A fast read about the very busy social calendar (or “Season” as it was called) during 1897, the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria’s reign. (This narrow focus expands to include the end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth – thus Victorian and Edwardian calendars are included in some depth.) Both Victorian and Edwardian high society kept a demanding schedule of social events that seemed to peak during the summer months, but actually kept up a steady demand throughout the year.
Sproules has written a nicely researched look at the social lives of the upper echelons of English society during this time, and covers the various aspects of it from “Sports” (hunting, polo, early bicycle riding) to “The Servant Problem” (because to be honest, none of this would have happened without this labor pool) and to just how expensive it was to be a part of this social whirlwind.
The book starts with the beginning of the Summer Season with the early balls and summer events that were pivotal in this culture: Ascot, Henley (although that came later), Wimbledon (again a later invention) and Queen Charlotte’s Ball (a huge social event that kept going until the 1970’s). The level of commitment from the family (and its bank account) was incredible but there was an awful lot riding on the whole system: meeting the “right” people, seeing and “being seen”, the machinations of ensuring your daughter meets the right level of people with the potential of marriage in the future etc…
It was, in fact, a whole industry involving masses of people from different levels of class, ranging from brass boys (the young boys who shined the brass on the horse harnesses) to the clever seamstress, the chef to the butler… Amazing amounts of money must have been spent on creating and maintaining an image of wealth year round, and it got more expensive every year.
There is a smattering of information covering a lot of topics, which is a little frustrating being a reader who likes to get in-depth on some of these subjects. However, this limitation was acknowledged at the beginning of the book – it’s more of a survey than an in-depth look and if you keep that in mind, all will be well.
Despite having dug quite deeply into the social history of this era, I find that there is always something new to learn and it was the case here as well. Having grown up with mention of the social events (Ascot, Henley, Wimbledon) and even having attended some of them (although not in the Royal Enclosure – sniff), it was fascinating to see the evolution of such events over the years to becoming THE places to See and Be Seen (and these events have maintained this image up to this day).
And I am very grateful not to have come of age in that era and having to endure the process of being a Debutante and searching for a suitable husband (and with this, there was no other avenue unless you wanted to be a spinster which was completely viewed with horror). I can’t imagine the pressure of being a young lady and going to ball after ball to meet men, some of whom were much older than you, and being forced to evaluate them as potential providers and husbands. (There were even rules set up to let girls know what level their lives would be at different income levels – obviously, the higher the better.)
And the number of times people (especially women) had to change their clothes during the day. Morning visits, luncheons, afternoon visits, tea, hunting, riding in Hyde Park, bicycling (if you were daring), evening balls and god forbid you repeat your wardrobe from week to week. Additionally, fashions used huge amounts of fabric to create their look and so this must have cost a lot and weighed a lot to wear, as well as have been awkward to move around. Thank goodness young (and old) women only were expected to sit around on the settee all day and drink tea. Yikes.
Speaking of which, I had no idea that not only did the ladies have to change their clothes all day long, but that the women could not change their outfits by themselves, requiring help from their lady’s maid tightening up the corsets and the many many layers of clothing they were required to wear. Yuck.
Another point that I had not realized was just how *crowded* some of these social events were: people were packed in to small rooms, elbow to elbow, jostling around with their dresses getting crushed – just in an effort to be at the event…
So, although this book has been criticized for its superficial research, I think it’s a useful addition to the pantheon of social/domestic history literature of the era. Additionally, it had a useful bibliography in the back for further research. (As if I don’t have enough titles right now! Ha.)
Enjoyed this and it added depth to what I know about these times.
For curious cats out there, here is a link to Debrett’s, THE place for socialites to find out who, where and when is happening in London and around the world.