The Devonshire House Ball (1897): Dressing Up on a Grand Scale

One of the main displays in the current exhibition at Chatsworth House is about the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The Great Chamber contains displays pertaining to the ball together with life sized images of some of the famous guests at the ball such as the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary), Victor Cavendish (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Mrs Arthur Paget, while next door in the State Drawing Room was a display of some costumes worn during that evening.

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The ball was held at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London on the 2nd of July, during the height of the London Season. What made this ball special was that it was held in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and as Deborah, the 11th Duchess observed, at a time when there were balls almost every night during the height of the Season, for a ball or event to stand out and generate interest, it had to be special. And indeed it was special – invitations were sent out and the dress code was “allegorical or historical costumes before 1815”. This was an encouragement to the guests to give their imaginations full rein for the costume that they planned to wear that evening.

The hosts of the ball were Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and his German born wife Louise. The 8th Duke was a politician: as Marquess of Hartington he served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party. He also turned down the opportunity three times to become Prime Minister. By 1897 and now Duke of Devonshire, he was sitting in the House of Lords and had split with the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule. With his personal life, the 8th Duke would have made a prime example of the saying “appearances can be deceiving” for his intellect and sense of duty was masked by a languid appearance and indifference towards the social side demanded of his position. He was known to be forgetful, shabbily dressed and had the habit of sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Once, finding the ministerial bench at the House of Lords fully occupied, he found another bench and promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and saw what time it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, what a bore, I shan’t be in bed for another seven hours.”

His appearance and bearing also masked a complicated personal life. A bachelor of many years standing, he carried on a long term affair with Louise Duchess of Manchester but during the 1860s was also involved with the noted courtesan Catherine (“Skittles”) Walters who was known for her prowess as an equestrienne and on the hunting field. The then Marquess of Hartington was smitten with her, provided her with a home in Mayfair and together was openly seen out and about in events such as the Derby. As Sophia Murphy observed that, Lord Hartington “made no secret of his love for her” but in the end their affair was mentioned in the papers (albeit in the form of coy blind items) and coupled with the weight of disapproval from the highest echelons of society, the affair ended, but he made sure that she was well provided for. Catherine for her part, left for France, only returning to Britain once memories of the affair had faded, and her discretion was rewarded by the Cavendish family who carried on forwarding the annual sum promised to her until her own death in 1920.

The main driving force behind the ball was Louise Duchess of Devonshire. Known as the “Double Duchess” because until only a few years before, she had been Duchess of Manchester. Born Louise von Alten, she was the daughter of a German count and in 1852 had married William Drogo Montagu Viscount Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester. Three years later they became Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Beginning in the 1860s, she began an affair with Lord Hartington with the full connivance of her husband; their affair followed the usual pattern, it began long after she had provided her husband with the requisite sons to carry on the family line and was conducted discreetly among the whirl of dinners, balls, teas and shooting parties. Louise also maintained her dignity even when Hartington had other women and she never allowed her affair to threaten her own relationship with her husband. Such behaviour today would be seen as hypocritical but they scrupulously observed the rules governing their class and so long as those rules were observed there was no scandal and everything went smoothly.

Louise quickly assimilated into her adopted country and through her entertaining advanced the political careers of both husbands. Although all her life she identified with her first husband’s political party, the Conservatives, her circle of friends and acquaintances was politically diverse. She didn’t hesitate to ensure that her dinners and balls were filled with leading politicians, regardless of their political affiliations and persuasion; her objective was that her home should be a meeting place for politicians of all stripes where they could talk in a more relaxed atmosphere away from the pressures of Westminster. Above all, she wanted to be surrounded by people who were interesting and who she liked and to ensure that they had a good time.

She also gained a reputation for being a skilled political hostess who became a sounding board for leading politicians and statesmen, and although she was dismayed that the 8th Duke of Devonshire three times turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister, his status and wealth as well as his ability meant that Louise could entertain in style and befitting their position in the social and political life of the country. Louise’s marriage to the 8th duke which finally happened in 1891 meant that her position was more secure. As Duchess of Devonshire, she was chatelaine of seven houses (Chatsworth, Devonshire House, Bolton Abbey, Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Chiswick House, Compton Place) and had large funds at her disposal which meant that she had a wider scope for her social talents. Esther Simon Shkolink in her study of late Victorian and Edwardian political wives noted that contemporary accounts were more or less unanimous in their praise of Louise’s entertaining with her “charm and attentiveness as a hostess but also her careful attention to detail.” Her guest list was always eclectic and came from different political parties and social classes as the Devonshire House Ball would later demonstrate.

