The London Season
If it were some two hundred years ago and we were in England – London to be precise – we would be busily involved in the host of activities that constituted what was considered “The Season.” Ready for a history lesson?
Originally the movements of the royal family effected the movements of the aristocracy and members of the ruling classes. By 1780, the custom of returning to the capital at the end of the hunting season was well-established. George III – papa to the Prince Regent – 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.
The official London Season coincided with the sitting of Parliament. This began any time after Christmas, depending upon the success of the hunting season in the country, and ended at the opening of hunting season for red grouse on August 12, referred to as “the glorious twelfth.”
Most families of Parliament members preferred to remain in the country until winter was safely passed, waiting until Easter to enter London. They arrived in droves and by late March the Season was in full swing, as it would remain until late June when the cool open spaces of the country beckoned as a way to beat the oppressive heat of London.
Although primarily designated as a period to engage in the business of politics, the Season was largely a time to socialize and find a mate. For three months at the least, or as long as eight, the fun never ended. A whirlwind of court balls and concerts, private balls and dances, parties and sporting events ensued.
The palace drawing room grew crowded with debutantes presenting themselves to the reigning monarch, this a necessity before a young lady could enter Society or accept any invitations. Theaters and opera houses lifted their curtains. The Royal Academy of Art held an annual exhibit in May, this event signifying the height of the Season.
The Derby was held for the citizens in late May to June and Parliament adjourned for this race. Ascot was attended more exclusively by the upper classes with the Season peaking in the fortnight between the two races. July hosted the Henley Regatta and cricket contests, with particular attention given to school rivals Oxford and Cambridge, and Eton and Harrow.
On a typical day in the Season families would begin their day riding in Hyde Park along Rotten Row. This sandy track was the preferable place to be seen, or perhaps the Ladies’ Mile for the gentler set. Ladies trained throughout their girlhood to become experts in mounting, riding gracefully while still in command of the horse, shaking hands with friends from the saddle, and dismounting. They also learned to control their horse so as to avoid accidents in crowds.
After riding came breakfast, often a formal affair with invited guests, followed by shopping or hours spent attending to household chores like paying bills and writing letters. After luncheon, that too sometimes a grand event, men would go to Parliament or the club to gamble, drink, and gossip while the ladies paid calls, thus filling the hours between 12pm and 5pm. They may again ride or stroll through Hyde Park, tour a museum or art exhibit, join a garden party, among other possibilities, but by late afternoon it was time to retire for tea and to prepare for the evening’s entertainments.
Dinner was elaborate, dozens of guests served several courses for a couple hours, and then followed by a soiree, play, or opera. Watching the performance was not nearly as important as the socializing that occurred during intermission and the chance to be seen in a new garment! Balls started at 10pm and often lasted as late as 3am. The ensemble played an equal number of waltzes and quadrilles, with one or two other dances, normally opening with a waltz.
Obviously one could not cram all of these activities into each day! The schedule would vary depending on what was planned, for instance dinner would be intimate and held earlier if the opera was on the agenda, theatrical performances starting around 8:30pm. Conversely, Wednesday at Almacks commenced at 10pm, allotting time for an extended dining experience, but also lasted until 4am making rising for an early horseback ride unlikely.
London became a virtual marriage market during the season. Never were so many people in so small a place looking for a spouse and all within a few month’s time. Once presented at court and officially “out” in Society, a prospective bride could reasonably attend 50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts all in one season. If she didn’t marry within two or three seasons, she was considered a failure, and at 30 years of age a hopeless spinster. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to learn that weddings occupied the fall months after the exodus from London.