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The London Season

By Dawn Aiello of Victorian Lace, who is the author and copyright owner of this article

What exactly was the "London Season"?

The London Season was the time of year when society families left their country estates and headed to London to stay in grand houses and squares in Mayfair with names like Cadogan, Devonshire, Grosvenor and Landsdowne. Of course, the unspoken purpose for "The Season" was to bring together the right sort of people in an endless whirlwind of festivities and pleasure, while providing the setting for the largest "marriage market" in the world.

Young women would “come out” (that is, they “emerged into fashionable society”) during The Season, usually when they reached the age of eighteen. “Presentation at Court” was a necessary prerequisite for a young girl to “come out” or “appear” in society. Once she had been presented to the Queen (and/or King), the young debutante could then participate in the many activities and festivities of high-society, including parties, balls, and elegant dinners, etc.

So, when exactly did "The Season" begin?

This was not quite as easy a question to answer as it might seem—and certainly not as easy as “when the Season ended”—and the explanation can be both confusing and contradicting.

The London Season did not fall between two specific and set dates on the calendar, such as “Christmas is on December 25”. For when the London Season commenced, there were really two rules: one was the “general rule”; the other was “actual practice”.

Although The Season was generally believed to correlate with the parliamentary session, this was not always true. The Season was not as much based on the parliamentary session as it was on certain sports and pastimes—which were all momentously important to the higher classes—and therefore, Parliament found it necessary to work their session around these activities. Probably the truest statement made regarding the commencement of The Season appeared in the May 1886 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The season depends on Parliament, and Parliament depends on sport.”

Still, the general rule was that The Season began after Easter (but sometimes as early as February), and continued through the end of August, keeping in mind that August 12 was the date by which most considered The Season “officially over”. Certainly there appeared “signs” of the season prior to Easter (again, sometimes as early as February), such as balls, dances, dinners, etc., but naturally no one really considered calling the period of time when these events occurred “THE SEASON”. So, what were the dates considered by the general masses to truly be “THE SEASON”? Generally speaking, the height of the London Season fell between early May and July 28.

Here are the reasons why:

Three major social events occurred in May. The first of these were the two greatest annual sporting events of The Season: “The Derby”—which was an exceedingly popular horserace, and for which parliament always adjourned; and “The Ascot”—a much more exclusive horserace. Without Ascot, no Season could have been considered complete. Harper’s Magazine, May 1886, described Ascot Heath as “a sloping ridge of Moreland some thirty miles from London, the crest of which looks away across the Windsor woods to the plains of Bucks  "The Derby From the Grandstand, 1860" and Middlesox.” The Ascot races were always the high points of The Season. They were described as ‘the Eden of debutantes, and the milliners’ harvest”, because a greater display of wealth, fine clothing and good looks could hardly have been found at any other ‘butterflies’ feast” in the world. Most women attended Ascot simply to show off their gowns, to which they had attributed an extensive amount of time and money. Indeed, any amelioration in fashion that was seen at Ascot was sure to be quite in vogue by the following week, even in the most distant locations.

Another significant event in May that affected the commencement of The Season was the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art. This exhibition marked the first of the gala concerts and court balls, which followed the May Presentations. This set off the first round of newly-presented debutante balls, dances, parties, and other activities. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter remarked of her début in the early 1900s, “Coming out in those days was an event which happened suddenly. Overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, one was magically transformed from a child into a grown-up person.”

For most young women, the variety of activities and social life was thrilling and exciting. In her memoirs, Lady Dorothy Neville recalled that during her first Season she attended “50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts.” A spirited and energetic young lady, if she had the spunk and stamina—and most of them did—could begin her social round at 10:00 in the morning with a ride in Hyde Park and end it at 3:00 a.m. the following morning at a ball.

Some young ladies, however, found the social whirl to be just a bit overwhelming. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter described her debut dinner with mixed emotions: “Eager as I was to be grown up, I found the rite bewildering and painful. For the first time in my life the hair that dangled down my back was put up...I was laced into a while satin dress by Worth and feeling rather breathless and a little cold, I went downstairs to face the forty strangers who had come to dinner. I had never seen one of them before and the twenty young men all dressed like waiters (only a little better) looked perfectly anonymous...”

Despite all the merriment and surface joviality, the unspoken and serious business of The Season was to allow young ladies from the “right backgrounds” to meet and marry wealthy eligible young men, also from the “right backgrounds”. Unfortunately, this often took place on the basis of very little familiarity with each other. Social decorum called for young girls to be chaperoned most every where they went, and this allowed couples little opportunity to speak privately or to get to know each other very well. Frequently, these couples jumped blindly into marriage. Sometimes, marriages were made based on reasons other than simply "love”. Family pressures, money, prestige and position sometimes played roles in marriage proposals and the acceptances thereof. However, because these couples had become acquainted with each other at the London “Marriage Market”, they usually had similar upbringing and back-grounds, and frequently discovered that they had most everything in common. If, in fact, they did not find true happiness in their marriage, they were, for the most part, “comfortable”—or at the very least, managed to “get along” together in a justifiably civil manner. Often, however, this included accepting adultery as a part of married life.

Occasionally, of course, some matches made during the London Season simply held no chance of happiness at all. Alva Vanderbilt felt the necessity to arrange a marriage between her daughter Consuelo and the Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo always felt as if she were a pawn in her mother’s chess game of social ambition, and at eighteen years old (and secretly in love with someone else), Consuelo was forced into an arranged marriage. Marlborough was also in love with someone else at the time of the marriage, and with such a desperately unhappy union as theirs, separation and eventual divorce was inevitable. Jennie Jerome’s sister, Leonie, entered into an arranged marriage that provided nothing but sadness and disappointment, and so to mitigate her marital woes, she continued a lifelong romance with Queen Victoria’s youngest son. Naturally, more examples abound. Certainly this “Marriage Market” system was no guarantee for a happy marriage, but it was indeed an excellent process for producing weddings, and that, after all, was the real intent of the London Season.

