” or “debs” and the ceremony was seen as a rite of passage, where being presented to the monarch marked her “coming out” into Society and signified that she was no longer a child but an adult and therefore of marriageable age. Presentation at Court was always an important part of royal ceremonial and practiced for centuries but the idea of young ladies on the cusp of adulthood being presented at Court originated with King George III on the occasion of his wife Queen Charlotte’s birthday. While the birthday ball died out, the idea of a young lady being presented to the monarch at the start of their foray into Society remained and by the late nineteenth century the number of Court presentations increased and more so in the early twentieth century.

After the First World War, the ceremony and indeed the whole Season had more or less lost its main purpose which was to act as a social adjunct to political life. It simply became a marriage market to ensure that young aristocratic men and women could select their spouse from their own circle of society. This was made difficult by the lack of men of marriageable age and meant that many debs during the early 1920s either married much older men or remained spinsters. By the 1930s, the presentation itself had become merely an expensive parade out of touch with the economic mood of the time so in 1936, King Edward VIII, in an attempt to introduce a more informal and democratic tone in his court (as well as economise on expenditure), decided to do away with the evening presentations and instead introduce afternoon ones; much to the chagrin of the mothers of the debutantes presented that year. It wasn’t a success as it rained on the day of the first presentation which put an abrupt end to the proceedings and gave rise to a number of irate comments from mothers who thought their daughters had been cheated of an opportunity to experience the same ceremony as they did, or thought that the garden party court was a poor substitute for the traditional evening one.

There was much relief when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth reinstated the traditional evening courts in 1937 but they were suspended for the duration of the Second World War. When they were resumed after the war, it was deemed inappropriate to reintroduce the evening courts and so Edward VIII’s idea of a garden party presentation was revived and remained in place until they were finally abolished.

By the 1950s, the idea of debutantes having to curtsey to the Sovereign was becoming an embarrassing anachronism. There were criticisms most notably by the historian Lord Altrincham (John Grigg) that it was failing to reflect the growing social changes in Britain as a result of the war while others wondered what was the actual point of this pageant? Even several members of the Royal Family took a dim view of the ceremony with the Duke of Edinburgh pronouncing it “bloody daft” and Princess Margaret complained that “every tart in London was seeking to get in”. Finally it was announced that the Queen would no longer be holding presentation ceremonies and the last garden party courts were held in 1959 after which the idea of debutantes and presentations went the way of the dodo.

An Upper Class Girl’s upbringing:

Until at least outbreak of the Second World War, the goal of an upper class and upper middle class girl was geared solely towards marriage and motherhood. The idea of further education much less a career was unthinkable and this was reinforced by how girls were educated and viewed. What passed as education for girls was basic and rudimentary (mostly under governesses but by the twentieth century, girls’ boarding or day schools had sprang up to cater for those whose parents could not afford a governess), focusing more on the social graces such as dancing, drawing, singing and learning a foreign language. Before she was presented a young girl might be sent abroad to be “finished” with additional foreign language lessons and trips to museums and historic sites, a sort of mini-Grand Tour or gap year before she was formally launched into society.

As with boys, emphasis was placed on instilling “character” as well as the virtue of thrift, duty and discipline. Choice was a privilege only adults enjoyed while children and young people had to make do with what their parents and elders decided for them. The ability to be able to interact and communicate with other people was also seen as highly important, the art of conversation was instilled from an early age, along with how to initiate it and put others at ease. There was also an emphasis on good manners and to respect others especially those who were older; and unlike today where outward expressions of emotion are common and highly encouraged such behaviour then was frowned upon and kept at a distance. Upper class women would recall never seeing their parents being outwardly affectionate with each other or with them; nor would they remember any hugs, kisses or kind words.

Despite the emphasis on developing the art of conversation and polite behaviour, there was a wide gulf between upper class parents and their children and nowhere was this most apparent than in the general ignorance of young people of both genders when it came to sex and relationships. Girls were ignorant about the changes in their bodies as they hit puberty and their mothers never made much of an effort to talk to their daughters about these changes much less tell them about the birds and the bees. Some mothers did try but embarrassment always got in the way and was never really addressed even if the young woman in question was getting married. They would begin married life and their wedding night wholly ignorant of sex.

Anne de Courcy wrote that with their proximity to wild and domestic animals theoretically girls raised in the country would have some knowledge of sex and procreation but in reality, women admitted not making the connection between animal and human behaviour. However despite this ignorance, one fact of life that the girls were made aware of was the social stigma attached to becoming pregnant outside marriage. Misconceptions about pregnancy, such as a simple kiss leading to pregnancy were sometimes enough to put young girl off the idea of marriage, so that some married late while others never did.

