How many people did you invite to your most recent party?
On July 2, 1897, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire invited seven hundred people to climb the famous “crystal staircase” of Devonshire House and join a costume ball that was destined to become legendary. The Countess of Westmoreland arrived with a stuffed eagle on her shoulder. Lady Ronalds wore a lit lyre on her head. Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (the former Jennie Jerome) came as Empress Theodora in a gown designed by the couturier Jean Worth of Paris. The hostess, the Duchess of Devonshire, arrived as Queen Zenobia carried in a sedan chair by costumed footmen. High Society absolutely sparkled.
Despite Queen Victoria’s preference for unassuming behavior, the upper class enjoyed their wealth. What evolved for them was a series of exclusive social events together dubbed “The Season.” One writer would observe that “it seemed as if ‘a race of gods and goddesses descended from Olympus upon England in June and July.’”**
The Season began with intense preparations to present to the King and Queen the young titled women seeking official acceptance into elite society. Then, the golden circle of the wealthy began their social schedule with a glittering fortnight of celebrations bracketed by The Derby and Royal Ascot races. During July they moved to seaside resorts such as Brighton, followed by a foray down to Cowes for a week of yacht-racing. After Cowes, they shifted to Scotland to begin shooting grouse on the “Glorious 12th” of August. In 1911, the Tatler magazine reported that $65 billion was spent on shooting alone.*** The speed with which servants could re-load guns allowed the group with Lord Burnham and George V to bag a record of nearly 4,000 grouse in one day in 1913.* They pushed on to fox hunting in Oxfordshire, the Henley Regatta, and the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Horse races at Goodwood in late August marked the conclusion of The Season, and the elite then dispersed “to their country estates for hunting, Christmas and to await the coming of spring.”^ It was a glorious time.
Hidden among all of this partying, though, was a secret hunt that determined the future happiness and financial security of many a young woman.
Next Time: Social Landmines of Debutantes
Photo credit of Windsor Castle: Nancy Parrish
*Aslet, Clive. The Last Country Houses. New Haven and London: Yale University
Press, 1982; p.71.
^Taggart, Caroline. Her Ladyship’s Guide To the British Season. London: National Trust Books, 2013; pp. 13, 17.
**Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War,
1890-1914. The Library of America, 1962; 2012; p. 582.
***Warwick, Sarah. Upstairs and Downstairs. London: Carlton Publishing Group, 2011;
2016 conversion; p. 82.