The Devonshire House Ball in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was part and parcel of Louise’s pattern of entertaining. She and the Duke were fond of horse racing and annually held a dinner and a ball during and after Derby Day, regularly entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and gave lavish parties for special occasions, but the Diamond Jubilee gave Louise the idea to push the boat out – throw a ball but with a twist in the form of a fancy dress party.

Fancy dress balls had been a fixture at least since the sixteenth century; costumed masked balls were popular in Italy, particularly Venice, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. During the eighteenth century, they became popular at the various royal courts, especially in France, while in Britain costume masked balls were ticketed events held in pleasure gardens and assembly halls in major cities such as London and Bath. In these balls, attendees would usually be cloaked and masked (either with one covering half their face or one trimmed with silk or lace to cover the whole face) or dressed as characters from the past or from popular entertainment such as the commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century, theme balls became popular – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert threw three lavish themed costume balls during the 1840s and 1850s. The first was a medieval ball where the hosts and their guests were dressed in the style of the court of King Edward III; the second featured a Georgian theme while the last, held in 1851 had the court of Charles II as the subject. As Queen Victoria withdrew from social life following the death of Prince Albert, the mantle of royal entertaining passed onto her oldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra, and during the 1870s they hosted a lavish costume ball at their London home Marlborough House which was heralded as a success and ensured the continued popularity of such events.

For her own ball, Louise decided that the theme would be “court or allegorical costumes before 1815” and as a later Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah mused in an article she wrote:

“It was not difficult for Louise Duchess to mobilise her female guests – they can have had little else to do but arrange themselves for such an occasion and one can easily picture the excitement and pleasure it gave. But even clever old Louise must have been surprised at managing to persuade a lot of middle-aged men to order their costumes and suffer the tedium of trying them on.”

Fortunately help was at hand. Due to the popularity of fancy dress balls, there was a plethora of books and specialist hire shops on hand to offer advice. One such book was entitled Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt and it went through several editions. It gave descriptions of the most popular costumes which ranged from historical personalities to characters from fiction, myth and legend down to allegorical and national costumes from various parts of the world. In addition, the book also gave recommendations of what costumes would suit a particular hair colour, skin complexion and age.

The ball was eagerly anticipated and as Sophia Murphy observed that “[a]n invitation to the fancy dress ball confirmed membership of the ‘smart set’, and was therefore much sought after. Apart from this, everyone was eager to witness what promised to be one of the most lavish spectacles of the century; since it was the main subject of interest that season, everyone wanted to have the fun of trying to keep their outfits a secret while at the same time trying to discover what the others were wearing.” Many of the guests came together as a group and organise a procession and in the end five main groups or courts were organised: Elizabeth I of England which was led by Lady Tweedmouth; Maria Theresa of Austria under the Marchioness of Londonderry; Queen Guinevere & the Knights of the Round Table led by Lady Ormonde (she ended up being unable to attend due to bereavement so Lord and Lady Rodney went as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere); Louis XV & Louis XVI of France under Lady Warwick (as Marie Antoinette) and the court of Catherine the Great of Russia led by Lady Raincliffe.

Three other groups more loosely defined were categorised by the costumes they were wearing such as the Italian, Oriental and Allegorical. Many other guests however decided not to join any group or procession as they went in an assortment of costumes ranging from their ancestors to those modelled from famous paintings or historical figures that did not fit into any of the groups or courts organised. With her customary attention to detail and zeal, Louise planned everything down to the last detail and even the servants on duty were in costume – the men were dressed in in Devonshire livery from the 18th century while the female staff were dressed in costumes from the Elizabethan period. Due to the large number of guests, it was necessary to hire outside staff for the night and Louise had them dressed in either Egyptian or Elizabethan dress.

On the night of the ball, the guests were greeted by Louise herself and her costume was described by The Times in great detail:

“The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.”