So, what did everyone do all day during “The Season”?


Well first, of course, prior to arriving in London, there would have been a detour to Paris to purchase a suitable wardrobe from the only prestigious dressmaker that mattered: Maison Worth. When a well-heeled young miss traveled to London for The Season, she could easily find herself with a wardrobe costing some $20,000—that would be the equivalent of about half-a-million dollars today!

Once the family was settled in a fashionable London neighborhood, such as Mayfair or Belgravia, the next thing on the agenda was (if this were the young lady’s first Season) to be presented at Court. Once her presentation was complete, a young debutante was considered formally “out” in fashionable society.

Not all young ladies entered society by way of Presentation at Court, however. There were a few other routes, as well. For example, many young girls finagled invitations to events where the Prince of Wales would be present. If “Bertie” took a special liking to a newly-arrived debutante, she would automatically be allowed to join in the round of high-society activities.

Yet, in whatever way she entered Society, the young lady’s days during the London Season were sure to be full. She would usually begin her day with a ride in Hyde Park, along the sandy tracks called “Rotten Row”, or along another path, “Ladies’ Mile”. Riding occurred year round in Hyde Park whenever the weather was pleasant, but during The Season, between the hours of ten and two o’clock, there appeared a class of riders who did not emerge at any other time of the year—namely, young ladies of the “leisured classes”, elegantly dress-ed in their smartest tailored riding habits, along with their fathers, who acted as suitable chaperones, and a spattering of young men.

During The Season, it was not uncommon for ladies to take their ride early, then return home for breakfast, which on occasion, was presented as a formal affair with invited guests. Typically, though, it was simply a casual event where family members served themselves scrambled eggs, sausages, and sliced tomatoes or kippers, and sipped seemingly endless cups of coffee or tea.

Following breakfast, ladies spent the remainder of their morning engaged in activities such as paying bills, writing letters, and shopping along Bond and Regent Streets, browsing the beautifully-appointed shops there. In addition, ladies also paid calls upon friends that they knew exceedingly well; one would never think of visiting a mere acquaintance before noon.

An elaborate luncheon followed, then men might be off to the club while women would go abroad in their carriages to pay yet more calls, or they might simply leave their card.

A variety of other afternoon activities in which to participate were available as well. Some options included cricket matches, promenades in the Park, scientific lectures, receptions, dramatic matinees, polo, races, lawn tennis and lawn bowling, small music and concerts, garden parties...archery, picnics, bazaars, café and men’s casino clubs, such as the Bachelor’s Club or the New Club, where ladies could be invited by members to dine before or after the theatre, and much more..... In the late afternoon, ladies and gentlemen mingled with other members of society, while enjoying a ride in “Rotten Row”—the previously mentioned bridle path in Hyde park. As five o’clock approached, thoughts turned to preparations for Afternoon Tea. Usually it was a light tea; enjoyed at home by family members, but on occasion, it could turn into quite an elaborate function. Sometimes, even a famous entertainer like opera singer Nellie Melba was hired to perform for up to 80 guests.

To the contrary, private afternoon tea was an opportunity for a great many married men (and some married women) to engage in a secret rendezvous with their lovers. This was often the hour when the Prince of Wales’ brougham was spotted as he discreetly waited outside the home of his current mistress.

No sooner would afternoon tea be over (or however one chose to spend the hour between five and six o’clock in the afternoon) when it was time to change into evening wear for dinner at 7 o’clock. The evening meal was usually a formal gathering, where dozens of guests were served by butlers, footmen and waiters. Elegance abounded, and young girls, who just weeks before had been gawky school girls, now were expected to carry themselves as adults, dressed in beautiful and provocative Worth gowns, with tufts of tulle draped over their bare shoulders, and coronets or spark-ling jewels ornamentally placed in their elaborately piled hair. She was expected to keep up a conversation with the gentlemen, elegantly dressed in white tie and tails, who were seated on either side of her. It was at these dinners that many young ladies met their future husbands. Because they were still shy and unsure of themselves, some girls found these society dinners awkward and uncomfortable, but most young ladies managed them quite well indeed. This was really not so surprising, considering that most of the people these young debutantes met during The Season moved within the same magic circle of wealth and aristocracy as they did, and therefore, were found to be quite agreeable and well-mannered.

Dinner was followed by social activities that made one feel as if the day were only just beginning. Included were the theatre (where no one watched), the opera (where no one listened), or a private soirée (where everyone dished the dirt about everyone else). After all, the real purpose of these festivities was not to pay attention, but rather to “go out” and “to be seen” by fresh audiences. These activities were merely a precursor for the evening’s most important and main event : the fabulous balls, which began late in the evening, usually between ten o’clock and midnight, and could go on until three o’clock in the morning.


Some of these were costume balls or masked balls; some were elegant soirées, but all drew a sizeable crowd, and were of the utmost importance to the social entertainment provided by the London Season. Bear in mind that by pairing a couple up for the duration of a dance, it gave a wonderful opportunity to young people to work their powers of attraction on one another. Although matrimony was not the ONLY reason for The Season, it was indeed the most practical and of the most concern. Therefore, amusement, excitement and flirtation were key elements in the social interactions of young people, and no doubt contributed to the prevalence of marriages, which abundantly followed “The London Season”.

 


Article Information:
Article Name: The London Season
Website: http:www.thehistorybox.com |Author: Dawn Aiello  
Source:  This article was written by Dawn Aiello , Owner of Copyright and Administrator of the website Victorian Lace
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