The new series of Bridgerton focuses on a Viscount Anthony Bridgerton’s hunt for a suitable bride. Naturally, his quest takes place against the background of the English social season, which was a whirlwind six months of parties, dances and special events, which took place every year from May–July and October–December, following the formal launching of well-bred girls into society. The Season, effectively a marriage market for the upper echelons of society, was ruled by a complex set of customs that governed correspondence, invitations, visiting cards, table manners, introductions, chaperones and proposals.
Tracing its roots back to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the English social season evolved as a reflection of the importance of the court and Royal Family in English social life.
The season was defined by the movements of the Royal Family, who were in residence in the capital from April to July and from October until Christmas. During these months, the aristocracy and members of the ruling classes made it their custom to reside in London.
By 1780, the custom of returning to the capital at the end of the hunting season was well-established, and George III held a May ball, which was launched to raise money for a new maternity hospital, named after his wife Queen Charlotte. It became an annual event, and the fulcrum of the social season.
Well-bred girls were launched into society at the age of 17 or 18 with a formal introduction to the monarch and a debut at the high-profile ball. The parties and special events of the ensuing months showcased the debutantes’ charms to potential suitors.
The day on which a young girl was formally presented to the sovereign was considered one of the most important in her life.
Application to present a girl to the sovereign could only be made by someone – usually her mother, but not necessarily a relative – who had herself been presented to the sovereign.
The procedure was quite complex. At the end of each year an announcement was made by the Lord Chamberlain of Their Majesties’ intention to hold Courts on specified dates in the following year.
Those who desired to make presentations sent in applications on 1 January, or as soon as possible thereafter, simply stating that ‘Lady so and so desires Their Majesties’ gracious permission to attend one of the Courts and present her daughter.’
If the request was granted, a Summons card was sent out about three weeks before the Court stating ‘the Lord Chamberlain is commanded by their Majesties to summon the Marchioness of so and so to the Court on such and such a date.’ Presentations were always held at 10 pm.
Summons from the Sovereigns were considered to be Royal commands, and therefore had to be obeyed unless extreme circumstances – such as illness or death – intervened.
On presentation, the debutante and her mother were ushered into the Royal presence, and announced. The debutante stepped forward and made a low curtsy to both the King and Queen, who each bowed in acknowledgment. She was then expected to exit, walking backwards, from the Royal Presence.
The Modern Season
By the end of the Second World War, society was becoming more egalitarian, and the strict social parameters that the Season defined were being eroded. For a time Queen Elizabeth, who had ended formal Court presentations, continued the practice of debutante introductions at Royal garden parties. But in 1957, she terminated the archaic practice of Court presentations altogether.
Despite this, the debutante season survived because of the persistence of the former social editor of the Tatler, the late Peter Townend, whose famous little black book was filled with the names and addresses of ‘suitable’ girls. These debutantes were invited to a range of parties, which continued to act as a social focus for the upper classes.
However, with Peter Townend’s death, and the demise of society gossip Jennifer (Betty Kenward) who kept the world appraised of debs’ doings in the Society pages of Harpers & Queen, the formal framework of the Season has dissolved.
What is left, however, is a series of high profile events, from balls and concerts to sporting events and horse-racing that traditionally form the backbone of the English social scene in the spring and early summer.
The 21st century is a time of social fluidity, when spontaneity has replaced strictly codified behaviour and the events that are still associated with the traditional Season are – with very few exceptions – open to all. Some social conventions, especially those associated with dress codes, persist, but in general these events represent a democratic and eclectic appetite for communal enjoyment, rather than a reinforcement of the traditional, rigid barriers of class, age and gender.
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