Taunted with the Duke of Kent, she married the Aga Khan

Rosemary Hill

  • Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes by Fiona MacCarthy
    Faber, 305 pp, £20.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 571 22859 3

In the chilly spring of 1958, with war still a vivid memory and rationing an even more recent one, queues were a familiar sight. But the line that formed in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace on 18 March was peculiar enough to attract a small crowd of onlookers. There, shivering in silk and chiffon, the debutantes waited with their mothers and fathers to curtsey to the queen. After this initiation ceremony, dating back to the reign of George III, they would be officially ‘out’, launched into the world, the London Season and the marriage market. It was, as Jessica Mitford wrote two years later, ‘the specific, upper-class version of the puberty rite’. Or rather it had been, for 1958 saw the last such presentations; this was the year of the last curtsey.

That it was all coming to an end was less surprising than the fact it had lasted so long, for although two young men drove gallantly up the Mall in a Rolls-Royce with a placard reading goodbye dear debs they were in a minority. Most people were by then sick of the whole business. Monarchists, anti-monarchists and, it became apparent, the monarch herself, who alone had the power to do it, were united in their desire to bring it to an end. Indeed the curtsies might have been stopped the year before had it not been for John Grigg (then Lord Altrincham) whose sensational article in the National and English Review on the future of the monarchy had included a savage attack on debutantes and all they represented. The queen is thought to have kept the ceremony going for one more year just to show that she was not giving in to him. For Grigg it was the social exclusiveness that was objectionable; for Princess Margaret it was the inclusiveness: ‘We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in.’ For Prince Philip, the main enthusiast for abolition, it was presumably the agonising boredom.

The passage of time has done little to improve the image of the deb. In so far as she still has a presence in the national imagination she is a figure of essential silliness, a snobbish or hearty county girl with a piercing laugh and no conversation, her head-scarfed profile softened only slightly by the glow of John Betjeman’s ardour. This is just the sort of ‘facile and patronising view’ that Fiona MacCarthy, herself one of those who queued up to curtsey in 1958, is determined to counter. Nearly fifty years on, having spent the intervening decades hoping that nobody would find out about her shamefully smart past, she has decided to tell all and to make a ‘defence of debutantes’, in a valiant but doomed attempt to get us to take them seriously. It is doomed not least because MacCarthy herself, once past the preface, can hardly keep a straight face. She is not snide, just mildly incredulous, as will most of her readers be. This world in which teenage girls wore hats and gloves and held a handbag balanced in the crook of the arm, a gesture now so peculiar to the queen that it is all an impressionist needs, seems more than half a century away. And yet at the time it was ‘taken for granted’ in a certain class that a girl would ‘do the Season’ and so, unprotesting, the 18-year-old MacCarthy, wearing blue wild silk and looking about thirty years older than she does now, found herself in a whirlwind of tea parties, cocktails and dances surrounded by a disconcerting number of other Fionas, ‘a name I had always regarded as original’.

For all its intrinsic absurdity there was a certain ‘crazy courage’ about this last real Season, carried on in the face of general indifference. Behind the determinedly bright façade, old England was coming apart at the seams. Debs paired up to co-host dances while their mothers rented houses in ever more outré parts of town: at Worlds End, or even Fulham. Outside London, as James Lees-Milne observed, ‘the country-house way of life as some of us have known it’ would never be revived. Some debs’ parents diversified, opened their houses to the public or turned them into businesses. The Duke of Bedford put a jukebox and a milk bar into Woburn and was widely regarded as a class traitor, while dignified notices in the Court Circular announced that others had given up their ancestral homes and moved to somewhere more convenient but less noble in the Home Counties. In MacCarthy’s case, despite the fact that her family actually owned the Dorchester Hotel, where her coming-out party was held, her widowed mother was chronically short of funds. Lodgers and jewellery in pawn were the inelegant compromises that paid for Fiona’s tea parties and the ball-gown from Worth.

It was the mothers who were especially heroic, for they bore the brunt of the responsibility, anxiously organising the requisite number of entertainments to ensure that their daughters were properly launched. As a widow, MacCarthy’s mother faced particular difficulties, but most husbands and fathers stayed in the background, required to do little more than turn up occasionally and sign cheques. If the object of the Season was to find a suitable marriage partner for a girl to breed with, the actual man was apparently little more than a finishing touch, like a marzipan groom on a wedding cake. The elaborate social confection of ‘coming out’ was an entirely female affair concocted at mothers’ luncheons and in the zenana of Harrods where between parties it was ‘shopping, shopping, shopping’. A deb required ‘a minimum of six dance dresses, of which one must be white for Queen Charlotte’s Ball’, several day dresses and a full complement of impenetrable underwear. The main event was one’s own coming-out dance. To avoid a clash with another ball one consulted the Season’s recording angel Betty Kenward, whose ‘Jennifer’s Diary’ had been a fixture in the Tatler since 1944 and who would read the runes and decree an auspicious date. For the dance itself, of course, men were necessary. Lists of suitable ‘debs’ delights’ were circulated and a selection made but the results could, not surprisingly, be ‘far from pleasurable’. Anything was better than the stigma of ‘wallflowerdom’ and an evening lurking in the Ladies, though not necessarily much better. One deb’s diary graded her partners candidly on a scale from ‘drunk’ to ‘ghastly’.