While many girls either happily conformed or were resigned to this very basic and rudimentary upbringing, others particularly after the end of the Fist World War chafed under this restriction and resented constantly being told that they could not study certain subjects, go to university or even take on proper paid employment. Some girls managed to successfully convince their parents to allow them to go on to further education or even work (the daughter of a baron was allowed to study for a degree at the London School of Economics provided that the family housemaid accompanied her as a chaperone) while others frustrated at not being allowed to do what they wanted took to reading or studying in secret. Others rebelled by sneaking out to go to nightclubs, smoking and adapting daring fashions but they were mostly a minority as there were more than enough deterrents to make sure that the girls remained on the straight and narrow.

Coming Out and Expectations of a Debutante:

Once a girl had turned eighteen (seventeen year olds were allowed to “come out” only in special circumstances such as in 1939 when it was inevitable that war was imminent), there was the ritual of coming out which as mentioned earlier marked the end of her childhood and entrance into adulthood. This involved coming to London where a ball would be organised, as well as the mother issuing and accepting invitations to various teas and luncheons where her daughters could be introduced to other young women and crucially suitable young men. There were also events such as the Royal Academy Exhibition, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and others which gave the opportunity to meet people.

Some families organised a “little season” in the form of hunt balls, dinners, tea parties and charity functions for their daughter prior to going to London for the presentation. This gave her a head start with the opportunity to meet other people especially those of her age and eligible men as well as knowing what to expect when she finally go to London for her Season proper.

The highlight of a girl’s coming out was the presentation at Court where once she had made her obeisance to the reigning Sovereign and his consort she was deemed to have officially “come out.” Despite the outward glamour of the evening courts with sights of beautiful gowns, jewels blazing, feathers, flowers and uniforms  they could be tedious and an ordeal for the young women and the sponsors involved. As Mabell Countess of Airlie recounted about her own presentation in 1884:

“Presentation in the eighteen-eighties was an endurance test. Queen Victoria held her Drawing Rooms at varying times in the afternoon but anyone attending them was expected to arrive at Buckingham Palace not later than one o’clock. No food was provided and debutantes, weighed down by their long satin trains and enormous plumes, wilted as the hours passed, but so great was the crush that they could hardly move forwards or backwards. The guests often numbered 3,000 and the majority spent their time trying to fight a way through the crowded rooms. Many of the girls waiting to be presented had their dresses torn in the struggle, others retired weeping because their ordeal had been in vain, and they had not succeeded in reaching the Queen, who always left long before the last debutantes had passed before her.”

By George VI’s reign not much had changed. Debutantes and their sponsors would bring food and books, knitting and embroidery frames to pass the time between arriving at the Palace in mid-afternoon and the presentation in the evening. Mishaps such as fainting, headdresses falling apart, wilted flowers, ruined dresses and difficulty to find somewhere to relieve oneself were common occurrences. When Nancy Mitford was presented in 1923 the only facilities were a chamber pot behind a screen.

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Contrary to Jessica Fellowes’ claim that the presentation and the Season were “anticipated for many months with feverish excitement”, the reality was very different as many young women dreaded their presentation and the round of parties and events that would follow; and you can understand why. From being children in the schoolroom they were suddenly propelled into public under the eyes of their sovereigns and the cream of Society and expected to bear themselves with poise and dignity, while knowing that any gaffe such as an awkward curtsey would be remembered, their looks and deportment were being scrutinised, and that the whole thing would be avidly reported in the papers. Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott (later the Duchess of Gloucester) was one of those who admitted not enjoying her Season and wrote about her relief when it was all over, while others such as Fiona Colquohoun (later Lady Arran) and Susan Grosvenor (later Lady Tweedsmuir) found the social rounds tedious and tiresome. Lady Elizabeth Wellesley (later Lady Elizabeth Clyde) found her season “ghastly” and their tedium only relieved by going to nightclubs with fellow debs but only because of the lure and novelty of the forbidden. Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) observed that apart from the horrors of being a wallflower or being left by a dance partner on the floor midway it was more the mothers who enjoyed their daughters’ Season. It was telling that it was they who reacted most violently to Edward VIII’s experiment with the less formal garden party presentations.

