29 June 2013

1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy

The Debutante Ball and Court Presentation.  At its most basic principle, the idea of dressing young ladies in virginal white and announcing they are officially on the market makes me wince a bit.  That is simply how things were done in certain circles in certain countries and I suppose most girls found the whole event something to look forward to.  The sumptuous yards of gorgeous silks, the snowy pearls, those above-the-elbow-gloves, well the portraits are simply stunning.  Refreshingly though, not every young lady swirled around the ballroom seeking a future husband.  Sometimes they sought an opportunity to escape the glare of their chaperone and exit through a garden door with friends.  The more brazen young ladies would make off with their boyfriend into a waiting cab to dance the night away at another party.  Those girls would not receive an invitation to the next ball as both your character and reputation had to be impeccable.

While many families in 1939 were digging holes in their back garden for the Anderson shelter the very wealthy were strolling Bond Street for seamstresses to create a masterpiece.  What did it all cost you may wonder?...

'...feathers 30s, gloves 21s, shoes 30s, evening bag 10s 6d, train (she bought her own material and had it made up) £5, dress 15gns, car with footman from 7:00 p.m. until midnight 3 gns, tips 1gn, flowers 25s, hair styled for feathers 7s 6d...'

It was class all the way for the debutante's special night but there were times when women needed their silk stockings repaired.  Due to the ridiculously high cost of these items there were specialists who would set up booths in shops or street corners to manually pick up the dropped stitches should you have a ladder.  I can not begin to fathom anything so tedious not to mention headache-inducing but needs must.

Anne De Courcy covers a range of topics associated with life during 1930s Britain such as Royal Ascot, Rituals, Entertaining, Oxford and Cambridge, and Servants etc. but the reading felt a bit dry at times.  I love a good non-fiction read and the topics should have had me reading late into the night but they just didn't.  Certain chapters were interesting such as Health and Panaceas but learning about polio wasn't something I bargained for with this title.  I was looking forward to learning about the hopes of a few young ladies from aristocratic backgrounds, their big night and then what happened once the bombs began to fall.  Just when mention was made of young women who could barely boil an egg struggling to cope with a black-out the chapter ended and it was on to the King and Queen's transatlantic visit *sigh*.

If you have 1939: The Last Season sitting on your shelf you are going to enjoy it and will certainly learn something.  I just wish it had a bit more heart.

Kathleen, Rose and Rosemary Kennedy attend first March Court


  1. I'm laughing because when I first wanted to wear sheer pantyhose to school instead of ugly tights my mom said I could if I'd pay for them myself, so if they got a run I'd just sort of sew it together. I'm sure I looked like I had worms (or scars?) running across my legs - tres elegant. I'm sorry this book didn't quite live up to our expectations (I'm sure I'll agree with you!) but I might still look for it on the library shelves.

  2. I remember my mum talking about taking her stockings to the invisible menders; I can't remember now whether she meant silk stockings or whether they mended nylons, too, as they were so expensive when they first came out.
    Audrey's comment made me laugh ... because at school we used to cobble our tights together with white cotton. And sometimes we didn't and had vast holes and ladders. But tights were also expensive when they first appeared.

  3. I read this a few years ago and thought it was OK but I think I've got a bit jaded with this kind of social history. Nancy Mitford writes well about debs and seasons, though!

  4. I also thought the book was interesting but somehow lacking. I wanted so much more from this kind of history, especially since it's still possible to get first hand accounts.

    The one benefit of google reader disappearing is that I had to quickly export all my interesting blogs, and I remembered you'd moved. It's so lovely to read your blog again, Darlene. I hope you're having a wonderful, relaxing summer.

  5. I may not need to read the book after reading your wonderful review. This was just fascinating. Never a deb myself, and happy I wasn't. It would be interesting to compare the 'coming out' balls in the US and UK.
    I just loved the picture. Did you happen to read Jack 1939? Nice sort of companion piece, maybe.