HONS & REBELS
Juliet Nicolson remembers her time as a reluctant debutante, attending dinners and dances, boating and balls, before anarchy took hold and changed the Season for ever
recalls the heady days of debutante balls and subversive social change
The Season was once confined to the months when Queen Elizabeth I’s court came to London for the summer. However, by the early 20th century, high society’s celebratory time of year had become sporty, spilling into spring and autumn in order to incorporate the pleasures of skiing, shooting and horse-racing. But sport and parties merely formed the framework for what had become a marriage forum in which aristocratic girls were paired up with aristocratic men and a blue-blooded future was safeguarded for another generation. The Queen’s decision in 1958 to abolish the formal presentation at court of all girls on the lookout for a high-born husband had demoted the regal grandeur of the affair. Two years later, virginity, once the leading qualification for a properly eligible nice girl, was dealt a hammer blow by the contraceptive pill.
However, in the 1970s a less tiara-encrusted version of the Season endured under the patronage of Tatler’s social editor Peter Townend, keeper of a confidential list of eligible males, and an enthusiastic authority on fine wine; and Betty Kenward, the formidable author of Jennifer’s Diary in Harpers & Queen, her bouffant hair enhanced by a huge, unmissable velvet bow. Each January, Peter wrote in turquoise ink to around 200 aristocratic mothers to
invite their daughters to join the year’s ‘List’ of debutantes. Refusals were rare. Most had been identified for inclusion since birth. As soon as the List was complete the elaborate pairing-up ritual began. February lunch parties were given by the grandest matriarchs in order for other mothers to meet each other and, under the guise of a shared plover’s egg and polite chat, pretend that they weren’t competing on their daughters’ behalf for the leading ‘debs’ delights’, and especially the handful of gold-dust dukes.
My mother had long had her eye on a slot on the List for me. I’d never wanted to ‘Come Out’. I was a just-graduated boarding-school girl, a nonsmoker with tombstone teeth, fine hair that hadn’t a hope of staying up beneath a tiara and a large hereditary nose that spoiled the symmetry of photographs in profile. But my mother had been a debutante in the 1940s and wanted her elder daughter to be launched into society with all chances of landing a big catch. Reluctantly I submitted to her enticement that it would be ‘fun’, as she overruled my protests that I would simultaneously be studying for three A levels. I would be dancing the night away, she cajoled, with some frightfully nice new friends. And she made a conciliatory offer suggesting that instead of throwing me the de rigueur dance, the cash might be more profitably spent (in terms of attracting the right sort of mate) on a nose job. I succumbed to the debbing, but despite being friendless, plumped for the party.
Then began a year of seesaw anxiety and absurdity, starting with Queen Charlotte’s Ball, during which an elaborate cardboard cake on a slightly grubby lacedraped trolley was pulled along the Grosvenor House ballroom floor by the six prettiest debs all in Communion white. The rest of us, clad as equal innocents, followed behind until, under our parents’ gaze, we dropped the cake a low curtsy. During the daytime, dressed in a pair of denim dungarees, I crammed for my exams, trying to memorise the dates of the Reformation, exhilarated by the discovery of TS Eliot, blessed to be taught by redheaded Penelope Fitzgerald, years later a Booker Prize winner. After taking the bus home, I would lie down with a cigarette on the unforgiving linoleum of the bathroom floor, practising what I hoped was an elegant inhaleexhale technique, dousing myself in patchouli (the scent suggestive, I’d heard, of a hippie rebel) pulling on a flowery long dress from Valerie Goad’s shop in Chelsea and racing out to the first of the evening’s events. All debs were word-perfect to the Season’s musical backdrop of ‘Layla’, ‘Maggie May’ and ‘American Pie’ that accompanied the weeknight sequence of a couple of cocktail parties, a dinner, a dance, culminating in a bop at Annabel’s nightclub. At weekends we stayed in smart houses for the country dances, where the decadence of a Floris-scented, bathtime gin and tonic symbolised the apogee of sophistication.
Despite not being a sporty person, I somehow managed to tick off the other daytime fixtures, fitting in essays, revision and exams between racing at Royal Ascot, boating at Henley, a centre-court match at Wimbledon, cricket at Eton’s Fourth of June, sailing at Cowes and one humiliating day’s shooting when the gold Biba gumboots that had been waiting in my cupboard for a rainy day sparkled distractingly among the pheasants.
Outside the gilded, excluding perimeter of class, privilege and money, the year unfolded as one of political turmoil. The effects of the coal miners’ strikes smouldered throughout the early months, IRA bombs destroyed lives for some and futures for others. And life moved forward: the UK’S first gaypride march took place, Jesus Christ became a musical superstar on stage and the Queen’s uncle, a King only for a few months before abdicating for the love of an American divorcée, died that May.
The following year I was 18, in love and on my way to read English at Oxford, but not before attending Queen Charlotte’s Ball once again, helping my unducal DJ boyfriend to operate the turntables in the ballroom gallery. Below me as the cake began its journey across the parquet, a chunk of cardboard icing fell to the floor and a wellbuilt girl emerged from beneath the lace trolley, running stark naked the length of the room. As Peter Townend helped himself to a restorative glass of champagne and Betty Kenwood’s velvet bow shook in horror, deb life was never quite the same again. Over accusations of ‘loucheness’, Queen Charlotte’s celebration was abandoned for the foreseeable future in 1976. And debs were delighted to be free to fall in love with whoever they chose.
Juliet Nicolson photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1971
Above: Queen Charlotte’s Ball in 1967. Left: the ball’s 1952 programme