One of the guests Margot Asquith (wife of the future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) expressed surprise at her host’s choice of costume. For her, Zenobia evoked beauty and romance but Louise in her view was neither. In her youth, Louise was known and praised for her beauty but as she grew older, her looks faded while her features became coarse and her figure grew rounder. As Duchess Deborah wrote: “The ‘Double Duchess’ was considered a great beauty, though with her frizzed up hair and short, thick neck it is hard to recognise her beauty in most of the likenesses we have of her. The people I have talked to who saw her only remember the crazily cracked make-up plastered thickly over her face, which made a bizarre effect on this grande dame receiving at the top of the staircase at Devonshire House.” Her costume was designed by the House of Worth and such was the skills of that venerable fashion house that they managed to make Louise a stately and imposing Queen of Palmyra rather than fat and coarse.

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The Duke of Devonshire was dressed as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V based on his portrait by Titian and keeping up with his modest tastes, the Duke’s costume was simple and the only adornment was the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been lent to him by the Prince of Wales for the evening and which the duke wore around his neck.

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Among the guests were Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) as the Empress Theodora, Mrs Arthur (Minnie) Paget went as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Sutherland was costumed as Jane Seymour, the former Prime Minister the 6th Earl of Rosebery who was dressed as a gentleman from the 18th century (he wasn’t amused when some of the papers said that he was costumed as Horace Walpole), Lord Rownton who went as an archbishop and Arthur Balfour (future Prime Minister) as a Dutch gentleman. The Cavendish family meanwhile was represented by the Duke’s nephew and heir Victor who was costumed as Jean de Dinteville from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors while his wife Evelyn went as a lady from the court of Maria Theresa.  Consuelo Duchess of Manchester, Louise’s daughter-in-law from her first marriage went as Anne of Austria “in a very striking gown of white and silver satin, decorated with swags of gold satin. On her head she wore a diamond crown with a large single pearl ornament in the centre of her forehead.”

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As the ball was in honour of Queen Victoria (who did not attend), she was amply represented by members of her family. The Prince and Princess of Wales (who were costumed as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Marguerite de Valois respectively) together with their children and in-laws attended as well as the Duke and Duchess of Teck and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Foreign diplomats such as the Portuguese ambassador the Marquis de Soveral (a close friend of the Prince of Wales) and the Austrian ambassador Count Albert Mensdorff were also present and it’s no wonder that with such a guest list, the Devonshire House Ball was seen as the event of the 1897 London Season.

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Many guests did take much time and effort with their costumes. It was said that one guest who wore an Oriental dress wanted to make an entrance via an elephant and enquired London Zoo about the possibility of borrowing one. The zoo authorities however refused on the grounds that the elephant would be unable to cope with the crowds and traffic of London. One can simply conclude that she made her entrance via the usual horse and carriage. Others in their desire for accuracy and to stand out suffered through the evening with uncomfortable headdresses and props – such as the Hon Mrs Reginald Talbot who went as a Valkyrie and who developed a headache due to the metal winged helmet she was wearing but refused to take it off as it might ruin her hairdo. There was the Countess of Westmoreland costumed as Hebe cupbearer of the gods who was restricted with her movements the entire evening due to the huge stuffed eagle on her shoulder: while Lady Wolverton who attended as Britannia would have had to contend with not only a feathered helmet but also a triton and shield.

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While some male guests such as Herbert Asquith went to the ball grudgingly and made little effort with their costumes, others threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of wearing fancy dress sometimes with even more enthusiasm than their wives. One of the most expensive costumes was worn by the 9th duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador in one of the courts. It was made by House of Worth, a confection of velvet embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of white and gold damask. The whole costume was mostly embroidered by hand as well as the pearls and diamonds and cost 5,000 francs. As Jean Philippe Worth later recalled, even he was shocked by the bill as he presented it to the duke.

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Outwardly the ball can be seen as the pinnacle of aristocratic dominance both in the political and social scene but in reality, the ball reflected the gradual changes happening in society. It was observed that society was “less clearly defined than it had been twenty years before” and the guest list reflected Louise’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances that crossed the political divide. More crucial however was the presence of men and women whose origins and occupation would have barred them from other aristocratic homes but who were invited to the Devonshire House ball while most of the aristocratic old guard were not. Examples of these were Ernest Cassel and Alfred Beit both of whom were Jewish and were in banking; the Earl of Iveagh and Lord Rothschild both of whom made their fortunes in commerce and finance; the actor Sir Henry Irving and the American born singer Mrs Ronalds who appropriately came as Euterpe, “the Spirit of Music” in a costume decorated with the musical score from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

The ball in 1897 was the last major event held in Devonshire House and with the 8th Duke’s death in 1908 followed by Louise three years later marked the end of an era for the Devonshires. The 9th duke was faced with crippling death duties from his predecessor’s estate as well as debts from the 7th duke’s failed investments. In order to economise, the 9th duke accepted the position of Governor-General of Canada where he served from 1916 to 1922. While in Canada, negotiations for the sale of Devonshire House had begun and it was finally sold in 1920. Not long after the house was demolished and an office block now stands in its place.

