When Georgette Heyer talked about “The Season,” she referred to the spring. In her books everyone lives in London for a few months every year, and then go to their country houses for the rest. As we’re discovering, the truth was very different. And what Heyer referred to as “The Little Season,” the months in the autumn before Christmas, didn’t exist at all, or rather, was never referred to as such.
The truth was a lot less defined and very different. It depended a lot on who you were and what you wanted.
The Season, the period between the end of Lent and the beginning of the summer, late June at the latest, was the time when young women made their “come out.” The word debutante only came in later in the Regency, so for most of the Georgian period, it’s not really appropriate. The young girls, sometimes as young as sixteen, but more often seventeen and eighteen, were brought to London to show them off, celebrate their young womanhood with lavish balls and parties, and with any luck, snag a husband.
But everybody knew everybody else. It wasn’t as if these women were “fired off” as total strangers. The networks had already introduced them. For instance Georgiana, who became the Duchess of Devonshire, was spoken for long before she had a chance to look around her. The dynastic arrangements were made, and she had to put up with it. She symbolized an alliance between two influential families, a bit like a company merger these days. A few young women made spectacular successes of their season, notably the three Gunning sisters. The two oldest made dazzling marriages, Maria becoming a duchess twice. She was the inspiration for my “Triple Countess” series, but I passed the stories on to her children, the products of her marriages to three very different earls.
The Gunnings, daughters of a family with noble blood, had worked briefly as actresses in a semi-professional theatre in Ireland, but they didn’t continue in England. Actresses were seen as little better than prostitutes, but the Gunnings’ part-amateur status and their astonishing beauty made them the talk of the town in 1751. Not satisfied with her natural beauty, Maria, who became the Countess of Coventry, died, it is said, of the lead and mercury based make up she used on her face. But before you condemn her, consider that botox is a deadly poison, and women have it injected into their faces all the time.
These exceptions apart, the parties and gaiety during the spring months drew people to London. But some avoided it. Anyone who didn’t want to meet the young women eager for a husband tended to avoid it, for instance!
|The Georgian House of Commons|
Many aristocrats came to London in the autumn, when the Parliamentary year began. The actual date varied from year to year, but it was usually at the beginning of November, or even late October. So London was pretty full just before Christmas, which was traditionally celebrated in the country. The pleasure-gardens and theatres weren’t always open, and other entertainments like Astley’s Amphitheatre weren’t open, either. However, the gentlemen’s clubs were open and so were the shops. This was a quieter time, but that’s only relative, but there are accounts of frantic activity at this time of year. It would tend to the more serious, since many attended Parliament. And the gentry from the countryside, Jane Austen’s people, would come up if they were Members of Parliament. The dining rooms, inns and clubs were full, but there weren’t as many balls and flashy affairs. That isn’t to say there were none. The older gilrs might fare better at this time of year.
After Christmas, some people returned to London. Some would prepare for the season ahead, order new clothes, hire a house, and others would return to Parliament. Until recently the pattern Georgette Heyer described was adhered to, but it wasn’t at all that way. And the court had its own pattern again. Since the royal family mostly lived in London, their life and the life of the people around them tended to centre in London.
Everything stopped for Lent. Social parties were less frequent, and there weren’t any balls, or overt celebrations. During this period churches were unadorned with flowers or any other form of decoration. Lent ended at Easter, and after the church festivals, sometimes as soon as the Tuesday after Easter Sunday, the season really got going.
In June families would filter away to the country. In August the Glorious Twelfth marked the start of the hunting season, and then, in late October and November, Parliament started up again.
And so it goes.