Monday, October 10, 2011

{review} last curtsey


 

'It was such a peculiar thing to have done', as one ex-debutante recently remarked to me. Peculiar indeed: both in terms of the elaborate social rituals that lingered through the post-war years and in the underlying concepts of elegance, good manners, belief in protocol, love and respect for the monarchy, deference towards your betters, courage, kindness and idealism, qualities which before long appeared impossibly old-fashioned.
I made the mistake of taking this book on a 'plane without a pencil. By the time I returned to Adelaide I had almost dog-eared every page. It's that sort of book.

Fiona MacCarthy was a debutante in the final year of the 'presentations' to the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1958. The world was changing, and the debutante lifestyle - where women were defined by their success in catching a husband during the Season - was on the wane. As the last proper Season, it was a bumper year: 1400 girls curtseying to the Queen over three days, and all presented by a relative who had herself passed through this initiatory ritual (MacCarthy's mother in 1925). It was a combination of the utterly arcane with an "old-time beauty context". MacCarthy notes Jessica Mitford's comment that the procession of [mostly] virgins was "the specific, upper-class version of the puberty rite" (Hons and Rebels).
The decorative elements of the presentation ceremony masked its serious, even ruthless, raison d'être in the stratification of society. By the mid-nineteenth century the annual presentation had gradually become the key event in a formalised connection of the monarch and the court with the Season and society. Presentation acquired an important role in the regulation of society in Britain. It became a kind of bulwark, defending an elite inner circle and securing the channels to power, influence and wealth. To put it at its crudest, the curtseyers were in, the non-curtseyers excluded from the myriad royal enclosures, members' tents and other well-defended spaces in which the well bred were separated from the riff-raff. 
Why did it end? As far back as the 1860s there had been complaints that the ritual was being debased by the presentation of those whom the elite considered vulgar interlopers: new peers with industrial wealth, cashed up Americans, etc. In Princess Margaret's words, "Ever tart in London was getting in." (!) It's a complex question of anthropological interest, to be sure.

This is a fascinating book, and very well written. MacCarthy (whose family, the McAlpines, owned the Dorchester but whose mother was in the uncomfortable situation of being kept on a short financial rope by her trustees) is an insider in this world of curtseying schools, dress-makers, Scottish dance instructors, endless Coronation Chicken lunches, cocktail parties, balls, weekends in decaying country-houses, horse-races in Ireland, and young men classed as "Not Safe In Taxis" (NSIT; or "VVSITPQ: Very Very Safe In Taxis Probably Queer").

I really enjoyed this dip into the end of an era: MacCarthy writes with a nostalgia for a type of society that would be swept away in the 1960s, but she is well aware that nostalgia can cover up many imperfections (in particular, the constrained roles granted to women). 

Rating:  10/10. Gorgeous.

If you liked this... MacCarthy's memories of the decaying country-houses in which she stayed during the Season reminded me of James Lees-Milne's stories of his visits to similar stately homes in the 1940s, in his wonderful Some Country Houses and Their Owners {REVIEW}.


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