The sale of Devonshire House showed that following the end of the First World War not even the grandest and wealthiest of the aristocracy were immune from the changes sweeping through the aristocracy as well as feeling the financial pinch. In the years following the sale and demolition of Devonshire House, other aristocratic townhouses were sold to be demolished, converted into office spaces or museums. At the same time, aristocratic entertaining also changed – many in the aristocracy could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale as their predecessors and balls and dinners were ceasing to become extensions of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions. The Devonshire House Ball of 1897 would certainly be the last of its kind and one that would never be repeated.

 

Note:

Photos from the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House taken by blogger

Further Reading:

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Home to Roost and Other Peckings (London, 2009)

Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth: The House (London, 2002)

Ardern Holt. Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (London, 1881)

Sophia Murphy. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London, 1984)

Sophia Topley. ‘The Devonshire House Ball’ in Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles (eds) House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth (New York, 2017) pp. 123-139

Esther Simon Shkolink. Leading Ladies: A Study of Eight Late Victorian and Edwardian Political Wives (New York and London, 1987)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

http://www.npg.org.uk/blog/from-downton-abbey-to-devonshire-house-american-heiresses-at-the-devonshire-house-fancy-dress-ball.php

https://fromthebygone.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/late-victorian-fancy-dress-the-devonshire-house-ball-in-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/fancy-dress-1897-the-duchess-of-devonshires-diamond-jubilee-ball/

http://www.thecourtjeweller.com/2017/08/jewel-history-hired-jewels-are-much-in.html

http://lafayette.org.uk/dhblist.html

http://www.rvondeh.dircon.co.uk/incalmprose/ball.html

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/back-to-the-party-more-pictures-from-the-duchess-of-devonshires-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/party-time-again-costume-ball-1897/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/costume-ball-4-ladies-only/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/costume-ball-5-more-ladies-more-gentlemen/

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/costume-ball-6-mothers-daughters-and-others/

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Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 1 – Non fiction)

Downton Abbey has come to an end both in the UK and the US but if you are interested in the era the programme is set (as we are) then these books hopefully will give you a greater insight into this period and what life was like in Britain in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Ignore all other lists; this is the one you need.

PART 1: NON-FICTION

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – The Glitter and the Gold

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Published in 1953 when Consuelo was already in her seventies this autobiography dwells on her childhood, her unhappy marriage to and divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her work with the poor and support for women’s suffrage and finally her second marriage to French aviator Jacques Balsan. Of particular interest here is Consuelo’s account of life as a duchess and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace which depicts a way of life in its Indian summer before its eventual demise during the First World War.

 

Anne de Courcy – Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, The Viceroy’s Daughters, 1939: The Last Season, Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916

The-Viceroy-s-Daughters     margot at war

This quartet of books from Anne de Courcy explores the lives of Edith Londonderry, the daughters of Lord Curzon and Margot Asquith where she weaves their lives amidst the social and political realities of the times they live in where their privileged lives were simply a façade for the growing impotence of the class they belong to and which all would come to an end with Armageddon in 1939.

 

Catherine Bailey – Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, The Secret Rooms

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Catherine Bailey’s well researched books on the Fitzwilliam family and the 9th Duke of Rutland has all the ingredients that make Downton Abbey pale in comparison. From missing documents to forbidden love to betrayal to subterfuge to mysterious births and deaths; the stories of the Fitzwilliams and the 9th Duke do lend credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction

 

Mary Lovell – The Mitford Girls

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The death of Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2014 marked the end of an era and Mary Lovell’s biography of the famous and infamous six Mitford sisters provides a snapshot of what it was like for an aristocratic family to be a casualty of the prolonged agricultural slump that has decimated the fortunes of many in the aristocracy. The sisters’ close relationship with one another make good reading – how it was tested time and again and in some cases unable to withstand the changing political and economic conditions that engulfed their class.