Socially the Season had not been what it was since at least 1861, when Queen magazine complained that it was ‘so vulgarised, that it has lost all value and meaning’. Nearly a century later the barriers had fallen still further; the middle classes were at the gate, and as old social distinctions were eroded new ones were needed to replace them. This was the decade of ‘U and non-U’, which might have been a joke to Nancy Mitford but was deadly serious in the less secure world of the debutantes. Anyone who said ‘toilet’ or poured the milk in first was socially dead. Yet as always in Britain doing things properly meant not doing them too well. It was important not to be too smart or too rich, and certainly not too clever. ‘My dear, you should just see the Renoir in the dining-room,’ MacCarthy’s mother remarked dismissively of her rather too affluent co-hostess for Fiona’s coming-out ball while her daughter, who had a place at Oxford, did her best to shake off the label of ‘blue-stocking deb’. The food was uniformly frightful – cheese and pineapple on sticks to go with the gin and orange followed by dinners of coronation chicken and something called Raspberry Frood Mousse – and the weather even worse. The summer of 1958 was marked by torrential rain, which was, of course, gamely ignored. Everyone squelched on through Henley and the various country-house dances where the always optimistic Jennifer pointed out that when the gardens were waterlogged ‘the ballroom was perhaps gayer than usual’ as a result. In this wildly competitive world the worst faux pas was being seen to try. The Croker-Pooles, who had added the ‘Croker’ in an attempt to improve their daughter Sally’s chances, were much mocked for this pretension. They were nicknamed the Frogponds and there was general hilarity when a friend impersonating a journalist persuaded Mrs Croker-Poole that her daughter was engaged to the Duke of Kent. Sally got her own back though: she married the Aga Khan.

It was in many ways a nasty little world ‘in which a certain anti-semitism was almost automatic’ and very little of lasting value was created. The main recreations of the debs and their delights were dancing, small talk and throwing each other in swimming-pools. Yet it was innocent and in some ways touching in its loyalty to the old order. Until now no one has shown much interest in it, and it has languished – a particularly obscure corner of a period that is as a whole neglected. Out of sight, though still in living memory, the 1950s are overshadowed by the more vivid war years that preceded them and the relentlessly documented 1960s that followed. Socially, these postwar years were still a time of entre deux guerres, especially as far as women were concerned, and it is this that makes Last Curtsey an appealingly candid memoir and a gripping piece of social history.

The little Fionas whose prams were pushed by uniformed nannies round Kensington Gardens in the early years of the Second World War, had not been so distant from the Edwardians. Penny Graham was sponsored at her presentation in 1958 by a great-grandmother who had curtsied to Victoria. Yet the girls who grew up wearing ‘princess coats’ like Elizabeth and Margaret’s emerged from the season into a very different world and several came out not as swans but as viragos. Among MacCarthy’s near contemporaries at the Palace were Vanessa Redgrave, Rose Dugdale and Teresa ‘Hayter of the Bourgeoisie’ Hayter, whose autobiography, MacCarthy notes with rare pique, makes no reference at all to her debutante life. She obligingly sets the record straight with a photograph of a pre-Marxist Teresa looking lovely in ‘pinky-purple silk’ as a bridesmaid at MacCarthy’s own first wedding in 1961. But even those debs who did not take to radical politics were soon beginning to feel restless and to wonder if there wasn’t more to life than the limited guidance they had received from Vacani’s School of Dancing – ‘throw out your little chests’ – and Noel Streatfeild’s etiquette manual: ‘Let men win always.’

MacCarthy is good at evoking the texture of life at a point of social transition. Her book is a welcome corrective to the ‘iconic moments’ school of documentary history, where a procession of angry young men streams past, followed by Christine Keeler and the cast of Beyond the Fringe, to a soundtrack of Buddy Holly and the Beatles. Last Curtsey deals in the historical reality of mixed feelings and cultural collisions. The debs who appeared at the Berkeley Dress Show modelling cocktail suits of pale beige broderie anglaise could – and in MacCarthy’s case did – also shop at Mary Quant’s Bazaar. She went to see Look Back in Anger with the actress Susannah York, whose mother was ‘a crony of my Aunt Cynthia’s’ and found it ‘amazingly exciting’, but was still hurt at the announcement that 1958 would be the last year of presentations: ‘We felt a close personal connection with the royal family, perhaps all the more so because we had been together through the war . . . When news reached us of the end of presentations there was a feeling that the queen, on whom we had thought we could count, had now abandoned us.’

MacCarthy is understandably nostalgic for her own youth: she is less forgivably romantic about the Season and what it represented. It does not seem, by her own account, to have been entirely a world of ‘elegance’ and ‘good manners’, nor is it true that ‘kindness and idealism’ are these days completely outmoded concepts. She feels that standards have slipped since her day (but most people eventually come to feel that), noting that after 1958, ‘the criterion for inclusion was not . . . birth but wealth.’ In truth the criterion had always been wealth – and a sufficient passage of time to distance a family from its source. The Guinnesses, the McAlpines (her own mother’s family) and many others owed their position to money made in industry. If society was scandalised in the early 1960s when Lord Rowallan’s son ran off with the glamorous transsexual April Ashley it had perhaps forgotten that the first Lady Rowallan had been Alice Polson of Brown and Polson’s cornflour. Today it is celebrities who fill the public gap left by the debs, feeding our insatiable appetite for information about people of no intrinsic interest doing almost nothing. If the gossip is less deferential than it was in the 1950s, it is no more scabrous than it was in the scandal sheets of the 1820s. But that the genuine debutante, who lingered through the 1960s and into the 1970s, has gone for good there can be no doubt. Princess Diana, MacCarthy suggests, was the last of them.