For a few hundred years, the London Season began with a new crop of debutantes making their curtsey before the monarch – in short, being presented and coming out to society for the first time. Afterwards, a wave of balls took place, introducing each of these young women to the people with whom they were meant to socialise for the rest of their lives. The goal was always to find a husband, preferably a rich or titled one, and settle down nicely in the countryside, preferably in your husband’s mansion.
Fiona MacCarthy made her curtsey to the queen in 1958, the last year that any girls made their debut, and effectively the last year of the London Season as it had been known. Times were changing; women could do more than simply get married. The prospect of a career for women was not far off, and women like MacCarthy could be and increasingly were educated at England’s best universities. They learned quickly that talents gained while preparing to be a wife and run a great house could in fact be applied to trades, granting women more independence than ever before. Besides, the old landed families increasingly were pressed hard for the funds to present a girl properly. Old, inherited London townhouses were increasingly sold off and turned into flats, meaning that presentation balls and dinners took place in hotels while families rented expensive rooms for the duration of the season. After the two World Wars, Seasons and debutantes became a joke, and the aristocratic world shifted fundamentally.
This book piqued my interest immediately; as a long-time reader of romance novels, I’ve always been well aware of the London Season in the generally anachronistic way that it’s portrayed there. When you’re reading a romance novel anyway, there simply isn’t a better time for the heroine to find someone to fall in love with, especially when the same set of people get thrown together night after night. But the Season in real life hasn’t been something that I’ve personally researched. With this book, I seized a chance to change that and find out about the reality.
Because MacCarthy’s Season takes place at the very end, the book is half about social change and half about what actually happened during the Season itself. She notes the differences between her mother’s coming out years before and her sister’s two years later; at the former, balls still took place in old aristocratic houses, but by her sister’s (and much of hers) the balls were fewer and smaller. The actual narration of the Season was interesting as well; there were plenty of parties for her to attend, and she spends some time denoting who was who during those few months and what happened to them afterwards.
My only criticism, really, is that the book felt sort of disjointed; there wasn’t that strong a narrative running through it, no real point made at the end. It follows a rough chronological timeline, with elements explained where necessary, but it sometimes makes diversions from this and adds in bits and pieces that aren’t really necessary. It was an enjoyable read, yes, but I personally wanted it to go further and examine more social history, too. But given I knew nothing about the real London Season – much less that it was continuing right up to when my parents were born – I found that Last Curtsey expanded my knowledge and provided me with some intriguing food for thought.