 

Loelia Duchess of Westminster – Grace and Favour

Mabell Countess of Airlie – Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie

Lady Cynthia Asquith – Remember and Be Glad, Haply I May Remember

What was it like to be an upper class woman where you had to be strictly chaperoned until you were married? Where your education was haphazard and anything that was deemed to be unladylike was actively discouraged? Where discussion of awkward and difficult subjects was avoided? Let Loelia Westminster, Mabell Airlie and Cynthia Asquith be your guides through a vanished world where strict morality, a sense of propriety prevailed and the shenanigans of a Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Rose would have been commented upon and not tolerated.

 

Mollie Moran – Aprons and Silver Spoons

Flo Wadlow – Over a Hot Stove

Rosina Harrison – The Lady’s Maid

moran memoirsReaders might wonder why we do not have Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs but we believe that her account is only one side of the story and it’s easy to forget that she did not work for the aristocracy or even the untitled gentry. For those of you who are wondering how a real life Mrs Patmore or Miss O’Brien might have coped and what life could have been like in an aristocratic household then the reminiscences of Mollie Moran, Flo Wadlow and Rosina Harrison will present another side of the story overlooked by Margaret Powell.

 

Frances Osborne – The Bolter

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This could be subtitled The Marriages of Idina Sackville, a woman who could “whistle a chap off a branch” and frequently did. From scandalising Edwardian London to organising wife swapping parties in Kenya, this is a highly entertaining account of an earl’s daughter who pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Fascinating and repelling at the same time.

 

Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

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One of the best memoirs of World War One – poignant, at times agonising and at all times deeply personal, although for me it sags after the end of the war when Brittain talks at great lengths about her political and social justice ambitions and interests. One comment that was made when this came out is that it’s written as if Brittain was the only woman to lose a fiancé during the war, and she’s certainly self-absorbed throughout, but a worthwhile read as a contemporary account of Britain from peace to war and back again.

 

Phyllida Barstow – The English Country House Party

A description of the golden age of the English country house party from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the outbreak of war in 1914. An intimate and entertaining account of a vanished world and a vanished class that uses diaries, fiction and personal memoirs to convey a world that was not just about enjoyment but served serious social and political purposes.

 

Gail McColl and Carol Wallace – To Marry an English Lord

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One of the inspirations for Downton Abbey was the career of the Buccaneers – young American heiresses who came to Britain with the intention of marrying into the peerage. 1895 was the peak year for this social phenomenon, and eventually more than 100 heiresses exchanged their fortunes for British titles. Why they came, what they found, how they were supposed to behave, what it was like to be a peeress and what happened when – as often was the case – these marriages foundered are all entertainingly catalogued, with plenty of contemporary drawings and photographs.

 

Jerry White – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

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London in 1914 was the chief city of the British Empire and with the declaration of war became, in the words of one review, one of the greatest killing machines in human history…the war changes London for ever…yet despite daily casualty lists, food shortages and enemy bombings, Londoners are determined to get on with their lives… patriots and pacifists, clergymen and thieves, bluestockings and prostitutes…a struggling yet flourishing city. It’s four years in the city’s long history told by focusing on the daily lives of Londoners, whether they were rich or poor, high or low.

 

Juliet Nicholson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Life in the Shadow of the Great War

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A book about the two years from the end of the Great War to the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and a solid and often moving account of the devastation effects of war and grief on the British of all classes and as the title implies, stoically endured in a silence that had come to an awareness that after four years of war reality was too much for words to describe. Like water moving under ice, Nicholson shows that despite everything people survived and coped and tentatively at last began to hope for happiness again.

 

Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out

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This is an exploration of the lives of a generation of women who were deprived of marriage and motherhood by the carnage of war and the lives they made for themselves as they challenged convention, coped with adversity and in the process proved to themselves and others that men, marriage and babies were not the only future for women.

 

Elisabeth Kehoe – Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters

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The most famous of the Buccaneers could arguably be Jennie Jerome but her two sisters Leonie and Clara also married into the British aristocracy and gentry. Elisabeth Kehoe’s fascinating biography chronicles the social ambitions of their mother and how through her sheer force of will and the sisters’ beauty and charm they married into the aristocracy in the process establishing themselves into society and becoming confidantes to politicians, royals and other prominent people of their day.

