THE purpose of these London Letters is to try to give the readers of Maclean’s a picture of what is happening in the United Kingdom. Inevitably politics must be a continuing theme for the simple reason that politics, like the weather, is always with us. But there come moments in the life of the British people when even the politicians give way to other personalities and other events.
Therefore in this letter I propose to leave the brawling and the bawling at Westminster (recently it has been more like a mad house than the dignified Mother of Parliaments) and discuss instead the pleasing subject of debutantes.
Up to 1939 the presentations at Buckingham Palace took place in the evening, in or about the month of June. They were called Courts and each debutante wore evening dress with plumes in her hair. There would be a long queue of cars in the Mall, and the London crowds used to turn up in their thousands and make lively comment upon the girls and their escorts.
Then came the war, and the pageantry of peace gave way to the lurid insanity of war. The debutante disappeared from the scene and wore uniform of another kind and with no plumes in her hair. When the war was ended His Majesty inaugurated a series of garden parties at Buckingham Palace where accepted debutantes wandered about and were considered thereby to have been presented at Court. They did not curtsey and only saw the King and Queen at a distance.
This year the plan was altered again. Courts are now held in the afternoon and each debutante is presented to the King and Queen, a feat involving two curtseys. The
reason for choosing the afternoon instead of the evening was to save the heavy cost of evening dress.
You may wonder why a man of my age and sobriety should suddenly take an interest in something which understandably excites the female of the species but leaves the normal male breast quite undisturbed. Then, as is the custom in the House of Commons, allow me to state my private interest in the subject under debate. Like King Lear I have a daughter, although, unlike King Lear, only one. This young person is on the verge of eighteen and she in turn possesses a mother who duly arranged to present Miss Baxter at Court. As Mrs. Beverley Baxter was presented many years ago it gives her what might be called a presentation status.
Now before my male readers decide to give up reading the rest of this story, I would remind them that this daughter business is something to be taken seriously. A son is quite different. In his son a man sees himself going through the same haphazard development of youth reaching and surmounting the awkward age, using a razor when there is little more than a dewy down upon the cheek, easily hurt but stubbornly defiant, growing taller while you look at him, and suddenly becoming a man when yesterday he was a boy.
But daughters! They are part of the great mystery and conspiracy of the female species. Where a boy of seventeen does not know what to do with his hands or feet a girl of the same age is ready to dance with an archduke with half the courts of Europe looking on—that is if there were any courts left. She discovered at about the age of three that she was of interest to the world. She is a
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gamble, and the expert eyes of other girls and mothers watch her coming : on as if she were going to be entered for a classic race. Her father gives her good advice and she listens to him with affectionate patience. Her accomplice is her mother for they belong to a union that knows its power.
It might surprise you that this is so even in England which is, next to Turkey, the most masculine country in the world. When a young English couple realize a baby is on its way they ! name him Edward, Eustace, Montmor! ency and put him down for Eton. It is a terrible shock when the baby turns I out to be a girl. And if there is such i a thing as pre-natal influence it cannot I be good for a girl to have been called ! Edward for the gestation period.
If an average British couple knew ! that they could only have one child I the choice would nearly always be for j a boy. In America the girl would have i an equal chance or even better. But j that is how the world is made: France, America and Rumania are feminine countries; Britain, Turkey and Germany are masculine.
Mother Draws up the Plans
Among those in England who can afford it—and they are still a large number—there is only a short period I of family life as you know it in Canada.
! Children are packed off to boarding j schools when they are little more than ; toddlers. The boys are taught to hold I a cricket bat almost before they can ! hold a pen. Girls are dressed in most unbecoming bloomers and black stock! ings and made to play hockey, not ice but field hockey. All this is to take j their minds off the fact that they are girls, which may have something to be I said for it.
The lower-income group are perhaps ! more fortunate since the sexes mingle j at school, but in the upper ranges of \ society the monastic system is upheld j as something inviolate.
We have no institution like the drugI store where adolescents can taste the first sweet pangs of love with a walnut ; sundae. And now that boys are j conscripted into the forces at eighteen the monastic period is more pronounced than ever. Since for a man most of life’s happiness and unhappiness comes from his relations with women it is perhaps unfortunate that the sexes are kept so long apart.
Which brings me back to the debutante. Her school days are over and it is unlikely that she will be going to college, unless she is planning a career. Therefore she must be put into circulation and her mother begins to draw up the plans. If her family is respectable there is no reason why she should not be presented at Court although the numbers are, of necessity, restricted. Then, if her parents can afford it, a coming-out party must be j given for her. This excellent intention J on her parents’ part is published in the Tatler, whereupon she is very likely to be asked to every other party although she may not know or be known by any of the party-givers. This is not as odd or as unkind as it sounds. People who live in the country will often give their daughter’s coming-out party in London because London is the centre of the marriage market as it is of almost everything else.
Unfortunately most of us are hard up these days, for the chancellor of the exchequer barely leaves us our eyes to weep with. However, there is a general custom called “dipping into your capital” which is much honored
in the observance on such occasions, and the parents wisely decide to look upon it as an investment.
Now may I state that giving a party in London is a complicated business. Champagne is the rule—and a rule that cannot be broken. If you give your party at a hotel it will cost three to five pounds a head. If you give it in your own home it is not much cheaper. I know because we are going to have a party! Yes, sir! But, like many others, we have entered into a friendly deal. Our party will be given by Vivien Leigh and my wife for their respective daughters Suzanne and Meribah, the expenses being shared.
Conferences go on downstairs with distinguished looking men about erecting a marquee in the garden, hiring a dance band and so on and so on. We have had other proposals from people willing to buy a share but sternly, if regretfully, we have refused. So far the invitation list has reached the total of 300 but that is just a start.
“You will find,” said the elder statesman who is advising us, “that they will drink quite a lot of champagne at first but not so much later on. If they do then we shall find a way of making the champagne less easily available.” I am beginning to understand now why no young man has ever got drunk at an English party, or hardly ever.
Then, of course, there is the Queen Charlotte Ball in which the parents of the debutantes take a table each and make up a party. I assure you that Charlotte will do well out of it. All this time photographers are calling up, consumed to do a portrait of your daughter. Why not?
Finally there is Royal Ascot, four days of glorious racing (weather permitting) when the King and Queen will drive each day up the course. Not having divorced or been divorced I can apply for a Royal Enclosure badge which will cost a trifling nineteen p junds, if His Majesty takes no exception to me as a guest. The ladies can come along for a mere three pounds each.
Not A Single Deb Tripped
I put up a reasonable resistance to all this at first because it all seemed somewhat at variance with the spirit of the times, but now I have completely changed. This is good for the morale. This is making contact with the lush years of the Victorian era. And, dash it all, a girl can be a debutante only once. My Air Force son thinks the same way. If he can get leave he will be at some of the parties where Meribah goes, and when I see them with the other young people I know that I shall wonder at their gaiety for we never know if what they are attending is not the Ball at Brussels. So on with the dance and a toast to youth! As for you, Gaitskell, my income tax may be a little late this year.
* * *
Bless my soul, I forgot all about the presentation at Court. It was a great affair with all us parents seated comfortably in the ball room, and the debutantes in a line like fillies in the paddock before the Oaks.
The King, the Queen and the Princesses were there, none of the debutantes tripped or fell down on the curtsey, the orchestra in the gallery played Offenbach, Sullivan and Strauss, the King bowed to each girl and the Queen smiled to each one with that genuine gentle interest that she feels towards each of God’s creatures.
And all this because of a girl of eighteen! Gentlemen, you will agree that there really is something in this daughter business. ^
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