Once the young woman had been presented, the next three months would be a whirl of parties, balls, teas, events, dinners and dances; all carefully chaperoned of course. While some mothers or chaperones revelled in these gatherings (more than their daughters or charges), others found it an ordeal but gamely put up with the experience which was made all the more difficult if one had several daughters or relatives needing a sponsor for the season as Deborah Mitford (later Duchess of Devonshire) observed of her mother in the 1920s and 1930s:

“My dutiful mother suffered this extraordinary fate for six seasons, one for each daughter. At 10 pm on four or five nights a week in May, June and July she looked longingly at her turned-down bed, put on an evening dress and set off alone for the party.”

The ordeal of chaperoning and the Season can be seen as akin to Groundhog Day, the same thing over and over again with the same faces and the same events. Someone like Lady Grantham (from Downton Abbey) would have not only been presented as a young girl but also presented when she married, when her husband inherited a title and each time she presented a daughter or a relative – in Cora’s case she’d have been presented seven times. It must have seemed like a never ending parade and especially for a family with little money, it was imperative for the debutante to secure a proposal as soon as possible as doing the Season did not come cheap and for all the perceived glamour that lives on in the photographs, behind the scenes there was a lot of borrowing, making do and mending, recycling and buying off the peg.

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The whole point of the Season was to find a husband and hopefully secure a proposal by at least August. The debutants might have already been considered adults but interactions between young men and women were still tightly controlled. It was considered unthinkable that a young woman would be seen with a young man without a chaperone as Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster) recalled when she came out in the early 1920s:

“Teenagers had not yet been invented. I doubt if my parents knew what an adolescent was. Flappers were definitely middle class. Till one came out, one was a child, the same as one stopped being a baby, speaking only when spoken to, dressed in any old clothes (it went without saying that well-dressed children had common mothers) and of course with no male friends. My mother would have considered me very depraved if she had caught me writing letters to a boy, let alone making an assignation and I had hardly spoken to one except perhaps at a neighbour’s tennis party.”

The debutante’s most precious commodity was not money or who her parents were but her reputation. Being chaperoned was to ensure that her morals and behaviour were impeccable and someone who was regularly seen out and about unchaperoned and going to places unsuitable for young women ended up developing a reputation for being “fast” or “loose” which would be held against her by mothers seeking wives for their sons. Archaic as it seems to us there were streets in London an unmarried girl could not walk along and places she might not visit without grave damage to her all-important reputation. As a late nineteenth century publication The Lady’s Newspaper, provides a glimpse of what was expected of debutantes, “a girl’s prospects of marriage, even her entire future, may well depend upon her conduct at this most important juncture of her Youth. Any false step may prove Disastrous.” Expectations of how a debutante should behave lingered even after the Great War in spite of the freedoms  to work and go about unchaperoned gained by women during that period.

Young and naïve as they might have been, many debutantes did have ideas of the man they wanted to marry. Just as young women were held to strict moral standards, so too were the men. Whilst they were given a certain amount of leeway not allowed to girls, young men were still expected to conform to certain moral standards, to be branded as NSIT (“not safe in taxis”) or MTF (“must touch flesh”) harmed their prospects of attracting potential wives.

If a debutante did not secure a proposal during her first Season then it would be a case of better luck next time and if there were still no proposals by the second then third then the chances of finding a husband receded further and further until she was resigned to a life of spinsterhood or to marry the first man who showed interest and proposed. It was not until after the Second World War that upper and upper middle class women could have careers, travel and marry or not marry as they chose and the iron grip of social convention and expectation was discarded, freeing them, at least in theory, to be equal with men and as free to live as they wished.

Notes:

Photo 1 – Lord and Lady Harmsworth and their daughters, source: http://fortheloveofsantalucia.tumblr.com/post/107782582264/the-right-honourable-cecil-baron-harmsworth-and

Photto 2 – Eunice Kennedy (1939), source: http://america-runs-on-kennedy.tumblr.com/post/113609190448

Further Reading:

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (London, 1983)

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. Memories of Ninety Years (London, 1991)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Anne de Courcy. Debs at War (London, 2005)

Anne de Courcy. 1939: The Last Season (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (London, 2010)

Jessica Mitford. Hons and Rebels (London, 1960)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Lady Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Loelia (Grosvenor) Duchess of Westminster. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961)

Angela Lambert. 1939: The Last Season of Peace (London, 1989)

Jessica Fellowes. A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey (London, 2014)

Jane Wellesley. Wellington: A Journey Through my Family (London, 2015)