 

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age

A dual biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva, Stuart charts the events that shaped Alva’s social climbing ambitions and how Consuelo was instrumental to that plan. What is fascinating is how both women turned to good causes as society lost it allure and their marriages floundered under stress and strain – with their work for the poor, sick and women’s rights. And it is through public service and their respective second marriages that both mother and daughter find fulfilment and happiness.

 

Pamela Horn – Country House Society, Life in a Victorian Household, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Life in the Victorian Country House, Ladies of the Manor, Life Below Stairs: the real lives of servants the Edwardian era to 1939, Women in the 1920s, High Society: The English Social Elite 1880-1914

Pamela Horn was a lecturer on social history at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) and is an acknowledged expert on British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her books all draw from various primary sources such as letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles and census reports to flesh out how men and women both high and low really lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Robert Wainwright – Sheila: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society

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Once the novelty of marrying American heiresses wore off, British aristocrats began to look more into the daughters of home grown industrialists and those from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) for potential brides seeing them as preferable to Americans. Among these women from the Dominions who took British society by storm was Sheila Chisholm an Australian who married the heir to the earldom of Rosslyn and attracted a string of admirers among them the future George VI who fell passionately in love with her. Wainwright deftly places Sheila at the heart of a society outwardly moving on from the First World War but still reeling from its effects under the surface only to meet its demise during the Second World War.

 

Martin Pugh – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars

Martin Pugh suggests in the title that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Britain during the years following the First World War. While the interwar years was a period of strikes, economic decline and growing impotence on the global stage it was also an era of the rise of consumer society, greater choice, improvements in science and technology and greater democratisation of society.

 

The Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth: The House

Like her sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica; Deborah also developed a career in writing on the side and this excellent coffee table book charts the history of Chatsworth House and the previous dukes and duchesses who have made it their home. It also serves as a guided tour of one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions and bringing to life how the house has adapted to the changing times and changing needs of those who live and work under its roof.

 

Lucy Lethbridge – Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th century Britain

Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs

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Tracing the rise, apogee and eventual decline of domestic service, both Lethbridge and Musson makes an excellent stab at portraying domestic service in all its diversity and complexity and that it wasn’t all black and white when it came to servants and employers but it was in varying shades of grey.

 

Mark Girouard – Life in the English Country House

An architectural historian, Giorouard traces the development of the country house over the last 500 years in respond to changing times, fashions, needs and attitudes.

 

Anita Leslie – Edwardians in Love

Contrary to what has been claimed by the Downton PR machine, the people of the past are not empathically like us. As LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “the past is a different country, they do things differently there.” Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill describes in great detail the loves and passions of the Edwardian upper classes, the rules they had to strictly adhere to and their views on love, relationships, marriage and adultery which by the standards of today can be seen as hypocritical and even unpalatable.

 

Tessa Boase – The Housekeeper’s Tale

housekeepers tale

Charting the history of the housekeeper from the 19th century to the present by using case studies, Tessa Boase depicts that there is more to the housekeeper than Mrs Hughes. While the position comes with power and responsibility, it is also fraught with hidden danger where one false move and the housekeeper finds herself with no job, no place to stay and no reference. Oftentimes a footnote in history, Boase places the housekeeper central stage and traces the changes in domestic service through their eyes.

 

Roy Hattersley – The Edwardians

Andrew Marr – The Making of Modern Britain

edwardians  modern britain

The Edwardian era is oftentimes seen as a period of the Belle Epoque of balls, dances and dinners where men in white tie and tails mingled with women in sumptuous evening gowns and jewels. But underneath the glitter and glamour was a society on a cusp of change where royalty and aristocracy were being supplanted by the middle class while march of science and technology was rendering the old ways of doing things obsolete and a whole group of people both men and women were no longer content to be simply seen as subjects but were flexing their muscles and demanding to be heard and to be taken seriously by the powers that be. Both are a must read as an overview of British history from 1901 to 1939.

 

Jeremy Paxman – Great Britain’s Great War

Kate Adie – Fighting the Home Front

Terry Charman – The First World War on the Home Front

great war

One of the wasted potentials of Downton Abbey was to explore the First World War in any meaningful way and as befitting the first mechanised and total war in history how it even pervaded the home front. Paxman, Adie and Charman explore the effects of the war in Britain, how everyone rich and poor, high and low were affected and a hundred years later still resonate in the British psyche.

 

For part 2 – see here

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.

oooOOOooo

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)