The English custom of the elite in society passing months in London rather than their country homes began somewhere in the 17th century and continued to dominate the culture until well after WWI. Roughly coinciding with the sitting of Parliament, the official Season launched in earnest after Easter and ran until August when Parliament adjourned. The purpose was originally a time for the aristocracy and landed gentry to gather in Town to discuss politics and workings of State, but quickly evolved into a period of socialization and entertainment.
Events such as The Derby and the Royal Ascot horse races were essential to attend. Strolling or riding along the promenade Rotten Row in Hyde Park was on every agenda during the cooler afternoon. Balls and private parties occurred nightly at dozens of places, and invitations were coveted. Intimate gatherings known as salons were hosted by glittering members of the ton, the elite mingling with artists and scientists in lively discussions. Additionally there were concerts, operas, or stage plays at theatres all over Town.
The point was to see and be seen! Not a day or night was wasted, especially if you were young and/or unmarried.
And that, my friends, was the real reason for The Season. Social engagements were to entertain, sure, but also designed to increase a family’s prestige through advantageous marriages. Class structure ruled and no one forgot the importance of connections. While dancing and dining, impressions were made that had generational effects. Even if without children near marriageable age, a family was thinking ahead. Business affairs handled by gentlemen over brandy and cigars at White’s and Boodle’s were partially about ascending the social ladder and increasing one’s wealth. Ladies’ gossip while shopping and sipping tea displayed one’s refinement, character, and knowledge of the world. Picking a partner was as much about romance and love as it was about which family offered a son or daughter with the highest standards.
Before a debutante – male or female – could fully enter Society and attend the numerous society events scheduled, a presentation, by appointment, to the reigning monarch was essential. During the Regency this was His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent. Being presented to the Court of St. James was an elaborate affair with every movement, word, and garment strictly dictated. Heaven forbid you messed up in the tiniest way or your future as a member of the elite, and most importantly in the marriage market, could be destroyed or severely impacted!
Naturally there would be fun with a plethora of soirees, operas and plays, museum exhibits, sporting events, horse races, and at the top of the list, dances. For the latter, Almack’s Assembly was the crème de la crème. Acceptance into Almack’s was all-important. Being denied admission by the Lady Patronesses who controlled every aspect of social life for the unmarried – down to setting the fashion styles and rules of conduct – truly was the death knell for an appropriate marriage.
The weeks from April to August were an exhausting but exhilarating whirl of activity. On a typical day luncheon would be taken with guests followed by the entire afternoon spend “calling” for brief 10-30 minute visits to as many friends as possible. Shopping, tours to museums or daytime sporting events filled other hours. From 4pm to 7pm it was the “fashionable hour” – that period to flirt, greet friends, and show off one’s wardrobe and equipage at Hyde Park’s Rotten Row. Then it was home to dress for dinner, that lasting up to 3 hours. Afterwards, it was the opera or perhaps a ball. Maybe both! Few heads hit a pillow until 2 or 3am. The next day they rose and did it all again.
Are you as tired as I am?