You might think, with all my writing and research, that I’d be right at home in a royal court. But the truth is, I only like to visit from my imagination, where I’m protected from snubs and the inevitable humiliation. I may fanaticise about time-travelling and attending one of Queen Charlotte’s Drawing Rooms at St. James’s Palace, but it would all end in tears. I’m gauche and I have two left feet. I shake when nervous. Under pressure, my voice, which is otherwise quite normal, becomes loud and twangs with an Essex accent.
A quick visit to The London Season website confirmed my misgivings. It may come as a surprise but yes, there still is a London season. However, people like you and I only read about it in history novels – we are just not grand enough to be part of the modern day equivalent. I don’t know about you, but I get sweaty and short of breath just looking at the courses on offer. The correct way to enter a room. How to move politely in a group. The art of making small talk. How to end a conversation politely. It makes me feel like I’ve been doing everything wrong my entire life.
As in the late Georgian period, the big event of the modern London season is still Queen Charlotte’s ball. The website says that:
“Parents and potential debutantes are invited to attend interviews at Boodles… Debutantes embark on a one-year programme of etiquette classes, and charity events crowned by the world famous Queen Charlotte’s Ball in which they appear in white gowns and jewels lent by eminent couturiers and jewellery houses… Today, officially, the focus is not on marriage but on giving ambitious girls the opportunity to further their careers and develop in social confidence.”
That sounds intimidating enough. But what would it have been like to appear before the real Queen Charlotte, over 200 years ago?
The first thing to worry about would be your dress. St. James’s Palace was a place of antiquated fashion and tradition. Hoops, swords and powdered hair took centre stage – loose Regency styles would be frowned upon. It seems that Charlotte enjoyed watching her subjects fall over themselves to impress her with their clothes, and even took a catty delight in seeing them get it wrong. In her letters, she faults an unfortunate duo, Mrs Eden and Mrs Goulborn, for wearing an enormous quantity of rouge. Poor Mrs Goulborn made a further error by sporting three huge feathers in her headdress “which so directly ran into my eyes when she was presented, I was under the necessity of drawing myself back”. Charlotte, who clearly disliked both ladies “rejoiced a little in Lady Clements’ distress, who presented her.”
Indeed, feathers were a recurring problem for Charlotte. After the Duchess of Devonshire began a craze for expensive ostrich feathers, Charlotte had to temporarily ban them from court, in order to prevent ladies ruining themselves over the fashion accessory. But she would rather deal with a whole headful of feathers than repeat her experience with Andreossi, Napoleon’s ambassador. He was a man who “breakfasted upon onions…he looks so dirty”.
However, looking your best wasn’t always enough for Charlotte; you had to fit your station. When interviewing a potential wet-nurse for her children in 1779, she saw a woman dressed in blue and silver. The hapless applicant was dismissed with the comment, “Your appearance is that of a queen, and not of a nurse.”
There were also those who purposefully went against the court’s rigid dress codes. On 26 March 1789, Charlotte held a Drawing Room to celebrate George III’s recovery from a bout of “madness”. In a direct challenge to the Duchess of Devonshire, who had introduced “Regency caps” with the Prince of Wales’s three feathers, Charlotte ordered that all ladies were to wear “God Save the King” in their caps. In the event, the Duchess and her party couldn’t bring themselves to toe the line. They went with their heads bare. The Duchess’s sister, Harriet, recorded how the queen was cool to them and noted that “she looked up at our heads as we passed her”.
You’d be right in thinking Charlotte didn’t make many friends with this behaviour; she wasn’t supposed to. From the start of her time in England, she was discouraged from forming acquaintances. The King did not want her relying on anyone but him. “He always used to say that in this country it was difficult to know where to draw a line…” she later confessed. ”There never could be kept a society without party, which was always dangerous for any woman to take part in.”
This didn’t stop Charlotte being lively and good-natured amongst the friends she was allowed to make. We have a delightfully absurd glimpse of a Drawing Room in 1785, where the fog was so dark “there was no seeing any thing, and knowing any body”. Charlotte and her favourite companion, Lady Harcourt, were obliged to stop and stand still. She reasoned the courtiers would “all come up in the end, and we must ask them who they are, and if I have spoke to them yet”. Even in low visibility, Charlotte recognised the Duke of Dorset by the twisting of his bow and Mrs Dayrolles by her laugh. This suggests she knew them rather well.
The Queen’s venom, it seems, was reserved for those who vexed her. I love seeing the human side of monarchs, and some of Charlotte’s little stabs are delicious. You may have heard of Lady Sarah Lennox (more of her in later blogs!) who George III loved before he married Charlotte. Lady Sarah ended up unhappily wed to Sir Charles Bunbury. She later came to St. James’s to present her daughter before George and his wife – an experience which I imagine was very awkward! George, clearly still a fan of Sarah’s beauty, enthused that her daughter was “the finest girl I have seen in a long while”. Charlotte, very coolly, and rather loudly observed, “I wonder you should think so.”
With such a tongue ready to sting, it must have been a fearful experience to make your debut as a young lady. You would slowly approach Charlotte and curtsey to your knees. If you were the daughter of a peer, you would hold that position while she kissed you on the forehead. Perhaps she would bestow a kind comment upon you; perhaps not. After receiving this favour and stammering some kind of reply, you would stand, curtsey again to the queen and any other royal who happened to be with her. Then came the hardest part. Having to resist the urge to simply dash off, you would have to walk backwards out of the room – no mean feat in a Georgian dress – keeping your eyes on the throne. Small wonder debutantes received so many bouquets from well-wishers; they would need all the luck they could get!